Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Digital Manipulation.
About Carole Cadwalladr's TED Talk
After the Brexit vote, journalist Carole Cadwalladr discovered that misleading ads on Facebook had a massive impact on the way people voted. The implications of this manipulation, she says, are dire.
About Carole Cadwalladr
Carole Cadwalladr is a journalist for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers in the United Kingdom. Most recently, she has investigated campaign finance violations during the Brexit referendum and data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica. The latter investigation resulted in Mark Zuckerberg being called before Congress in 2018.
Cadwalladr's work has won a Polk Award and the Orwell Prize for political journalism, and she was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for National Reporting in 2019.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So on the morning of June 24, 2016, British citizens woke up stunned - almost no one, and certainly none of the polls, predicted the majority of them would support Brexit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How do you feel about Britain leaving the EU?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm quite shocked, to be honest. I thought we all would've stayed in.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, I didn't think anyone really believed that U.K. voters would decide to Brexit.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And I feel quite shocked by the result.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: To be honest, I was quite shocked.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I feel quite scared today. I don't know how I feel.
RAZ: I remember that morning. I happened to be in London. And the question a lot of people were asking was why? Why did it happen? And why did almost no one predict it? And these were also the questions journalist Carole Cadwalladr asked when she went to a small town in Wales.
CAROLE CADWALLADR: It was years since I'd been to Ebbw Vale. It's a very historic, very, you know, real Labour, left-wing heartland.
RAZ: That town, Ebbw Vale, voted overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the EU. And Carole wanted to understand why.
CADWALLADR: And I went down this lower part of the town, which is where the steel plant used to be. And it was the biggest steel plant in the world, right up until - it was the '80s, I think. And you just had no idea now. It looked like (laughter) - you know, it was a kind of little Manhattan down there - these sort of incredible architecture-designed glass and steel buildings. And all around, these signs saying, paid for by the European Union.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Carole Cadwalladr picks up the story from the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CADWALLADR: I had this sort of weird sense of unreality walking around the town, and it came to a head when I met this young man in front of the sports center. And he told me that he had voted to leave because the European Union had done nothing for him - he was fed up with it. And all around town, people told me the same thing. And they told me that they were most fed up with the immigrants and with the refugees - they'd had enough. Which was odd because, walking around, I didn't meet any immigrants or refugees. And when I checked the figures, I discovered that Ebbw Vale actually has one of the lowest rates of immigration in the country.
And so I was just a bit baffled because I couldn't really understand where people were getting their information from. But then after the article came out, this woman got in touch with me. And she was from Ebbw Vale, and she told me about all this stuff that she'd seen on Facebook. And I was like, what stuff? And she said it was all this quite scary stuff about immigration, especially about Turkey. So I tried to find it, but there was nothing there because there's no archive of ads that people see or what had been pushed into their news feeds. No trace of anything - it'd gone completely dark.
Because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it's impossible to research anything. So we have no idea who saw what ads or what impact they had or what data was used to target these people or even who placed the ads or how much money was spent or even what nationality they were - but Facebook does. Facebook has these answers, and it's refused to give them to us. Our Parliament has asked Mark Zuckerberg multiple times to come to Britain and to give us these answers, and every single time, he's refused. And you have to wonder why.
Because what I and other journalists have uncovered is that multiple crimes took place during the referendum, and they took place on Facebook. It's because in Britain we limit the amount of money that you can spend in an election. And it's because in the 19th century, people would walk around with, like, literally wheelbarrows of cash and just buy voters. So we passed these strict laws to stop that from happening. But those laws don't work anymore.
This referendum took place almost entirely online. And you can spend any amount of money on Facebook or on Google or on YouTube ads, and nobody will know because they're black boxes, and this is what happened before the Brexit vote. We are what happens to a Western democracy when 100 years of electoral laws are disrupted by technology.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And it's that technology that got Carole wondering - how many people might have been misled, even manipulated, into voting a certain way because of Facebook ads, ads that were designed to trigger certain emotions among voters? So Carole started to dig deeper, and over the next two years, she'd come to a very worrying conclusion about technology companies like Facebook and Twitter and even Google.
