Facebook gets called out at TED for breaking democracy

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ITEM: Carole Cadwalladr – the journalist with The Observer who was instrumental in breaking the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story – opened last week’s TED 2019 conference with a talk in which she directly addressed the heads of Facebook, Google and Twitter and called them out for aiding and abetting election fraud and breaking democracy.

The video has gone massively viral, and Facebook is reportedly not happy.

If you haven’t watched the video yet, you can do so now.

To recap: several pro-Brexit campaign groups were found last year by the UK Electoral Commission to have violated electoral laws by using data illicitly harvested by Cambridge Analytica to show select users ads containing false information to alter the outcome of the Brexit referendum in their favor. Even though all have been referred to the police for possible criminal proceedings, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has refused to speak to the British parliament about it, or take any responsibility apart from revising Facebook’s policies on allowing third parties to collect user data and how UK ads are bought and paid for.

That’s not good enough, Cadwalladr said, because it’s not just a question of illegal activity on Facebook – it was an apparently successful attempt to rig a election result using a black-box platform that made it all too easy to do it secretly.

Consequently, Cadwalladr addressed her remarks explicitly to “the gods of Silicon Valley – Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey, and your employees and your investors, too”, stating that the UK is “what happens to a western democracy when a hundred years of electoral laws are disrupted by technology”:

Our democracy is broken, our laws don’t work anymore, and it’s not me saying this, it’s our parliament published a report saying this. 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. 

As you might expect, Facebook was not pleased – according to Cadwalladr, the company’s press team was warned in advance of her talk, and lodged an official complaint to TED organizers immediately afterwards, claiming her talk contained “factual inaccuracies”. Facebook has yet to explain what those inaccuracies are. Facebook executives present at TED 2019 also declined an onstage invitation from TED curator Chris Anderson to speak later in the week to address the issue and “explain how you see the way forward”.

In the lap of the gods

Perhaps it’s no surprise they declined the offer – one thing more notable from Cadwalladr’s talk besides content was the audience reception.

Cadwalladr received solid applause several times during her talk – once when she mentioned that The Observer ran the Cambridge Analytica story despite legal threats from Facebook, and again when she addressed Facebook directly: “This is not democracy – spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from God knows where. It’s subversion, and you are accessories to it.”

And when she ended her talk saying: “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,” she left the stage to a standing ovation.

Cadwalladr’s TED talk struck a nerve at a time when even fans of Big Tech have been made painfully aware of the unintended consequences of giant powerful social media platforms – election fraud, cyberbullying, rampant misinformation that has contributed to the rise of fascist movements, neo-Nazis, ethnic genocide, etc.

But perhaps the most alarming thing for Big Tech’s peers isn’t those unintended consequences (as horrifying as they are) but the tendency of Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey to shrug their shoulders and address the problem in terms of improving algorithms or hiring more staff, but otherwise refusing to admit any responsibility for the abuses their platforms enable. In a column written following her TED appearance, Cadwalladr described watching Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey being interviewed onstage by Anderson at the event and the utter lack of emotion he displayed, even when asked about all the Nazis on his platform.

Perhaps this is what really worries the TED audience – that the most powerful platforms on the planet are run by people who aren’t aghast at the terrible things it turns out their platforms can enable. As Cadwalladr writes:

These are brilliant men … But if they’re not sick to their stomach about what has happened in Myanmar or overwhelmed by guilt about how their platforms were used by Russian intelligence to subvert their own country’s democracy, or sickened by their own role in what happened in New Zealand, they’re not fit to hold these jobs or wield this unimaginable power.

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