Prominent UK journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who led the reporting on Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2018, has cautioned the advertising industry that it has a collective responsibility to tackle the issue of data misuse.
Speaking during an unscheduled event at Cannes Lions last week (20 June), the reporter called out the advertising ecosystem for its role in funding the platforms she accuses of undermining democracy – including Facebook – as well as a perceived lack of action in tackling the issue head-on.
“It’s really funny being here in the heart of the ad industry and seeing the yachts, the money and the beach clubs – while its central, central role in what’s going on here is being ignored,” she said.
Accusing the adtech yachts parked in Le Viex Port of “monetising a total surveillance apparatus” that was “exploiting [people] in invisible ways,” Cadwalladr said the lack of discussion around the issue on Cannes Lions’ main stage was “depressing”.
“In terms of responsibility, there's something really key about Cannes Lions and the ad industry's involvement in this,” she explained. “This is where the money is coming from. It is kind of depressing that there's not a single talk happening in this entire week [about data misuse] with money swishing down through the streets.”
While there were talks hosted in the Cannes Palais around data and marketing technology, there were none with a specific focus on data misuse or ethics.
Cadwalladr said: “I know that individuals here are really troubled by what's going on but as a collective industry level, it just seems to be that it's being swept under the carpet.”
The Guardian and Observer journalist, who has been fiercely critical of Facebook, also called out chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg for attending the festival but failing to "give answers to MPs in parliament" about Cambridge Analytica.
"As far as I'm concerned, Facebook is a foreign company which represents a national security threat and it shouldn't be anywhere near our elections," she said.
Sandberg appeared on the main stage on the Wednesday of Cannes where she simply said it needed to be "clearer" about the way it uses data. She was also invited to speak at WPP's Beach event where, in conversation with chief executive Mark Read, she admitted that Facebook had to “earn back” trust.
Hacking Nix’s Cannes appearance
In one of the most controversial events at Cannes, former Cambridge Analytica executive Alexander Nix had been scheduled to appear on the main stage on Thursday (20 June).
The headline event was billed as his first speaking appearance since the firm sunk into administration after allegedly harvesting Facebook user data to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential race.
However, Nix pulled out the day before he was due to appear following criticism from various corners of the industry – including one ad director who penned an anonymous letter to organisers, describing the inclusion of the exec on the programme as a “monumental act of self-harm.”
His withdrawal also followed on from Cadwalladr announcing she was to host her own event during the festival.
Gillian Tett, The Financial Times’ editorial board chair and US editor at large, had been due to chair the discussion with Nix on “the morality of data” but instead found herself hosting Cadwalladr’s ‘Great Hack’ event with BBC journalist Jamie Bartlett in which they screened a documentary taking a deeper look into the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
Tett said she had hoped her conversation with Nix was going to be a way to focus the topic of data misuse that was lacking throughout the festival, and get answers to some of the “bigger, more existential” questions.
She detailed how Nix had been “on and off” and “back and forth” with her in the weeks before Cannes Lions, finally withdrawing from the appearance.
“I’m not sure as to why he pulled out - you'd have to ask him,” she asserted. “We've been up and down and round the blocks on that one, he's been cross with me, then not cross with me and there's stuff I've written he doesn't like.”
Discussing the practical ways in which the ad industry could help ensure people got real value in handing their data over to advertisers, Bartlett – who covered the use of data and tech in the 2016 elections – said GDPR was too reliant on consumers issuing companies with requests.
“People need to be aware of what they're trading and what they're getting back in return. At the moment it's very one-sided and not very informed,” he said.
“People have no idea, they give away their data for a good Google search result or product recommendation, but they don't know what the scale of that trade is because they don't see what's on the other side of it and they don't fully understand who is going to misuse it in future.”
Bartlett said he wanted people to make informed choices about when they give their data away and for it to be as easy as possible for them to get it back.
He suggested that the advertising industry had the power to build the technology that could allow people to do just that – bundling up consumer data and repackaging it in a way that it could be sold, with both parties getting a share of the profit.
“We need the private sector to incentivise people to make money out of their own data. You can’t do it on your own, it’s not valuable but it is if you do it collectively. It will take decades for that to happen, the culture needs to change.”
As well as the Nix controversy, Cannes Lions 2019 was disrupted by protesters from climate change activist group Extinction Rebellion, who crashed spots like the Palais and Facebook beach, urging the ad industry to act on the climate and ecological emergency facing the world.
With a heavy theme of brand purpose and business for good running throughout the week, the lack of interest from ad execs in supporting the group's mission has been lamented as "hypocrisy" by Extinction Rebellion's team and other industry commentators.