Observer's Carole Cadwalladr: Data harvesting scoop was a 'hornet's nest' but working with other news outlets gave us 'strength in numbers'

Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr says she “owes a debt” to the New York Times and Channel 4 News for “stepping up and coming aboard” on the data harvesting scoop that has brought Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg before US Congress this week.

Cadwalladr, who spent more than a year working on the story before it was published to the world on the front page of the Observer on 18 March, said seeing Zuckerberg be grilled by lawmakers was “too surreal to compute”.

“For a long time I think I was seen as a pretty marginal figure clutching at straws and people didn’t understand that I’d actually got this wealth of evidence.

“I’d got these amazing sources and I was just desperate to just try and get that story out,” she says, explaining how it felt to have the world talking about her story.

But the path that led a tech billionaire to Congress was by no means an easy one. Cadwalladr describes the story as “like a hornet’s nest” and “by a factor of about 100, the most difficult thing I’ve tried to do”.

She says she spent months trying to persuade the New York Times of the significance of the story, with the newspaper only joining forces with the Observer three weeks before publication.

“The wheels moved slowly there [but] once they cranked up into action they were very impressive,” she says.

“Facebook had to take the story more seriously, I think, because it wasn’t just us asking these questions. That was one of the key things that helped.”

Cadwalladr’s story was centred on the testimony of whistleblower Christopher Wylie who had worked for British data company Cambridge Analytica – the company at the heart of the scandal.

They are alleged to have harvested Facebook users’ data through a personality quiz and subsequently used personal information to target them with political adverts.

Voters in the US presidential election and the UK’s vote on the EU referendum are thought to have been targeted.

Facebook has since admitted that 87m users’ data may have been improperly shared, although Cambridge Analytica denies illegally or inappropriately collecting or sharing data.

It was Wylie’s suggestion that Cadwalladr involve a US publisher.

“He was very determined to get an American newspaper involved and I think that did make a difference because we’ve seen how Facebook will turn up and talk to Congress, it won’t come to Parliament,” she says.

“It was an American story, American votes, American data, being used in the American election, so he was really adamant you need an American newspaper to speak to an American audience.”

She also shared her evidence with Channel 4 in October last year, which enabled them get legal permission to film undercover at Cambridge Analytica – aired on Channel 4 News the day after the Observer front page.

All three news organisations sent questions and set out their allegations to Facebook almost a week before publication – giving them a “generous” amount of time, Cadwalladr says – but heard nothing other than a note on background for several days.

Then on Friday 16 March, Facebook sent the Observer a pre-action letter threatening to sue the newspaper for defamation if it went ahead and published its claims.

Cadwalladr says: “This was 24 hours before publication, I got it and went into a panic – we had gone through so much in terms of overcoming the legal threats from Cambridge Analytica [a year earlier].

“But then I went into the office and we felt that our position was very strong and that this was empty bluster. The lawyers looked at it and were very robust and were like: ‘No, we’re publishing.’”

Adding to the frustration, at around 1.30am that night, Facebook published a press statement announcing it was suspending Cambridge Analytica from its platform after receiving reports “several days ago” that the data firm had not deleted all the data it had harvested in 2015 as promised.

Cadwalladr says: “It was crazy because we spent the next couple of hours raising our senior editors to talk to the New York Times’s senior editors because they were under pressure to pull forward the story, and then Emma [Graham-Harrison, foreign correspondent] literally stayed up all night rewriting the story on the basis of what had happened.

“It felt so bullying that Facebook had done this because we were the only news organisation they sent this letter to.

“It was The Guardian who had broken this story two years previously, I had first written about it more than a year ago and they’d refused to answer any questions.

“Now we’d got incontrovertible evidence and they tried to shut us down by suing us.

“This is an American company using British laws to shut down a story from a British news organisation which had absolutely led on this story from the start. It couldn’t do that in America because it’s a much higher test to sue for libel there because they’ve got protected speech.

“It just really felt kind of outrageous and it really vindicated the decision to partner up with an American news organisation.”

Hearing the Guardian mentioned in Congress was an unlikely result of the story.

When questioned about  Facebook’s threatened legal action against the Observer, Zuckerberg replied: “I think that there may have been a specific factual inaccuracy”.

He added: “They had most of the details of what was right there and I don’t think we objected to that.”

Cadwalladr explains the letter was referring to allegations made in her email to Facebook but says “you go further in your right to reply than you might necessarily in your article”.

She adds: “You want to put down the allegations in their strongest form.”

A Guardian News and Media spokesperson told Press Gazette: “We can confirm that we received a legal threat from Facebook prior to the publication of our story on Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. We stand by our reporting.”

Being able to overcome such threatening letters and having the issue discussed in Congress “makes a really strong argument for why news organisations need to just work together a bit more,” Cadwalladr says.

She says there was a “strength in numbers” feeling to their collaboration and is unsure the story would have had the same impact if the Observer did not have support from two other prominent news organisations.

“That’s something I’ve really learnt from Chris [Wylie]. He was always frustrated by this competition between news organisations.

“It’s hard as a journalist because that comes with the territory, but it is that thing of a rising tide lifts all boats.

“It did make it a bigger story in a way which if we’d just published alone I don’t think it would have been.

“So we really do owe a debt in that sense to the fact the other news organisations stepped up and came aboard.

It was also important for Wylie who had signed a non-disclosure agreement, meaning Cadwalladr had to find evidence of compelling public interest before he would go on the record and speak out publicly.

“Part of what I was doing for months was gathering other evidence and talking to people and providing this wealth of reporting evidence and compelling public interest,” says Cadwalladr.

“Because it was going to have such a dramatic impact on his life, the idea of coming forward, he just really wanted to make sure it had maximum impact.”

Cadwalladr promises there is “much more” of the story to come, but feels “massive relief” that other journalists and congressmen are now scrutinising the companies.

“I think that’s really brilliant, I don’t feel protective of it in that way,” she says. “This subject needed more scrutiny and it needed more people looking at it.”

She also praised the fact that “granddads” were asking questions in Congress, despite some of the men being mocked for their lack of knowledge on Facebook and the tech industry.

“My view is you need more granddads asking questions about stuff,” Cadwalladr says.

“It’s been such a niche topic discussed by people in the tech niche and actually it affects everybody and it’s so critical so you’ve got to have lawmakers who come in all sort of different shapes and sizes and ages looking at it.

“Some of their very simple questions were very effective, I thought. The one about ‘How does Facebook make money if it doesn’t charge for it’, but [Zuckerberg] was like: ‘We sell ads.’ And that’s exactly it, that’s what Facebook does: it sells ads.

“Forget all the rest of like ‘we’re there to connect the world’ and all the rest of it – fundamentally they sell ads.”

Picture: The Observer

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