My Encounter With Christopher Wylie

An account of my Q&A with Cambridge Analytica whistleblower.

A couple of days ago I spoke at the sold-out Marketing Festival, in Prague. I shared my thoughts about “The Doomsday upon us” and the dangers of data abuse à la Cambridge Analytica and many other hellish examples of how easy it is to fall on the evil side of marketing. I had recently presented a similar topic at another conference, but when I saw Christopher Wylie was a speaker my excitement cranked another notch. After all, this is the guy who broke the silence about Cambridge Analytica exactly a year ago, in March 2018, and this was a turning point in so many ways.

Preamble

The organizers contacted me a couple of days before the event and had a stressful situation to deal with. Mr. Wylie didn’t really want to do a presentation and preferred a Q&A. The guy has a little bit of a reputation to be difficult to deal with. So when they inquired, I immediately answered with a resounding and convincing, “YES! Sure, I can do it!” Then I hung up and thought, “Wow! What am I going to ask him?” It wasn’t definitive so I couldn’t really share my excitement — I was eager, and for once, a little bit stressed to get on stage. I had to be ready. The confirmation finally came the night before the event.

I guess I know a little more about the Cambridge Analytica scandal than the average bear. I’m a data geek, a marketer, and above all, someone who doesn’t hesitate to challenge, steer some trouble, and push the envelope. I had done more research while creating the content for my own presentation — but this time, I had to sit and ask relevant and credible questions to THE guy, in front of an audience of 2,300 marketers who certainly knew their share about the story too.

I’m no journalist, nor an investigator or a professional writer. I started taking notes. The more I dug, the more questions emerged. I read the initial article on The Guardian and tons of others, watched in amazement the Channel 4 investigation, previous interviews and hours of testimonials in front of MPs in the UK and the Senate Judiciary Committee in the US. The more I dug, the more I was fascinated by the complexity and the implications behind the story — not just Cambridge Analytica, but how “marketing” has become a game of deceit and manipulation, thanks to data, machine learning and social media, with the potential of destabilizing democracies. The more I learned about the hellish scenario unfolding in front of me — spies, Mi6, Pentagon and FBI, Russia, Brexit, Trump election, Nigerian and other African elections, complex smokescreen companies’ structure, and even suspected murder — the more I felt an “Oh shit!” moment building up.

Thanks to Big Data, machine learning and social media, marketing has become a game of deceit and manipulation with the potential of destabilizing democracies.

Chris showed up in the speaker room about 30 minutes before getting on stage. We got quickly introduced and started chatting right away — the guy is a chatter, and I am too… Chris can’t stand in place, his leg swinging fast and regularly, his hands and eyes always moving. I expected it — Chris suffers from ADHD — and when a baby started crying in the other room he got completely confused and disoriented, unable to continue the conversation.

We moved backstage. Getting wired, confirming a few minor details: how we would be introduced by the MC, how long the Q&A would be and so on. That’s when he said, “So… I’m going to speak for 10 minutes and then we do the Q&A?” That wasn’t the plan… but sure, why not! He shared his story so many times by now, that should be pretty short and quick, shouldn’t it? Nope… it certainly lasted for 30 minutes and the story, although interesting and fascinating, was going in all directions.

Finally, it was my turn to come on stage. We got seated and I could ask a first question. It had the same effect as pressing a big red button — and on and on he went for another rant. I think I asked three questions and the time was already up.

The audience could use Sli.do to ask their own questions, which we sadly barely addressed. Since the event was in Prague, I was cued to ask about the Russian mangling in the Czech election. Without any hesitation he called out the Czech government has been corrupt and manipulated by Russia. Right there — in the Prague Conference Centre, in front of over 2,000 people — he definitely has no filter and no fear. He got some good applause — and a news interview right after.

He came back to the speaker room for a few minutes, already on his way to take a flight to some other place where he would tell the story again, and again.

I am left with so many of my questions unanswered, and I’m sure the audience — and you — would like to get more of it. I am left with flashbacks of a super interesting exchange which happened so quickly in a small speaker room.

So, here’s my interview which didn’t really happen, or only so partially, with Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower. A recording of the session will be available shortly, but the most fascinating part — our conversation in the speaker room — wasn’t recorded. I will do my best to accurately quote him and provide links to background information in case you, too, want to dig further into this fascinating story.

