As we wave goodbye to the 2010s, The Drum takes a look back through some of the best interviews to have graced the pages of our print magazine over the last decade. Here we go back to our October 2019 issue, which was guest edited by renowned photographer Rankin who took the chance to sit down with Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist whose reporting on Cambridge Analytica has been recognized by the Pulitzer and Orwell Prizes and formed the subject of must-watch Netflix documentary The Great Hack.
Rankin: One of the weirdest things about the last three years is that your story wasn’t picked up initially.
Carole Cadwalladr: And the people who have woken up to it are only a bit freaked out. You feel like you need to ring the bell and get people to take notice. And that’s why this interview is brilliant, and why The Great Hack was important. I had been talking to [Cambridge Analytica whistleblower] Chris Wylie for around a year to get him out and on the record. The first conversation I had with him, I thought “This guy can articulate what is going on here in a way that people will have to pay attention to.”
R: How did you sense that from him?
CC: He had all of this incredible evidence about what it had done and how it got the Facebook data: he literally had the receipts and documents. But also, he was just incredibly articulate, could explain why it mattered – and he’s kind of funny as well. It was this very compelling combination of somebody who had seen the dark side, had played a pivotal role in the dark side, and was now super alarmed and needed to tell people. I mean, that’s the creepiest bit of it all: the fact there is still an entire machinery that supports the global advertising industry and is worth $3tn and is just invisible. It’s these micro bits of personal information, which have been harvested off us in so many different ways and are used to construct these shadow identities, and we’ve got no idea what it actually is. It’s this toxic sludge.
R: It’s so toxic. How can we fight back?
CC: We have to look at these tech platforms in the same way that we look at big oil. These are huge polluters of our informational space, with all this toxic crap, and they’re not being held to account. The role that brands and advertisers play is absolutely pivotal because they’re the money supply. These huge brands are totally complicit in propping up these platforms that are essentially subverting elections all across the world. We have this massive, incredibly prosperous industry right at the heart of it, in complete denial. There’s a willful blindness that’s reminiscent of the train drivers on their way to Auschwitz. The technology companies say: “We’re just the rails, we’ve got no control of what goes over them”. The advertising industry are the train drivers, who are providing the fuel to get to the death camps. And all of us are just merrily waving to them on the sidelines. This is changing the world as we know it. It has turned it upside down, it is helping create the conditions that we can see has led to the rise of authoritarians all across the world, to deeply troubling strongmen politicians. We’re all floundering around and that’s why the actions of individuals is so important. And although it seems very hopeless, it is about making your own individual moral choices. That’s why the heads of these brands, the heads of these advertising companies, are making moral choices, even if they don’t realize it.
R: This is propaganda…
CC: The same machinery that has been refined for the commercial space, to sell you shampoo, is now being used by the likes of Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and Boris Johnson to sell you, essentially, politics that will benefit their rich friends. It is so fake, the idea that multimillionaire Nigel Farage is the man of the people. Fuck off! He still gets away with that. They’re still able to massage the message, the images and the media, to convey that idea. And the same perpetrator, the guy who devised so much of the Vote Leave campaign, is now the man who’s advising Boris Johnson and yesterday it was announced that parliament is going to be shut down for five weeks. I mean, it would be funny, it would be tragic, if it was another country, but the fact it is our country and it is happening now in front of eyes in real-time makes us feel so powerless. We really, really have to take back control.
R: We do, it’s terrifying. But how can we do that?
CC: Well, I think things like this interview are really important. I think what you’re doing is hijacking the narrative. Literally hijacking one of the advertising industry’s flagship publications. This interview with you is reclaiming the ’crazy cat lady‘ insult, because the thing about trying to report on propaganda is that you become a victim of propaganda. They’ve got no way of taking down the reporting, so therefore they’ve got to go after me with these misogynistic smears. So you’ve got to own it. And this portrait just felt really empowering. We have to turn their tools against them. We have to catch the grenade and throw it back at them.
R: How do you deal with the hate that you get?
CC: Apart from anything else I’ve always been a private person. If I wanted the limelight for the sake of it, I would have done something else. I’ve had no choice but to step up and shout loudly and demand people listen to the story, so I’ve had to put myself forward and I found it really uncomfortable a lot of the time. It’s the misogyny that gets to me. You can’t get away with racism in public in British life, or antisemitism, but you can get away with being really grossly vile and sexist. The crazy cat lady thing is completely unacceptable. They’re pathetic, pathetic little men who can’t handle a woman exposing them.
R: A woman who is telling the truth.
CC: The thing with Arron Banks is that he hasn’t sued The Guardian, he’s not suing Channel 4, he hasn’t gone after The New York Times. He’s suing me.
R: I hate the man. I don’t know how we got to the state where these people have any traction.
