The Guardian and Observer today broke a story about Christopher Wylie, the 28-year-old Canadian man behind Cambridge Analytica, the company that tapped into the profiles of 230 million Americans to create psychological profiles to be used for political targeting.
It is the first time Wylie has gone on record about his role in the conception of Cambridge Analytica, his relationship with Steve Bannon, his meetings with U.S. hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and the processes behind the development of an algorithm that unethically used Facebook profiles of American citizens to alter their political views by flooding them with “fake news” and a sustained campaign of disinformation.
He also gave sordid details linking the globally disparate but closely linked threads of Russia, Brexit, Facebook, Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer and the Trump campaign — all connected to each other through the common filament of Cambridge Analytica. The company’s operations in helping the Trump campaign with psychological information about millions of Americans have been touched upon over the last few weeks, but Christopher Wylie’s groundbreaking admissions shed a whole new light on how the disinformation campaign was first conceived to be used on unsuspecting American voters during the 2016 presidential elections.
Here is what we have learned from the bombshell story so far.
Who Is Christopher Wylie?
Christopher Wylie is a Canadian citizen who grew up dyslexic and with a diagnosis of ADHD. At 16, he left school without a single qualification, but by 17, he was working for the Leader of Opposition in Canada. A year later, he had his first tryst with big data through Barack Obama’s national director of targeting, which he then introduced to the Liberal Party in his home country. Having found his calling, he taught himself to code and left Canada for the United Kingdom to pursue law at the London School of Economics.
While a student there, he was approached by the Liberal Democrats to work for them on voter targeting. Having been hooked to data science and its usefulness to politics already, Wylie decided to balance between pursuing his law degree and working with the Liberal Democrats. He says he was interested in working for them because of his curiosity about why the Lib Dems, despite being a major force till the 19th century, had lately performed so atrociously in the elections. It was now that he came across a paper by two psychologists, Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell, who, for the first time in history, had found a way of measuring personality traits across the population and correlating scores against Facebook “likes” across millions of people. Kosinski and Stillwell had obtained the data of Facebook users with their consent for academic purposes, but later their mechanism was to be replicated by another psychologist in a completely unethical manner.
This research was of great importance to defense and military services, and they were ready to pay through the nose for Kosinski’s and Stillwell’s research. Boeing and the U.S. secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) were at least two potential clients cited by the psychologists in their research.
What Did Wylie Do Next?
For Wylie, the paper’s results had far-reaching consequences. He figured if accurate psychological profiles could be built through an algorithm similar to the one used by Kosinski and Stillwell, it could greatly impact a political party aiming to win any election. He reached to the Liberal Democrats with the idea about profiling, predicting that they would lose in an even worse manner in the upcoming elections. But the Lib Dems didn’t like Wylie’s pessimism and recused him. However, one Liberal Democrat introduced him to Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, and its subsidiary SCL Elections, which worked in the domain of informational warfare and had already conducted operations in more than 100 elections around the world. In 2007, they had spread the false propaganda which later became mainstream in Nigeria — namely that the election was going to be rigged.
Alexander Nix, then CEO of SCL Elections, made Wylie an offer he couldn’t refuse: he asked him to join SCL Elections, baiting him with a completely free hand to test out “all [his] crazy ideas.”
SCL has been referred to as the “MI6 for hire,” or “dirty MI6,” and is a contractor who works for the British government to conduct counter-extremism operations in the Middle East, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense which has contracted it to work in Afghanistan.
Without knowing about the consequences of his actions, this exceptional data nerd was to conceive an idea that would forever alter the way we view social media and its impact on global policy. Working here, he would design of Cambridge Analytica — the company one of his friends referred to as “Chris’s Frankenstein.”
“He created it. It’s his data Frankenmonster. And now he’s trying to put it right.”
The Creation Of “Steve Bannon’s Psychological Warfare Mindf**k Tool”
The basic idea that Christopher Wylie proposed was this: bring big data and social media to an established military methodology – “information operations” – then turn it on the U.S. electorate.
Stephen Bannon, then the head of Breitbart, immediately hit it off with Wylie. Bannon, who has made no secrets about his understanding of politics mirroring culture, was immediately hooked onto Christopher’s idea. Bannon believed that for the alt-right to succeed in the United States, the primary need was to first create an influence in the cultural sphere. Bannon then took Christopher Wylie to meet with Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, at her Manhattan apartment. Mercer, co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, listened attentively to Wylie’s idea and promised him the funds to go ahead with the program, but only in the event of it working.
“In politics, the money man is usually the dumbest person in the room. Whereas it’s the opposite way around with Mercer. He said very little, but he really listened. He wanted to understand the science. And he wanted proof that it worked.”
So now Wylie, Bannon and Cambridge Analytica needed large data sets. Kosinski wanted $500,000 for the data set he had extracted out of Facebook for academic purposes. But they didn’t want to pay anyone so much as of yet. So Wylie and co. employed Global Science Research (GSR), owned by Cambridge-based academic Aleksandr Kogan, to replicate Kosinski’s research and harvest his own set of data.
Kogan then harvested the data of millions of Facebook users to sell it to his client, Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook Knew About It All Along But Never Did Anything About It
Cambridge Analytica, through Kogan’s company, got hold of a huge set of data through Facebook within a matter of weeks. Under British law, it is illegal to do so with the purpose of selling the data to a third-party like Cambridge Analytica, but Kogan told Facebook that he was using the data for academic purposes. Wylie said Facebook acted extremely irresponsibly in this regard.
“Facebook could see it was happening. Their security protocols were triggered because Kogan’s apps were pulling this enormous amount of data, but apparently Kogan told them it was for academic use. So they were like, ‘Fine’.”
Facebook continues to plead ignorance even as security experts and data scientists hold it culpable for turning a blind eye to what was clearly a large data breach of the privacy of its users, something the company claims to protect.
Christopher Wylie Left Cambridge Analytica In 2014, But The Damage Was Done
Wylie left the company in 2014, which is when Special Counsel Robert Mueller — in his indictments of Russian agents — had referred to as being the time when Russia began to seriously invest in the idea of intervening with U.S. elections through a tacit control of its social media.
“In late summer of the same year that Cambridge Analytica presented a Russian oil company Lukoil (with direct ties to Putin) with an outline of its data sets, capabilities and methodology. The presentation had little to do with ‘consumers’. Instead, documents show it focused on election disruption techniques.
Wylie claims that he had no inkling that his idea which he helped execute while at Cambridge Analytica would be subverted to a such a preposterous degree. Now he wants to make amends and therefore has come forward with his story despite this act breaching non-disclosure agreements he signed with SCL as well as Robert Mercer. He stands to be sued now, but he claims that he wants to undo the terrible wrong he has unleashed on the American people.