The Christopher Wylie Q&A that would be

I wanted to set the stage — we only met a few minutes before the event, and he didn’t see my questions ahead of time. I felt important to give him the opportunity to say “no comment” to anything I would ask — expecting that maybe I would touch on some sensitive topics. When I opened the door to that, he quickly reassured me he would answer any question — that he had nothing to hide. After the fact, I believe him, the guy doesn’t hesitate to share his opinion, which is a mix of facts, deductions and assumptions, and maybe even a touch of conspiracy theory.

Everybody knows about the Cambridge Analytica story — how they used millions of Facebook profiles to create “psychographic microtargeting” as a way to influence — or should I say manipulate — the US election process. Christopher Wylie, who played a critical role in making it happen, turned his back on the company and blew the whistle in March 2018 after a year-long investigation by The Observer’s journalist Carole Cadwalladr. Wylie had realized how extensive the impact was — Trump had been elected and he knew Russia was behind a lot of it. The scandal initiated the #deleteFacebook hashtag, Cambridge Analytica shut down six months later, and Wylie testified in front of lawmakers and government, resulting in new laws and greater scrutiny. Facebook and other players have had to change their practice regarding privacy, initiated a purge of ill-intentioned apps and closed numerous accounts.

Backtrack several years — Wylie was born in British Columbia, Canada, in 1989. The guy was abused by a “a mentally unstable person” when he was six years old and the case was settled when he was, bullied in school, a drop out at 17. In 2005, now living in the Canadian Capital, Ottawa, he started doing volunteer work for the Liberal Party. He gradually made his way helping political figures until 2009. According to the Wikipedia page dedicated to him and a CBC article, he lost his job “in large part because he was pushing a nascent form of the controversial data-harvesting technique. At the time, the idea was viewed as too invasive and raised concerns with the Liberals, who declined to have anything to do with it. Wylie’s recommended data-collection approach spooked party officials”. So in essence, Wylie pitched an earlier version of what would later become Cambridge Analytica.

In 2008, he volunteered on the Obama campaign, but it is unclear if he played any significant role. We can make the hypothesis that he was exposed to a lot of data, and that’s where he learned more about microtargeting, and supposedly learned to code by himself.

In 2010, now aged 20, he moved to London to study law — where he graduated three years later specializing in technology, media and IP law, and was even awarded some honours. During this time, he was applying his skills to help the Liberal Democrats in the UK — again, the feedback about his behaviour isn’t super positive. He completed a PhD in “predicting fashion trends” in London and rounded it off with a little Master in Political Management in Washington, D.C.

There’s no doubt the guy is brilliant, but is also controversial.

That’s eventually how he got in touch with SCL, in 2013, the parent company which would later create Cambridge Analytica.

“…to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that.” — Wylie

On the one hand, Facebook claims they never “gave” the data to Cambridge Analytica, and on the other, Wylie consistently says they got the data from Facebook. Bonnet blanc, blanc bonnet — Facebook didn’t really “give” the data — Cambridge Analytica harvested it by leveraging the relationship with Russia-born Aleksandr Kogan — aka Dr.Spectre, a data scientist and research associate at the University of Cambridge who coincidentally (or not) also happened to have ties to a Russian university. They used the “academic” front as a way to get their app approved by Facebook to collect more information — complete profiles and connections for “academic research”.

The app was called “This Is Your Digital Life” and was installed by 270,000 people — but it gave access to all their friends’ profiles, but also private messages. It spiralled into an estimated 87M profile — collected by Kogan, but passed on to Cambridge Analytica, who used 30M relevant ones.

But a Bloomberg article reveals that Kogan claims the data was almost useless in predicting individual personalities because of a high error rate. Supposedly, Cambridge Analytica’s claim of being able to provide behavioural micro-targeting was marketing bullshit. Nevertheless, and as we’ve learned, “alternative facts” or I should say, “plausible possibilities” are enough to make a point…

One thing for sure — the “Cambridge” in the name wasn’t a coincidence. It was a way to associate Cambridge Analytica with “trust”.

Beyond the profile details like gender, age, location, marital status; beyond likes and posts, private messages, interests and friends which eventually led to those millions of profiles, the models built by Wylie were based on the profiling and behavioural microtargeting work of Kosinski at the Psychographics Centre of Cambridge University. For example, which attributes were the most strongly correlated with being a Trump supporter?

Sadly, I couldn’t find this information — but for example, people who liked things such as “I hate Israel” tended to like brands like Nike and Kit Kat… In more recent research, it has been revealed recently in “Personal Data: Political Persuasion” by the Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team in March 2019 that political parties — or in fact, the research companies working for them — could go as far as using satellite images of cars in driveways to determine political inclinations.

