TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As evidence continues to mount that Russia interfered in our presidential election, and that Donald Trump was briefed about it before he was inaugurated, a parallel story is emerging in England. My guest, journalist Carole Cadwalladr, writes for the British newspapers The Observer and The Guardian. She's been investigating connections between Brexit, the British far-right, the Trump campaign and possible connections between Brexit and Russia.
The leaders of Brexit won the 2016 referendum to withdraw England from the European Union. Cadwalladr broke a key part of the Brexit campaign story about how the private data of tens of millions of Facebook users was harvested without their knowledge for the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. The data was used to create psychological profiles, which were then used to target people on Facebook with campaign ads and stories on behalf of the Brexit and Trump campaigns.
Her source was Christopher Wylie, who had worked for Cambridge Analytica and came up with this plan, but then had regrets and became a whistleblower. He gave her a tranche of documents that laid out the secret workings behind Cambridge Analytica. This data company was funded by American hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who was also one of the Trump campaign's major funders. Cadwalladr's reporting led to a government investigation that has already resulted in Facebook being fined by the British government agency that enforces the country's data protection laws.
Last month, Cadwalladr won the Orwell Journalism Prize for the best political writing of the year. In December, she won the British Journalism Award for technology journalism. Carole Cadwalladr, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you see parallels between what's being investigated in the Brexit campaign and what's under investigation in the Trump presidential campaign?
CAROLE CADWALLADR: Oh, very clearly, yes. There's absolute parallels and overlaps between what happened in Brexit and what happened in the Trump campaign. And that was one of the sort of very first things that alerted me when I first started looking at this 20 months ago was this very, very clear overlap of individuals.
So Robert Mercer, he's the billionaire hedge fund owner who was the main donor of Trump's presidential campaign. He's also the one who bought Cambridge Analytica, the company that I first started investigating for its role in the referendum. And so that was a very clear link. Steve Bannon, of course, he was Trump's campaign manager. He was a vice president for Cambridge Analytica.
And the link, really, the through-link who I keep coming back to is this character called Nigel Farage. So I don't know how familiar American listeners are with him, but he was the guy who Trump introduced at his rally in Mississippi in the summer of 2016. And he brought him up on stage, and he said, this is Mr. Brexit. And he said very clearly, if Brexit can happen in Britain, then I can get elected in the United States.
And it's this parallel, and the way that Brexit really opened the door for Trump is one of the sort of main strands that sort of kept me going throughout this whole investigation.
GROSS: And Nigel Farage was the first foreign visitor that Trump welcomed after he was elected.
CADWALLADR: That's right, yes. It's this very, very close relationship between them all. Between - Steve Bannon is really the sort of linking character there, really. Steve Bannon has been involved with Robert Mercer in various projects over the years. And wherever Steve Bannon was, Robert Mercer's money was. And when Robert Mercer started funding Donald Trump's presidential election, that was when Bannon was brought in as his campaign manager.
And Bannon and Farage go back. They are close ideological allies. And, in fact, Steve Bannon actually opened a branch of Breitbart in London in 2012, specifically to support Nigel Farage's mission to take Britain out of the EU. So these close sort of personal friendships and relationships and ideological alignments, and now also political destinies, that are shared between the two countries.
GROSS: Why did Steve Bannon care so much about Brexit and England leaving the EU?
CADWALLADR: The person who really put this into context for me was Christopher Wylie. So he's the pink-haired guy, as people - when I'm always - when I say to people, if they know who he is, he's the pink-haired guy, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower. And I first started talking to him in, I think it was the beginning of April last year.
And one of the first things we talked about in this insanely long first telephone conversation I had with him was that he had had a conversation with Bannon back in 2015, and - 2014, sorry. And Bannon was very clear about it, is that this idea of Britain, in some ways, being a sort of cultural leader for America. And so this idea of where Britain led culturally, then it would sort of set a path for America, also.
And Steve Bannon's things, he kept on telling me, was to change culture. That was the thing - is that politics was downstream of culture. So first of all, you have to change the culture. And this is where they really saw Britain as its place in the English-speaking world, sharing a culture with America. And so the idea of, if you could sort of have a bridgehead first here, then that could be influential in terms of the impact upon America later.
GROSS: And so Bannon set up a Breitbart office in London to help try to move British culture and politics to the far-right.
