Facebook’s Role in Brexit & The Threat to Democracy: Carole Cadwalladr (Transcript)

In this TED2019 talk, British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr digs into one of the most perplexing events in recent times: the UK’s super-close 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

Following is the full text of the presentation talk in Vancouver.

Carole Cadwalladr – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

So, on the day after the Brexit vote, in June 2016, when Britain woke up to the shock of discovering that we’re leaving the European Union, my editor at the “Observer” newspaper in the UK asked me to go back to South Wales, where I grew up, and to write a report.

And so I went to a town called Ebbw Vale. Here it is. It’s in the South Wales Valleys, which is this quite special place. So it’s had this very, sort of rich, working-class culture, and it’s famous for its Welsh male voice choirs and rugby and its coal.

But when I was a teenager, the coal mines and the steelworks closed, and the entire area was devastated. And I went there because it had one of the highest “Leave” votes in the country. Sixty-two percent of the people here voted to leave the European Union. And I wanted to know why.

When I got there, I was just a bit taken aback, because the last time I went to Ebbw Vale, it looked like this.

And now, it looks like this. This is a new 33-million-pound college of further education that was mostly funded by the European Union. And this is the new sports center that’s at the middle of 350-million-pound regeneration project that’s being funded by the European Union.

And this is the new 77-million-pound road-improvement scheme, and there’s a new train line, a new railway station, and they’re all being funded by the European Union. And it’s not as if any of this is a secret, because there’s big signs like this everywhere.

[EU Funds: Investing in Wales]

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.

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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. They said that they wanted to take back control, which was one of the slogans in the campaign. 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. I met one Polish woman who told me she was practically the only foreigner in town. 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. Because it was the right-wing tabloid newspapers which printed all these stories about immigration. And this is a very much left-wing Labour stronghold.

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. I was like, “What stuff?”

And she said it was all this quite scary stuff about immigration, and especially about Turkey. So I tried to find it. But there was nothing there.

Because there’s no archive of ads that people had seen or what had been pushed into their news feeds. No trace of anything, gone completely dark.

And this referendum that will have this profound effect forever on Britain — it’s already had a profound effect: the Japanese car manufacturers that came to Wales and the north east to replace the mining jobs — they are already going because of Brexit.

And this entire referendum took place in darkness, because it took place on Facebook.

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And what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook, 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 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.

We’ve actually got no idea of the full extent of it. But we do know that in the last days before the Brexit vote, the official “Vote Leave” campaign laundered nearly three quarters of a million pounds through another campaign entity that our electoral commission has ruled was illegal, and it’s referred it to the police.

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