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The Cambridge Analytica

Whistle-Blower On Trump And His


Decision To Speak Out
MATTHA BUSBY 4 June 2018

His Facebook revelations triggered an international debate about how companies use personal data. Now,
the man who helped create Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool is ready to atone for his actions.

J Lo said I was a good dancer,” says Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica researcher turned
whistle-blower.

Jet-lagged, unshaven, and with the lucidity of his hair – bright pink while testifying before the UK parliament
just a few weeks earlier – now fading.

“Nobody was dancing,” he continues, recounting his evening at Time magazine’s New York gala celebrating
him and his fellow 100 most influential people of 2018. “Everyone was trying to look cool so I just got up the
front with my lawyer, beckoned everyone to dance, and they all sort of percolated forward.”

Perhaps it should be no surprise. This is, after all, the 29-year-old who in March first stepped forward to
reveal a little-known political consultancy firm called Cambridge Analytica had not just mined the personal
data of at least 87 million Facebook users, but used it to create targeted campaigns for the Brexit referendum
and 2016 US presidential election.

If anything, to say Wylie is one of the year’s most influential people is an understatement. His revelations
have sparked heated discussions from dinner tables to legislatures, Cambridge Analytica has since begun
insolvency proceedings, and Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled before the US Congress, while his company
reviews its privacy policies.

The six-foot-one Canadian may be used to the limelight but he still finds it unnatural. Between mouthfuls of
vegan Sunday roast in an East London restaurant, Wylie reflects on his childhood, Trump and how he found
himself at the centre of one of the greatest political scandals of the modern era.

GQ: Why did you decide to speak out?

Christopher Wylie: Because I had to.

But what was the catalyst?

There wasn’t a single moment – it was a process of up to a year. Carole Cadwalladr, The Observer journalist
who broke the story, reached out to me shortly after Trump’s election. I became an unnamed source for
many of her articles, before I went public. The Guardian said it would be more powerful if I came out with a
face and a name.

Had other journalists tried to contact you before?

Yes, but they couldn’t find me – I had almost no online presence. Journalists would often find people who
knew me and give them a handwritten note to pass me, which said ‘We need to talk, let’s talk’. I threw them
away.

Why?

I was threatened with legal action from a billionaire-backed company run by Steve Bannon and I’d been
forced to sign a confidentiality agreement because they knew I was genuinely uncomfortable with what was
happening.

Do you feel you have much in common with other whistleblowers, like Edward Snowden or Chelsea
Manning?

They’re fundamentally different situations. I have curated information that informs the public but doesn’t
jeopardise national security. However, there’s no such thing as an innocent whistleblower. In order to be the
whistleblower you have to have been part of the project that you’re whistleblowing on in the first place.

Have you ever feared for your safety?

I’ve been attacked physically several times in the streets by people who seemed genuinely upset at the
information that has come out. I’ve had all kinds of weird things happen to me – threatening messages,
people yelling at me and getting physical. I was even pushed into oncoming traffic.

By whom?

There are two types of people who don’t like the stories. People who are disgusted by the way the company
operated in abusing privacy, and people who are upset by me questioning the validity of the EU referendum
result. I’ve had physical altercations with both.

What has that been like?


It’s a very isolating experience because it’s hard for people to relate to it. Luckily, I’ve had a lot of reassurance
from people who want me to get this message out because it’s important. But that doesn’t happen to most
whistleblowers – many lose their jobs, no one helps them and their lives are destroyed.

How else has your life changed?

It’s a lot more manic. Prior to this, I was working behind the scenes as a political advisor. There’s a rule that if
you become the story as an advisor, you’re not a good advisor.

You grew up in Canada. What was that like?

I’m originally from Victoria on Vancouver Island and my parents are fantastic but I had an unquestionably
rough start at school.

What happened?

Some really vicious targeted bullying, beyond just normal schoolyard teasing. The school didn’t do anything
about it so when I was 10 we successfully sued the ministry of education. The emotional trauma had a lasting
impact on me.