CADWALLADR: Yeah. And there's one of my - there's - one of my favorite video clips is of - which I and other people post - whenever there's an opportunity, we post it again on Twitter. And it's Nigel Farage with a pint of beer in his hand on the day that Article 50 was triggered. So that was the day that Britain started the formal process of leaving the European Union.
And there's a little video clip of him saying, thank you, Breitbart. Thank you, Steve Bannon. You were hugely influential. There's a twin influence there. So Breitbart was the sort of cultural influence, and then Cambridge Analytica became the sort of vehicle - the mechanism by which that influence was sort of spread more widely, I think.
GROSS: So Christopher Wylie, who you've described as the guy a lot of people know as the pink-haired guy, so he became your main source. He is the person who is credited with setting up the operation that used Facebook data taken from tens of millions of Facebook users to psychologically target them and then send them appropriate messages. And those messages might have been, like, fake news or, you know, whatever. But once they were psychologically profiled, they'd be sent messages to help sway them to vote for Brexit or, in America, to vote for Trump.
He had deep regrets about the way his model was used and, eventually, you know, became your source. So tell us more about his role in what Cambridge Analytica did in targeting voters.
CADWALLADR: This was in early spring of last year. And it was so new and troubling - the Trump presidency. And one of the things he was sort of particularly troubled about at that time was the fact that Steve Bannon was on the Security Council. So here was this guy who he had just met - been introduced to - Steve, and who he chatted to in this hotel room in Cambridge. And he'd shared his sort of ideas.
So Chris is such an ideas person. He had these crazy ideas. He'd read these academic papers about how you could use from Facebook profiles to gather all sorts of insights into people's psychological makeup. And this was just something he had, you know, he started chatting to Steve Bannon about and sharing insights into how, then, you could harness that information to target people and to play up on people's fears.
And I - when I found him, he hadn't really talked to anybody about his role in it. And, you know, he was a - he was a liberal vegan - you know, believer in progressive values. And yet, somehow, he had played this really pivotal role in setting up this company that then played a pivotal role in electing Trump.
It was a long journey, actually, in talking to him, in excavating a lot of the information about what he'd done. And right up till now, there's still aspects of it that, you know, I don't know fully about.
GROSS: How did he get access to Facebook data from tens of millions of people?
CADWALLADR: He's such an extraordinary individual, Chris. He's got such a different range of skills and expertise. You know, he was a sort of child prodigy who left school without any qualifications. And he taught himself to use data and code and had ended up working in the Canadian Parliament. And then his crazy one as well was he was really interested in fashion. And he'd ended up - he was starting a Ph.D. in fashion trend forecasting. So he was just very interested in this idea of what makes things suddenly become fashionable and how - where does that tipping point in culture come from?
And so I think that's how he'd started reading these academic papers. And this is this groundbreaking research. But just by seeing what people had liked on Facebook, you could gather all sorts of insights into their personalities. But that was when he came across this psychologist at Cambridge, Aleksandr Kogan. And it wasn't Kogan's research. He was actually doing something in a different field. But he was like, hey, I can do this. I can replicate this research.
So to gather these profiles, what he did is he advertised for people to take a psychological test online and paid them a few dollars ahead. And he only needed sort of several hundred thousand people to gather - we now know Facebook is saying - 87 million people's profiles. And that is because when people took the test, paid for taking the test, they didn't just give permission to Kogan to have access to their Facebook data. But they also, because of the way that Facebook's permissions were set up at that time, they gave Kogan access to all of their friends' data. And that's the crucial thing. And that's the real scandal at the heart of it because people had no idea that this information had been gathered by them and by this company, you know, which went on to work for somebody like Trump.
GROSS: My guest is Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter for the British newspapers The Guardian and The Observer. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with British journalist Carole Cadwalladr. Her reporting for The Guardian and The Observer has revealed how the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica accessed the personal information of tens of millions of Facebook users to influence voters in favor of the Brexit and Donald Trump campaigns. She was given a tranche of Cambridge Analytica documents from Chris Wiley, who had worked for the data company.
So your reporting with the documents that you got from Chris Wiley, who became a whistleblower, led Mark Zuckerberg to have to testify before Congress in the U.S. He's refused to come to England to testify before Parliament, although Parliament has requested that. Can you talk about the status of the investigation into Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in England?