CC: The lack of accountability is one of the most worrying things out there. Which is why I think it’s so key that institutions need to be as transparent and accountable as possible. If our national institution, the BBC, is funded by taxpayers money but not accountable, how can we expect our politicians to be accountable? In this new age where truth is so slippery and you can just create your own narrative to your own supporters, there is no basis to this communal idea of what is fair and right and true and proper, and, as a result, the laws will be upheld. That world is gone. There’s a thousand different truths out there. There used to be a collective sense of British sense of fair play. That used to be really important to us.
R: How do you get up every morning?
CC: I often get up and think: “Right, OK, dammit.” There’ll be something that’s bugged me from last night and I think I’m going to write them a letter. I’ve discovered I have one superpower and that is persistence. That’s the only thing that’s kept me going in this. It was one story and then it became another story. My editor said at one point: “What about writing a story on something else?” I was like: “I can’t because there’s more stuff to do.”
R: Do you think people find it too big to take in?
CC: It is too big.
R: The impact is as big as the industrial revolution. Is it bigger than the way radio changed German politics in the 1930s?
CC: I heard two people give exactly the same argument recently: this executive who had left Facebook quite recently, and Nick Clegg. They both make the same claim: “This always happens with new technology. There’s always a panic and people blame the technology, but, you know, this is what happened with radio.” And I said to the guy, a senior exec from Facebook: “You really think this is radio, the way technology is an intimate part of every aspect of all our lives, the way its disrupted every single industry? That’s radio? Or is this the printing press?” What happened after the printing press? 100 years of war across Europe. This time of political instability is because the system has become unstable.
R: And this is a million times bigger than both.
CC: The printing press destabilized over time because suddenly knowledge accelerated at a different rate, but if you compare how long it takes to print a book to how long it takes to click a button. How long does it take Donald Trump to tweet something? I was at this conference with Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, and I said to him: “How do you cope with it mentally? The idea that the President of the United States may start a nuclear war on Twitter with a single tweet? How do you cope with that?”
R: What did he say?
CC: He was like “You’re kinda difficult.”
R: I couldn’t sleep at night if I was that dude.
CC: How could you? How can Mark Zuckerburg, in light of the fact that the UN said 100,000 people were massacred in Myanmar because of ethnic hatred incited via Facebook? How can you sleep at night knowing how this platform was used?
R: It’s not a media platform. It’s just … train tracks.
CC: Just train tracks.
R: We agreed as a society that it’s not OK to be racist! And now you’ve got the president of the United States being racist! And getting away with it. Breaking the rules of Twitter. These companies should take some power. Some responsibility.
CC: You know, that’s where we have a voice. This is where whistle-blowers in the tech industry are so important. They send a message to a company about what is acceptable and what’s not. If you can’t contain your employees then you’ve got a problem.
R: The thing is, if you were a CEO you would not get away with 90% of what Boris Johnson gets away with and 95% of what Trump gets away with. You would be fired. There are standards. You’re not allowed to talk to women like that, you’re not allowed to be racist, you’re not allowed to do it. I think it’s actually a really small number of people. I don’t think it’s everyone.
CC: That’s what I’m saying: if you’ve got the money and the know-how, you can make 100 people seem like a million. That’s what you’re doing. It’s just astroturfing. Co-ordinated inauthentic behavior, you know? For example, the social media traffic around Boris Johnson – 90% is fake. That’s what the platforms call inauthentic behavior. It’s bots. Fake popularity. They all use the same company. These are dark arts and if we have a general election, the Conservatives and Brexit Party are better at it. They’ve got practice in illegality and lying and deceit and sourcing dark money from unknown places and astroturfing popular opinion to make it look like a consensus when it isn’t. They’re just destroyers. Dominic Cummings knows how to smash the system, Bannon knows how to smash the system, but for the rest of us it feels like it’s going to be some post-apocalyptic hellscape.
R: My wife had a question to ask you: how can we help you fight back?
CC: That’s so nice. We’ve got to stand up to the bullies, you know? I actually get a huge amount of moral support, which has been so important in keeping me going. I really wish people would lobby the BBC as to why we’re not hearing more on this side. I think there are certain issues where we can apply public pressure, I think people really need to press their MPs on loads of this stuff, so the fact our parliament has said that our electoral laws don’t work and we urgently need new ones, this is the stuff we can be lobbying politicians on. This interview is for the advertising industry, isn’t it? Advertising companies are made up of individuals, and you as an individual are able to put pressure on your chief executive and your bosses and just say “It’s not acceptable.” It’s just not acceptable.
R: Advertising used to be more honest. The lies you were selling were more honest. Let’s stop selling lies and start selling the truth. Because honestly, that’s what people want.
Photograph of Carole Cadwalladr by Rankin.