In what way?

I grew up challenging authority and got into politics at a young age. It had quite a foundational role in how I
engage with the world because if I think something is wrong I’ll go and challenge it.

How did you get into data analytics?

I’d always been interested in programming and computers – I grew up coding and building websites.

When I moved to Ottawa in 2006, as a teenager, I started volunteering for the Liberal Party and then there
was a job opening with an MP. I was given a lot of responsibility for digital, tech, data and social media. Email
was still almost an avant-garde campaigning technique, let alone social media.

I then did a secondment on the Obama campaign in 2008. I learnt how some campaigns, behind the brilliant
speeches and cool YouTube videos, are as much about infrastructure – data modelling, targeting and
analytics – as they are about branding.

How did that differ from the Trump campaign?

The messaging and the positioning was obviously different, but it used many of the same fundamentals in
terms of targeting. People didn’t take the Trump campaign seriously because it seemed so insane and
antithetical to conventional political wisdom.

However, one of the things I learnt at CA is that many small, discrete populations respond to some pretty
bizarre things and if you weave them together you can create a foundation for a campaign.

GQ: When did you go to Strategic Communication Laboratories, CA’s parent company?

At the end of 2012 – they offered me the freedom to explore some cool but maybe crazy ideas, which I
hadn’t had the opportunity to do before. They wanted to do all kinds of research: understanding cyberspace,
how to use data to make psychological profiles and how you can map out the spread of ideas online. This
fitted in very nicely with the stuff I interested me.

How did SCL morph into CA?

A couple of months after I started at SCL, I got introduced to ‘Steve from America’. He was really interested in
culture change and how politics flows from culture.

This was Steve Bannon. Did you agree with him, about the association between politics and culture?

The observation is correct. If you want enduring change you need to create a cultural, not a political shift. I
told him that you need to be able to define culture.

First you have to identify quantifiable units to measure culture and create a way to determine how effective
the cultural intervention is. To create a measurable unit of culture you can evaluate people’s psychological
disposition, their biographic history and their socioeconomic environment.

Then, all of a sudden, culture is quantified and manageable – and if you want to shift it you’d be able to
create a list of the exact types of people that you would need to push one way or the other to facilitate that
change.

So you set up CA to provide a means with which to achieve this cultural shift?

The original idea behind CA was to use people’s data to create a representation of society and social physics.
When you can predict the future you can create it.

What is Bannon like, personally?

You can have an informed, insightful conversation with him about intersectional feminism and he intuitively
understands identity and culture in a way that I haven’t seen from other political strategists or advisors. But
when [billionaire investor] Robert Mercer invested $20m into CA, all of a sudden he became our director and
he operates very differently as a boss.

He is an incredibly aggressive individual and he instantly created a toxic culture within the company – he was
absolutely militant in what he wanted to do to American society. We started researching constructs that
didn’t feel were respectful of basic elements of democratic norms, such as misleading narratives and rumour
campaigns, which are incongruent with the democratic process.

What’s the key to spreading fake news?

You embed disinformation into as many streams of information around your target as possible. The benefit
of targeting is that you can find the type of people in your population who are more prone to believing things
than others. This can be profiled using social data.

For instance, people who are more susceptible to anxiety or neuroticism are more likely to engage in
conspiratorial thinking and these are the people that campaigns often target first with the disinformation. If
you capture enough of those people that information starts to spread, like if you infect someone with a
disease they become a vector for that disease.

Could Trump’s election have happened without CA?


It’s impossible to say if Trump could have happened without any particular factor – Hillary, Bannon, The
Apprentice – because there was a pooling of factors. But I genuinely think CA played a significant role and if
I didn’t I wouldn’t be talking about it.

We often had unstructured conversations with random groups of people where certain ideas, words and
phrases would emerge. That’s how ‘drain the swamp’ was devised.