CADWALLADR: Yes. It's really fascinating. So last week, I met this very - she's kind of described as cool, calm and collected. Elizabeth Denham. She's the information commissioner in Britain, which is a job title and a post which just does not exist in America because you do not have any data protection laws, which is this kind of incredible thing. But we have data protection laws, and they recently got strengthened. And the ICO, the Information Commissioner's Office, is the government regulator that protects that. And what happened is after my very first article on Cambridge Analytica, which was in February last year, so before I started talking to Chris, the first one I wrote about, Robert Mercer and Cambridge and the Facebook data, et cetera, that kicked off two investigations in Britain.
And one was by our electoral commission into the work that Cambridge Analytica may or may not have done in the Brexit referendum. And one was by the Information Commissioner's Office about what they did with data. And that then became part of a wider inquiry into the use of data in politics. And that investigation - so it's been going on now for 20 months, and it stepped up when Chris Wiley started talking to them and we started giving them documents and things. And they've now got 40 full-time investigators. And we discovered last week that they're working very closely with the FBI. I mean, this is sort of fascinating because the piece I did last week was about this convergence you can see in some of the things that Mueller is looking at and some of the things that the ICO is looking at.
And this thing of the data, the data, so how Americans were targeted and what they were targeted with and what the Russians were doing with fake news and what the Trump campaign was doing with fake news essentially with propaganda and whether there's any overlap between those things is a sort of key part of Mueller's investigation. So what happened in that very dramatic week of - after Chris Wiley came forward and went on the record with us and with The New York Times is the ICO went into Cambridge Analytica's office, they got a warrant.
So, again, this is something which could never have happened in America. It's only this thing over the fact that their head offices were in Britain and that they were processing U.S. voters' data in Britain that has enabled this to happen. But they were able to go in on the basis of evidence that Christopher Wiley and I and other whistleblowers had given them and go in and seize computer equipment. This is what they've been going through to sort of do this very, very forensic investigation of looking at the data.
And so the thing that they told me, which we published on Sunday, was that they had discovered that Cambridge Analytica's servers had been accessed in Russia or from Russian IP addresses Russian, Russian and other Commonwealth Independent States they described it. And then earlier this week, CNN ran a story which was that - which had slightly extra details of that, of saying that this was the Facebook data.
GROSS: Can you just say a little bit more about the Russian connection in the Facebook data?
CADWALLADR: So there's all sorts of weird Russian connections, and they're still unraveling. And we're still not sure what's consequential and what's a red herring. We know, for example, one of the sort of first oddities of it was that we knew that Aleksandr Kogan had - also had a position. He was working at Cambridge University.
GROSS: Let me just stop you there to refresh people's memories. Kogan is the person who worked at Cambridge University and harvested data from Facebook and the friends of the people whose data he harvested to use them in psychological profiling. And that data ended up being used by Cambridge Analytica and targeting Brexit it and the Trump campaign.
CADWALLADR: That's it, exactly that. So one of the things we discovered early on about Kogan was that he has an official position at Cambridge University, but he also held an official position at St. Petersburg University. And he was in receipt of Russian government money because he was running a research project there. And that's not to sort of make any accusations at all against Aleksandr Kogan or what his motives were but just the fact that he was in possession of this massive amounts of data and he was also traveling to St. Petersburg during the time that he was working on it.
That was one sort of our first alarm bells. The second alarm bell was that Chris had this insane presentation that he pulled out which Cambridge Analytica had given to Lukoil, which is a massive Russian state oil company. And the presentation just didn't make any sense because supposedly it was the sort of advertising pitching Cambridge Analytica do - commercial work. But the presentation was all about influencing elections. Why would you be pitching a Russian oil company in how to manipulate voters? I mean, that just didn't make any sense.
So we do see these, as I say, these kind of weird Russian connections. But this wondering about the data and wondering about Cambridge analysts because relationship to other entities has been at the heart of one of the many questions that have been in mine and others' head. And then last autumn, there was the stunning revelation that we found out that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, had actually reached out to WikiLeaks. So it had got hold of Julian Assange. And this was in August, before the Trump election. And he offered to help distribute Hillary's stolen emails.
So that was a kind of mind-blowing moment for me news-wise because the idea that, you know, we knew that WikiLeaks was consequential in the U.S. election, and we knew that Cambridge Analytica was, but we had no idea that there was a sort of channel of communication between them. So that was a big moment. And in the middle of that, I go back to Nigel Farage. So Nigel Farage - Mr. Brexit, remember - he earlier in the year had been caught coming out unawares out of the Ecuadorian Embassy. So he knew Julian Assange, and that had been a big moment as well of like - because nobody knew there was a relationship.