CADWALLADR: You know, this is a massive, global online experiment going on right now, and it's being conducted by some of the - if not the smartest people in the world, who are being employed, paid huge salaries, to come up with new and novel ways to hook us and addict us and draw us in and make us click. I mean, it's old-fashioned corporate greed. These are highly motivated billionaires (laughter) hiring, you know, the smartest people to find new ways of manipulating us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Every day, every second, trillions of bits of data about you, me, everyone you know, are being collected every time we click a link or even scroll through a social media news feed. And all of that information allows some of the biggest technology companies to build a highly detailed profile of who you are, what triggers you, how to hook you in and, ultimately, how your behavior can be shifted. It's very possible that who we vote for, what we buy, what we believe, even what we see with our own eyes, are more susceptible to manipulation today than ever before in modern history. So on the show today, we're going to explore ideas around the power of digital technology to manipulate our decisions and ways to prevent it from becoming an even bigger problem.
CADWALLADR: This is a really profound revolution in the way that we consume information. And I think it's really difficult to understand this massive historical change when you're in the middle of it, when you're - you can't see it. It's - you know, it is like the sun - it's too big to see.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CADWALLADR: I don't have to tell you that hate and fear are being sown online all across the world. But we only see a tiny amount of what's going on on the surface. And I only found out anything about this dark underbelly because I started looking into a company called Cambridge Analytica. And I spent months tracking down an ex-employee, Christopher Wiley. And he told me how this company that worked for both Trump and Brexit had profiled people politically in order to understand their individual fears, to better target them with Facebook ads. And it did this by illicitly harvesting the profiles of 87 million people from Facebook.
The company is owned by Robert Mercer, the billionaire who bankrolled Trump. And he threatened to sue us multiple times to stop us from publishing. But we finally got there, and we were one day ahead of publication - we got another legal threat; not from Cambridge Analytica occur this time, but from Facebook. It told us that if we publish, they would sue us - we did it anyway.
CADWALLADR: Facebook, you are on the wrong side of history in that, and you are on the wrong side of history in this - in refusing to give us the answers that we need. And that is why I am here to address you directly, the gods of Silicon Valley.
CADWALLADR: Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey and your employees and your investors, too - this technology that you have invented has been amazing, but now it's a crime scene, and you have the evidence. And it is not enough to say that you will do better in the future. Because to have any hope of stopping this from happening again, we have to know the truth.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Carole, if you had a chance to sit down with Mark Zuckerberg or some of these other founders and they had to answer your questions, what is it that you would want to know from them? Like, what are the things that they would need to say?
CADWALLADR: I want to know how they can live with this, how they can not be taking an ax to, you know, what is currently going on internally.
CADWALLADR: I want to sort of see that they recognize on a human level what is going - because they show no sign of it. The other thing about it is, is that, you know, in my TED Talk, I showed these advertisements which had been on Facebook.
CADWALLADR: We got those after a sort of battle royal the - our Parliament had with Facebook, and then they eventually handed some of them over. But in the States, what is remarkable is you know even less about what happened in your presidential election than we do. And it is - the scale of what happened in the U.S. is so much bigger, so much more money which was spent, so much more sophisticated modelling - we know nothing about it. And, you know, and meanwhile, the U.S. is careering towards the next election.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
CADWALLADR: This is not democracy, spreading lies in darkness; it's subversion. And it is not about left or right or leave or remain or Trump or not; it's about whether it's actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. Because as it stands, I don't think it is. And so my question to you is, is this what you want? Facebook, is this how you want history to remember you, as the handmaidens to authoritarianism that is on the rise all across the world? Because you set out to connect people, and you are refusing to acknowledge that the same technology is now driving us apart.
And my question to everybody else is, is this what we want, to let them get away with it and to sit back and play with our phones, as this darkness falls? Democracy is not guaranteed, and it is not inevitable, and we have to fight, and we have to win, and we cannot let these tech companies have this unchecked power. It's up to us - you, me and all of us. We are the ones who have to take back control.
RAZ: That's Carole Cadwalladr. She writes for The Guardian and The Observer. You can find her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about Digital Manipulation. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.