It came from voters saying that or describing Washington as a swamp, since DC literally used to be filled with
swamps. People in focus groups also spoke about building walls.

We found that people who have more sceptical views on immigration were both more conscientious and
neurotic and so, for them, the whole idea of building a wall provides an effective solution. Later on, ‘build the
wall’ became another of the key messages of Trump’s campaign.

So would you say CA is your Frankenstein’s monster?

Oh, absolutely. At the time I thought there was huge potential for modelling society for the better but I let
my extreme curiosity cloud my judgement and common sense.

Will companies continue to push the boundaries of what’s legal and conventional, in terms of people’s
data?

The integration of technology and data in our lives is on an upward trajectory. Data is soon going to start
influencing our physical space and this will open up all kinds of opportunities for bad actors to exploit and get
in contact with people.

How does it feel to have triggered such a storm in tech around data and privacy?

I’m optimistic this will have a lasting impact. Mark Zuckerberg testified at the Senate – despite how bad some
of the questions were, and how ignorant some of the Senators were – and now Facebook is attempting to
change its policies and improve its privacy practices, it’s not doing it well, but at least it’s on the table.

More broadly, this is a wake-up call to the tech sector to tone down the arrogant behaviour, which a lot of
companies – not just Facebook – have engaged in with userbases. People don’t like being taken for fools and
having their rights abused. The sector needs to realise that it depends on the trust of its users and without
them these companies will not exist.

You testified before the UK Parliament and have since struck up a good relationship with Damian Collins,
the committee chair and Conservative MP.

Yes, because he is taking his job seriously and putting party politics aside. This is a completely stark
difference to how things work in the US, where the Republicans boycotted me.

What good could come of these meetings?

I was told my hearing was the most watched thing Parliament had ever streamed live which means people
are paying attention to it – which is important. Also, it’s about making this an issue of national
and international importance and changing the mindset so that we stop delegating tech-related issues to the
big tech companies themselves.
Legislators are also increasingly appreciating that technology, and in particular data, is like electricity. You
can’t avoid it and though it can be quite dangerous, it can be incredibly powerful and useful if it’s structured
and engineered in the right way.

But people pay for their electricity.

Yes, but you also pay for your use of social media by the virtue of your presence on it.

Do you think Facebook should be allowed to run political ads?

Yes, absolutely. This is an indispensable method for campaigns to engage otherwise systematically
disenfranchised minority groups. The problem is the lack of transparency. Fake news is a lot easier to spread
when no one sees that you’re spreading it. A really simple solution would be requiring public reporting of
your targeting and advertising.

Could Facebook do that?

It would be so easy! Facebook plays the role of air traffic controller with billions and billions of highly
targeted ads, it would be incredibly straightforward to automatically publish every ad on to a searchable
database.

What else does Facebook need to change?

In order to opt out of targeting, it takes something like 14 clicks on your phone. But to opt in it takes only a
couple. This is too burdensome on users and often they’re unaware of what they have already technically
consented to.

How would you gauge the current political climate, globally?

It’s becoming postmodern in a sense that we are now debating what’s real and what’s a fact – there’s a
growing focus on the subjectivity of truth. Everything’s hyper- fragmented and losing touch with reality. The
internet facilitates a totally changed perspective on common interpretations of reality.

You can go on to the internet and choose what you want to see in an unmediated way that wasn’t possible
before with television or print media. Steve Bannon would not have been possible without this evolution.
He’s a product of the internet. He identified fractured communities scattered all across the US but he was
able to use the internet to bring them into a movement.

How do you think the Trump presidency is going?

It’s funny because it feels almost like a drag show – a grotesque mockery of what a president should look like
– when you look at how the alt-right movement and the Tea Party has emerged from a group of highly
misogynistic men demanding the freedom to be who they want to be. Their drag queen is Donald Trump, the
reality TV star who moved into politics. They worship him but he’s a mockery of what a president should be.