We knew that Nigel Farage had a relationship to Donald Trump, but we didn't know that he had a relationship to Julian Assange as well. So that was - these weird ways and channels of communication between all these very influential entities in the U.S. presidential election and also in Brexit has been, you know, one of the sort of unraveling threads of this investigation.
GROSS: My guest is Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter for the British newspapers The Guardian and The Observer. We'll hear where Russian money figures into the Brexit story after a break And Maureen Corrigan will review Kate Christensen's new novel. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter for the British newspapers The Guardian and The Observer. She's been investigating links between Brexit, Donald Trump's campaign and Russia. She broke the story of how the data analytics company Cambridge Analytica used personal information from hundreds of millions of Facebook users to create psychological profiles that were then used to target people with messages on behalf of the Brexit and Trump campaigns. Her source was Christopher Wiley, who worked for Cambridge Analytica and then became a whistleblower. Her reporting has led to two British government inquiries and hearings in Parliament.
When you broke the story regarding the documents that Chris Wiley leaked to you from Cambridge Analytica, you did that in conjunction with The New York Times. You partnered with The New York Times on that. Why was it important to you and to Wiley to have an important newspaper in the U.S. to partner with?
CADWALLADR: There was various different reasons behind it. It was very much driven by Chris because newspapers very jealously guard their scoops, and it doesn't come naturally to just like give your story away to two other news organizations, to New York Times in America and also to Channel 4 News as well. We - I gave all of my work to several months before, which enabled them to do their undercover investigation. And - but the thing with The New York Times is that Chris was very adamant that this was a story which affected America and America really needed to, you know, to be alerted to the dangers of this. And in that sense, it needed an American newspaper to really broadcast that to its audience. And that was one aspect.
And then also, when we thought about it, as well, there was this whole thing - we really face legal threats in Britain, real legal difficulties in publishing material like this because we have these libel laws. So companies and individuals, if they don't like what you're saying and you can't prove it very precisely then they can come after you and sue you for an awful lot of money. And we were facing these big legal threats from Cambridge Analytica.
GROSS: There's a higher threshold for the libel laws in the U.S.
CADWALLADR: There's a much higher threshold. You've got far greater freedom of speech and legislation. So that was sort of also - at various points, we were really worried we might not be able to continue publishing in Britain. So that was one of the sort of key aspects of it. And I really do think - I kind of have to say is, that in many ways, working with these other news organizations was incredibly difficult and one of the most stressful things about the run-up to publishing this stuff. It wasn't easy. But at the same time, I do think that it was having an American newspaper which forced Facebook as an American company to take note. And that was also what helped force Zuckerberg in front of Congress. So I do kind of give tribute to our American partners in helping bring that about. I kind of think that Facebook considers the rest of the world as lesser, as less consequential, as less important. And, you know, I really feel that's what's happening with its refusal to come to parliament. I really do very seriously think that Britain should consider banning Facebook from having any role in any of our elections because if you've got a foreign company which is playing an absolutely pivotal role in your elections but yet it's completely unaccountable and it won't even answer questions to lawmakers then I think you've got a really, really serious problem in terms of national security.
GROSS: So we should mention here that as part of the British investigation into Facebook, Facebook has been fined the maximum amount under British law for data violations, which is a half a million pounds. Do I have that right?
CADWALLADR: You do. But the kind of key thing about it is - because now we've got these new, much stronger data laws - if they'd been found guilty now, I think it'd be 1.4 billion pounds they would be fined. So sort of 1.78 billion dollars, I think. It was intended to be a very serious signal from the ICO to the tech giants, and they got off lightly. But I think it's a shot over their bows.
GROSS: So I want to bring up the name of another British figure who Americans are probably not familiar with but played a key role in the Brexit campaign and may be a link to Russia. And his name is Arron Banks. So tell us first what his role was in Brexit.
CADWALLADR: So Arron Banks, he's a businessman based in Bristol, in the West Country here, and he's the bankroller of it. So Arron Banks gave more money towards the Brexit campaign than any other person in Britain. And he is this strange and - I wouldn't say strange character, but there's just so many questions. Essentially, we don't know where Arron Banks' money comes from. And that is a source of one other investigation into Britain. He's married to a Russian woman, Katya Banks.
