'We broke Facebook': Meet the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower

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The headline of a Sunday Observer story, "'I made Steve Bannon's psychological warfare tool': meet the data war whistleblower," is a little too polite. As the British paper's Carole Cadwalladr writes, the whistleblower in question, Christopher Wylie ...

... came up with an idea that led to the foundation of a company called Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain's EU membership referendum, and later became a key figure in digital operations during Donald Trump's election campaign. Or, as Wylie describes it, he was the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating "Steve Bannon's psychological warfare mindfuck tool."

Bannon, the Breitbart News Network executive chairman who went on to become the CEO of the Trump campaign and then the short-lived senior counselor to President Trump, was deeply involved in the formation of Cambridge Analytica, and served as a vice president of the London-based start-up. A little further on, Cadwalladr writes that while studying to get a Ph.D. in fashion-trend forecasting, Wylie ...

... came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the U.S., and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles. And then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup.

"We 'broke' Facebook," he says.

And he did it on behalf of his new boss, Steve Bannon.

"Is it fair to say you 'hacked' Facebook?" I ask him one night.

He hesitates. "I'll point out that I assumed it was entirely legal and above board."

The must-watch video above, in which Cadwalladr interviews Wylie, ends with a series of on-screen texts pointing out that Cambridge Analytica denies any wrongdoing and noting that "Facebook denies that the data transfer was a breach," and then quoting a Facebook spokesperson who states that "If these reports are true, it's a serious abuse of our rules." (See "Facebook Suspends Trump Election Data Firm for Policy Breach," via Bloomberg News.)

Please watch the entire video above, but for now, a few choice transcribed bits from Wylie's on-camera statements:

It is incorrect to call Cambridge Analytica a purely sort of data-science company or an algorithm company. You know, it is a full-service propaganda machine. ... If you want to win a [political] war, you need weapons for that—you wanted cultural weapons, and we could build them for you.

In response to a question from Cadwalladr, Wylie says,

Yes, it was a grossly unethical experiment. Because you are playing with an entire country—the psychology of an entire country, without their consent or awarenesss ... within the context of the democratic process.

Here's Wylie on the core thinking behind Cambridge Analytica:

Essentially the pitch was that we were going to combine microtargeting, which had existed in politics—which was, you know, in part, my background—but bring on board ... new constructs from psychology. So that we wouldn't just be targeting you as a voter, we'd be targeting you as a personality. And in order to scale that we would then be collecting a lot of data on people. So that we could build a pyschological profile of each voter in a particular region—or in this case, all of the United States.

And finally, Wylie on the larger repercussions of the Cambridge Analytica approach to the body politic and its effect on the political process:

Instead of standing in the public square and saying what you think, and then letting people come and listen to you, and have that shared experience as what your narrative is, you are whispering into the ear of each and every voter. And you may be whispering one thing to this voter and another thing to another voter. ... We risk fragmenting society in a way where we don't have any more shared experiences and we don't have any more shared understanding. If we don't have any more shared understanding, how can we be a functioning society?

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