Carole Cadwalladr: Cambridge Analytica at Cannes? That's gaslighting

The Observer reporter who revealed how Facebook can be misused to disrupt elections talks to Campaign about whether the ex-Cambridge Analytica CEO should be given a platform and her role in a Netflix documentary.

It has been more than a year since Carole Cadwalladr broke the world exclusive story of how Cambridge Analytica misused Facebook’s data on an unprecedented scale to influence the US election.

It’s surprising, therefore, that as an investigative reporter whose work has drawn her to the tech industry, she has only attended Cannes Lions – the world’s biggest advertising industry event – for the first time this year. After all, Facebook makes nearly 100% of its money from ad revenue.

Cadwalladr met Campaign for an interview hours before former Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix was due to speak on a panel alongside such luminaries as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and senior figures from Unilever and Wunderman Thompson. The title of the talk was: "The morality of data".

So why is she only coming to Cannes now?

"I saw that Cannes Lions had invited Nix and they’d invited him to talk about the morality of data. And I just thought this was kind of absurd," Cadwalladr says. "[Cannes Lions] is the global event for the advertising industry, and when I looked at the programme and saw there was really nothing, which seemed to be a proper debate about the ad industry’s role in what can only be described as global dystopia."

Nix was forced to step down from his company after it was tied to a massive data breach that exposed the private data of more than 80 million Facebook users last year. The scandal erupted in March 2018 with the emergence of a whistleblower, ex-Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie, who had been an anonymous source for Cadwalladr.

Cannes panel: tech journalists Jamie Bartlet and Cadwalladr, and moderator Gillian Tett (centre)

Cadwalladr worked on the story for more than a year and recalls how Facebook threatened to sue The Guardian for more than a year for defamation. But despite the global attention that the story received and the impact that it has had on Facebook – whose founder, Mark Zuckerberg, now talks about building a "privacy-focused platform" – Cadwalladr remains a frustrated figure, irked by the sense that advertisers either do not understand or care about the potential for harm that data breaches can bring about. 

"The obstacle and the challenges in revealing what had been happening with data were really, really huge. And it was against all odds that we managed to reveal any of this," she continues. "And so that's, again, one of the reasons why I just find it very disappointing, at this huge industry event, that the money behind these big platforms has just brushed it under the carpet, and they're pretending it isn't. And it seems to help whitewash the reputation of two of the major players, Alexander Nix and also Sheryl Sandberg [Facebook’s chief operating officer]."

While Sandberg appeared in Cannes on 19 June to tell the industry that Facebook was following GDPR and that it needed to better explain its business model to advertisers, Nix withdrew from his planned talk the following day. No official reason was given for his sudden no-show, but Cannes Lions organisers would clearly have been sensitive about the outrage Nix attracts; one unnamed advertising creative even sawed his Lion in half in protest and penned a letter signed "Mad as Hell".

But why not now give Nix a platform to speak? Why not ask him legitimate questions about what Cambridge Analytica did, what he has learned and what marketers should learn in turn?

"There's still so much we don't know. He and Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have still not been held to account for so many things that we know happened. And I think Cannes Lions, you know, it's an amazing privilege and spotlight to be on the main stage here," Cadwalladr says.

"And so for Alexander Nix, the reason he agreed is because, of course, it's an amazing opportunity for himself to somewhat whitewash the events that happened. I think it was the context of it, that was problematic. So the fact that he was up there doing that, but there was no counter view, they didn't ask any of the many investigators into this world to come and say ‘Well, actually, these are the outstanding problems that we need to address’, and I think it was particularly gaslighting to call the talk ‘The morality of data’. Because if there's one thing that we know, it's that morality was completely absent from this whole story – what Cambridge Analyitca did and also what Facebook did."

Facebook, which was fined £500,000 by the UK’s Information Commissioner's Office over the data breach, has accepted that it should have done more to investigate and taken action against Cambridge Analytica in 2015. Zuckerberg is responding by rebuilding the company’s back-end system to make all messaging automatically encrypted. Facebook has also pledged to delete messages, instead of storing them indefinitely, and to also refuse to store data in countries with records of human rights abuses.

So does Cadwalladr think Facebook has done enough?

"It is really telling that Sheryl Sandberg will cross the Atlantic and come and speak at Cannes Lions, but she will not come and speak to the British parliament. And I think that is profoundly, profoundly disturbing and troubling," she responds. "There was an international committee which met last month, I think it's now up to 12 parliaments, it represents more than 500 million people. And Facebook’s top executives, primarily Zuckerberg and Sandberg, are just refusing to come and give answers.

"And one of the things they're refusing to give answers about is this question of what they actually knew about Cambridge Analytica, and when they knew it, and when they took steps, and that to me was why it was so problematic for Cannes Lions to have Facebook and Cambridge Analytica on the main stage, without talking about any of this and without inviting some of the data activists or journalists to really lay out the problems in this ecosystem.

"It is the individuals here at Cannes that have the power to change. There is amazing power here, but with power comes responsibility, and I don't really see that from the ad industry."

Cadwalladr also came to the Cote d’Azur to appear at her own panel and promote a Netflix documentary that she will appear in. The Great Hack, directed Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, uncovers the murky world of data exploitation via the personal journeys of key players on different sides of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal.

"David Carroll [associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York] is a very central character [in the documentary]," Cadwalladr explains. "He discovered in America that people have no legal rights to their data. But in Europe, we do. And he discovered Cambridge Analytica, this company based in Britain, had taken his voter data and processed it in Britain. So he used British laws to try and get it back.

"And it follows his journey to try and do that. He's a very clear and powerful voice explaining how this works… this is a foreign military company, which had taken the entire voter records of the US population and blended it with all its consumer data."

But do consumers actually care, given all the services they get for free in exchange for the tech platforms collecting and using data about them?

"I think the opposite. Actually, I think that has been the one amazing outcome of this story – people suddenly realised, actually, this is bad. This is really personal and it's really intimate. And this information that’s being collected about me without me realising is being used invisibly against me in some way. And I'm disturbed by it… there is a consumer backlash to all of this. And I think advertisers are ignoring it at their peril."

Cadwalladr now insists she is interested in talking to more people in advertising about what she calls a crossover between advertising and "strategic communications" or "influence operations" techniques that were hitherto the preserve of clandestine military operations.

"I used to say, well, there's a real difference between being a data analytics firm and being a military contractor. And that's what Cambridge Analytica was – it was part of this group SCL and it had been using these techniques, 30 years in the battlefield. It was contracted by Nato, by the state department, by the Ministry of Defence, it did this in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is not electioneering, in the sense that we know of it; it is propaganda.

"And it's using exactly the same techniques, which should be used militarily, and turning it on a civilian population. And I think if you're not worried and disturbed about that, then, you know, take a long, hard look at yourself."

Hear the full interview:

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