One of the things we found out about Arron Banks, which I've reported on in the last sort of six weeks or so, is this close relationship that we have discovered with the Russian ambassador in London. Now, this is a direct link to the Mueller investigation because the Russian ambassador in London, he's called Ambassador Yakovenko, and he turned up in the Mueller indictments in November last year. So it was when George Papadopoulos got indicted. And all sorts of meetings and connections and relationships were uncovered in that, which ran through London. And one of the key people he met in London was Ambassador Yakovenko. And Ambassador Yakovenko is described by Mueller as a high-level contact between the Trump campaign in the Kremlin.
And then six weeks ago, I, with this other journalist here, Peter Jukes, we got hold of a stash of emails from Arron Banks and his associates in which they talked about a whole series of meetings with the Russian ambassador. Now, so to go back to it, Arron Banks is a key associate of Nigel Farage, Mr. Brexit, who's best buddies with Steve Bannon. Arron Banks is the main funder of Brexit. And here we have Arron Banks meeting the Russian ambassador on the same day that he launches his official Brexit campaign in Britain in November 2015.
So this Brexit campaign, this was the one which was headed by Nigel Farage. We had two Brexit campaigns in Britain. That's why I have to make the distinction. And on the same day that he launched it, he went to the Russian Embassy with his associates, and at the Russian Embassy, we know that the Russian ambassador introduced him to an oligarch called Siman Povarenkin, and Povarenkin offered him a couple of lucrative potential business deals. One of them was a gold deal. It was about buying into six separate gold mines and consolidating them. And one was this very intriguing one. Alrosa, it was called. And that was a state diamond mining company in Russia.
So Arron Banks and his associates found out that Alrosa was going to be privatized long before the public did. And...
GROSS: But he denies that he accepted those deals.
CADWALLADR: He denies that he accepted them. One of his associates did buy into that diamond company. But his associate, Jim Mellon, he says that he wasn't the decision-maker behind that company's decision to buy the diamonds, et cetera, et cetera.
GROSS: But - correct me if I'm wrong, here. But questions I think have been raised about whether Banks, who heavily funded Brexit, was used as a conduit for Russian money by Russians who wanted Britain to leave the EU.
CADWALLADR: That's exactly it. So there's been this suspicion swirling around Arron Banks for a very long time that some of this money - because we can't account for his wealth. His wealth is all, if it exists, is offshore in these sort of dark money structures in tax havens. So it's impossible to know how wealthy Arron Banks is or isn't. And the suspicion has always been that there was sort of other dark money flowing into the Brexit referendum. And the suspicion has always been that could be Russia because of his links to Russia, because he has a Russian wife, et cetera. So this was a suspicion.
And suddenly, we found out that he'd been lying about his relationship with the Russian government. He'd been kind of upfront about the fact. He always said he had met the Russian ambassador. But he'd met him only once. He'd had one boozy lunch with him. And this was something he'd carried on saying for - for two years, he said that. He had that line very consistently. And now - we're now up to - it's 11 meetings between him and the ambassador, or between his associates and the political secretary at the embassy.
And it's just, why did he lie about it? Why did he lie about it? It's, like, always the question you come back to with these things.
GROSS: The question about whether Banks was used as a conduit for Russian money to help fund the Brexit campaign is being investigated now by the U.S. House Intelligence Committee. The Democrats on the committee got access to Banks' documents, or to a trove of Banks' documents, just showing, again, the connection between the ongoing investigations in England and the U.S. about Russian interference in campaigns.
CADWALLADR: That's right. People in America, I don't think, have realized this fully. And people in Britain certainly haven't realized this fully. But they overlap very, very distinctly. And, you know, one of the points we have in common with America is simply that our laws and our democracy was not prepared for what hit it in 2016. And by that, I mean because all of our laws were around sort of ensuring that our vote was free and fair in terms of a sort of 19th century model of how you run elections and how you control spending. And with the rise of the Internet, that just changed everything.
So in just a few years, everything is being done via Facebook, and to some degree, via Google. And that's all in complete darkness. So the thing about Facebook, and the thing which is so frustrating in terms of being able to get any answers from it, is that these are black boxes. And we know that all of these advertisements, which were shown in the referendum, all the data went through the Facebook's servers. They know a lot of the answers we're scratching around as journalists and trying to figure out from the tiny clues left on the surface.
