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Carole Cadwalladr: Is This the End of Democracy?

On the VOICES stage, journalists Carole Cadwalladr, Felix Salmon, Janine Gibson and Yinka Adegoke examined the spread of digital misinformation and why traditional governance is failing everyday citizens.
Imran Amed and Carole Cadwalladr speak during #BoFVOICES | Source: Getty Images for The Business of Fashion

OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — People are angry, but does it matter?

This was the central question addressed by VOICES speakers on Thursday, dissecting the current age of protest and questioning the effectiveness of democracy in protecting the populace.

The chief executive and founder of Zeitguide Brad Grossman spoke with a trio of journalists about the surge of unrest rocking countries globally, often for seemingly unrelated reasons. In a separate conversation with BoF Editor-in-Chief Imran Amed, Carole Cadwalladr, the Guardian and Observer journalist who worked with whistleblower Christopher Wylie on an investigation into Cambridge Analytica, highlighted the inaction of both the American and UK governments to punish Facebook for its role in a massive data breach.

Cadwalladr's investigative piece, published in 2018, detailed how Facebook enabled data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest millions of user profiles without authorisation and serve them specific political advertisements, resulting in Brexit and Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US presidential election.

“You are in a space where laws do not work,” Cadwalladr said. “It was the biggest investigation [against Facebook] in history and yet the share prices went up.”

Meanwhile, global editors tackled the lack of focus of the current protest movements, in which demonstrations are flaring up without clear goals or demands.

"The connective tissue is the technology; it's the rising awareness of inequality," said Yinka Adegoke, Quartz's Africa editor.

"People are just angry, and that's new," added Felix Salmon, chief financial correspondent at Axios, raising questions about how much impact these protests will actually have.

It's a bleak view that was echoed by Janine Gibson, assistant editor at the Financial Times, particularly at a time when protests have almost become just one more Instagram opportunity. "It has become almost a lifestyle choice of showing that you care," Gibson said. "I don't doubt that people care, but I worry that it's become background noise."

Cadwalladr, meanwhile, did not hesitate in calling out corporations that use problematic platforms like Instagram without raising any alarm of their misuse of data.

The connective tissue is the technology; it's the rising awareness of inequality.

“The advertising industry and fashion brands are completely complicit in this ecosystem [of misinformation on Facebook],” she said.

The ineffectiveness of democracy to hold companies like Facebook accountable, Cadwalladr likened to the climate change crisis. "When the problem is so big, it's like the sun — you feel like you can't look at it directly.”

To learn more about VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering.

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The State of Fashion: Technology