And it comes back to, time and time again, the role of Silicon Valley in these elections is the really, really key thing. And Russia exposed that weakness. And, as I say, it happened in darkness. And Mark Zuckerberg is sort of absolutely responsible, still now, for not giving us the answers that we need to sort of understand that more fully.
GROSS: My guest is Carole Cadwalladr, who's been reporting for The Guardian and The Observer on the connections between Brexit, the Trump campaign and Russia. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest, Carole Cadwalladr, is a reporter for the British papers The Guardian and The Observer, who's been investigating connections between Brexit, the Trump campaign and Russia.
Because of your role in exposing the documents about Cambridge Analytica's use of Facebook data in the Brexit campaign and in the Trump campaign, you've been threatened with lawsuits. You've had personal attacks against you. I can't imagine what's been done to you online. How have you dealt with all of that? And what are some of the worst things that you've faced, outside of lawsuits from people trying to prevent you from publishing?
CADWALLADR: Some of the stuff is just so crazy. So on Tuesday this week there's an example of the craziness. I was looking on Twitter. And I was just, what is this? I thought it was the Russian Embassy Twitter account, initially. The Russian Embassy Twitter account is this extraordinary thing. It trolls me. It trolls other journalists. It trolls, like, MPs. And I thought it was the Russian Embassy first. And it had my article about Arron Banks and the gold deals and his meetings with the embassy. It had a picture - a screenshot of that. It put fake news stamped over it. And then it said, this journalist lies, or this journalist conspirator or something. And it tagged me into it.
And then I realized it wasn't even the Russian Embassy Twitter account. It was the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Twitter account. So this is the Kremlin. This is the government agency in Moscow, which directs all of Russia's foreign affairs, targeting me specifically via its Twitter feed and calling me a conspirator and writing, fake news, and going in to defend Arron Banks and Nigel Farage, interestingly.
And I was just - it was just so extraordinary. I was in the office. And I just - I said, this is like an act of warfare against independent media, against the press. And it's not an act of warfare against independent media in its own country, and we know how it treats independent media in its own country. It's an act of warfare against independent media here in Britain. And this is a country which Novichoked (ph) a British citizen just two weeks ago. It killed somebody here on this soil. And it's using open warfare. I mean, it was just so extraordinary. I kind of still can't get my head around it.
And the thing is about it, this thing is just being normalized. It does it in this jokey way. And this is also what we saw from the Leave EU campaign - Arron Banks and Nigel Farage's campaign. By doing things in this jokey fashion, it normalizes it. And then you go a bit further.
And there was this very weird episode which happened last autumn when this first started to happen, which was that the Russian Embassy started writing me letters and calling my journalism - calling me a bad journalist and with an agenda and spreading lies, et cetera. And at the same time, Arron Banks and Nigel Farage's campaign were retweeting the Russian Embassy. And then they did this, like, mock video of me, so they took a clip of the film "Airplane!" and it was a woman being hysterical in the film. It's like a spoof. People come and slap her around the face, and then they threaten her with a gun. They'd Photoshopped my face into that video, and they'd added the Russian national anthem to the music behind it.
CADWALLADR: And again it looked like a joke. It was like ha ha ha ha ha ha (ph), look at this hysterical woman. But it was intended to unnerve me. And initially, I was just kind of like, well, this is just weird. But then hundreds - literally thousands of people actually reported that to Twitter and to the police and to Leave.EU and it didn't come down. And this is why what is going on on the Internet is - and that the role of the tech giants is so invidious and so problematic because Facebook and Twitter and Google, it look - these look like public spaces. We are all communicating through them and mingling in them, but they're not. They're private companies. And this is why the Russian government has been able to exploit these things in the way that it has. And that's what's made democracy so vulnerable.
There is this thing in this story - and I'm sounding slightly strange just even talking about it. I have felt on the front line of that in some ways because I'm experiencing this kind of viscerally, this information warfare sort of viscerally, and I'm experiencing it from these forces, these campaigns in my own country. So Leave.EU, this is a domestic, political campaign here. And when we get hold of these emails, Arron Banks' emails, we discovered that they were communicating with the Russian Embassy about social media messaging. This idea that they were actually coordinating in their attacks on certain things that - there's that those levels of sinister in this which I really don't think should be treated like a joke.
GROSS: Well, Carole Cadwalladr, I want to thank you for your reporting. Thank you for the risks you've taken to do this reporting. And thank you for being with us on our show.
CADWALLADR: Oh, thank you very much. It's been really great to talk to you today.
GROSS: Carole Cadwalladr is a reporter for the British papers The Guardian and The Observer. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Kate Christensen's new novel about social class and self-delusion. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Kate Christensen is the author of seven novels, one of which, "The Great Man," won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Her new novel is called "The Last Cruise," and our book critic Maureen Corrigan says its story charts an unexpected course.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: It's a rusty old bucket of a plot contrivance. Throw a bunch of strangers together on a boat and roil the waters with a big storm or a white whale. But in her latest novel, "The Last Cruise," Kate Christensen demonstrates there's life yet to be found in what may appear to be the creakiest of fictional premises. This is an entertaining and elegantly written story about social class, self-delusion and the fragility of second chances. Its title makes it sound like a thriller or the series finale of "The Love Boat." But "The Last Cruise" is no mere lightweight literary vessel.
The Queen Isabella is a 1950s vintage ocean liner that's making one final voyage, a two-week jaunt from Los Angeles to Hawaii before lowering anchor at the scrapyard. The company that owns the ship, Cabaret Cruise Lines, has decided to cash in big by offering a luxury cruise that evokes the spirit of 1957, when the ship was launched - no Internet and no kids allowed on board. Instead, there are lounge singers aplenty and menus dating from the golden age of hollandaise sauce, featuring eggs Benedict and lobster Newberg. From its martinis and highballs to its faded gold wallpaper, the Queen Isabella is a floating theater of nostalgia.
Christensen populates the liner with a passenger and crew list every bit as intoxicating as those retro cocktails. Among them are Christine Thorne, a 30-something former magazine writer now settled into a dull marriage to a Maine farmer. She's been invited along by her friend Valerie, who's a tough New York journalist researching a book about the shadowy world of hidden workers in the new economy. Valerie is determined to descend below deck to interview room stewards, dishwashers and cooks. One of those cooks is a Hungarian executive sous chef named Mick Szabo. Through Mick, we get an entree into the high-pressure world of the galley, where those nightly feasts are prepared. Here's a quick descriptive taste.
(Reading) The main galley roared and clanked. The air vibrated with heat. In the midst of a controlled chaos, Mick wrestled a gigantic tray of briskets into an oven and turned to a 40-quart pot of simmering beef stock. There were no windows in the galley. Giant vents sucked up the smoke and circulated the air, but they couldn't do much when the kitchen was in full swing. The air was so thick and wet, Mick felt as if he were breathing seawater.
The atmosphere heats up further when the workers on board, many of them from developing countries, learn that Cabaret Cruise Lines plans to terminate their contracts at the end of the voyage. Soon after, a fire that may or may not be arson breaks out in the engine room, leaving the Queen Isabella floating dead in the water. Add to that an outbreak of norovirus, and you've got - well, I have to say it - a perfect storm of a plot in which the vertical borders between the privileged and the proletariat collapse. Christensen is a sharp observer, not only of the layered social world of the Queen Isabella, but of the shifting relationships between her characters. For instance, the tiny cabin that Christine and Valerie share strains their friendship, making Christine more alert to her friend's pretensions.
When Christine asks Valerie why she didn't go undercover as a worker to research her book like Barbara Ehrenreich did in her classic "Nickel And Dimed," Valerie responds, I see my chapter as an answer to David Foster Wallace's snarky essay on cruise ships, which frankly hasn't aged well. Christine laughed and thought to herself, this was so like Valerie to appropriate the work of writers she admired while bragging that she would write something better.
Close quarters exert a different influence when Christine volunteers to help Mick cook after most of his galley crew quits in protest of their impending termination. Mick realizes with self-disgust that even though he's smitten with Christine, he's a hesitant personality. As Mick reflects, he wasn't capable of taking action beyond the bounds of his place in the world. Strange to say, all the while I was reading "The Last Cruise," I kept thinking of Barbara Pym, another novelist who also wrote astute novels about contained worlds. Like Pym, who was famously nominated as the most underrated writer of the 20th century, Christensen is easy to misjudge. But as she demonstrates in "The Last Cruise," she is quite capable of navigating deep waters.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Last Cruise" by Kate Christensen. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with comic satirical songwriter Bo Burnham, who wrote and directed the new film "Eighth Grade," and with Viv Albertine, who was in the punk band the Slits and has a new memoir, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of our interviews.
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