“I don’t believe in data-driven anything, it’s the most stupid phrase. Data should always serve people, people should never serve data” — Wylie

Cambridge Analytica was one of many companies spun off from Strategic Communication Laboratories, the SCL Group: SCL Elections, SCL Commercial, SCL Social and SCL Analytics. Most of them were dormant and only used for shadowy political actions in various countries.

“At first it was interesting, we worked with the military to identify people susceptible to radicalization, but then Steve Bannon approached us and things changed. We renamed Cambridge Analytica, and we began to approach voters as much as potential terrorists” — Wylie

Behind Cambridge Analytica, you will find familiar names:

  • Steve Bannon, former and reinstituted media exec of the conservative, far-right Breitbart News, disavowed White House Chief Strategist who stroke a deal with Robert Mueller to avoid testimony in front of a grand jury, and whom Wylie described as “seeking out companies to build an arsenal of weapons to fight a culture war”;
  • Robert Mercer, a billionaire who was also the biggest financial contributor to Trump’s campaign ($15.5M), who is still financing for the midterm election of 2018 ($6M). He is also, unsurprisingly, an investor in Breitbart.
  • Alexander Nix, the former CEO of both Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group, is viewed in the Channel 4 investigation claiming his company was using honey traps, bribery stings, and prostitutes, among other tactics, to influence more than 200 elections globally for his clients since the inception of SCL, in 1990.

In one of the interviews he shared a great analogy: “being on a public square and having people come and listen to you, creating a shared experience of what your narrative is, vs whispering a different message in the ears of every single voter. We risk fragmenting society in a way where we don’t have any more shared experiences and any more shared understanding”. That’s essentially what Cambridge Analytica was doing: reinforcing one’s opinion, but in doing say, playing into Russia’s hand to strengthen fragmentation.

Wylie was becoming more and more suspicious. For example, Lukoil, a Russian oil company, was eager to get their hands on this type of data and microtargeting capabilities. He was wondering why — what was the reason? Lukoil is now on the US sanction list and has been used by Russia as a vehicle for political influence on numerous occasions — including Nigeria, Brexit and, of course, the US election. In fact, SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, has a long history of quietly helping government control their population and gain power. Creating shadow and dormant companies has a way to look legitimate in each country is a common scheme for organized crime…

During the course of our conversation, Wylie said, “when I saw how Russia was involved and pushing for Trump, I contacted the FBI. But at the time, they were confident Clinton would get elected and the last thing they wanted to do is show some kind of bias, especially because there was already a controversy with Clinton’s email.” But other accounts, including his own testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicate he’s been contacted by FBI and DOJ after he went public…

While gathering the information for our discussion, I realized a good spy movie wouldn’t offer a better scenario. Big politics, the Pentagon, FBI, Mi6, Russia, big money investment, shadow corporations, etc. there must be many people who aren’t happy about what Wylie did. I wonder if he was ever approached to turn the story into a movie or a novel.

“He had no clue that he was walking into the middle of a nexus of defence and intelligence projects, private contractors and cutting-edge cyberweaponry” — Carole Cadwalladr, The Guardian

In his testimony in front a committee of MPs in the UK, he says he discovered a name in some documents, that’s how he learned that “the past research director died in Kenya.” When later asked by another MP, he added, “I heard several different stories… when you work in Kenyan politics if a deal goes wrong you can pay for it… It’s pure speculation, what I heard is he was working on some kind of deal and it went sour, people suspected that he was poisoned in his hotel room.”

It’s only when The Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr traced him back to Cambridge that she was eventually able to convince him — after a year of investigation — to go public. So… what actually changed Wylie’s mind? Was it a sudden realization that what he was working on had humongous consequences? I wondered what was the tipping point where he said, “that’s enough.” During our conversation in the speaker room, and as mentioned before, he said it’s when he realized Russia was involved and that Trump had been elected. In his testimony, he said, “as a citizen, one is expected and has a duty to report unlawful activity.”

When asked if Trump crossed the line and that was the trigger, he said:

“Donald Trump kind of makes it clicks in your head that this actually has much wider impact and I don’t think that military-style information operations is conductive of any democratic process”. Wiley

But when I asked him what marketers should do if they ever ended in a similar situation, he said, “contact lawyers, not the press”. The press doesn’t always work for you, he said, they have their own vested interests. So which one came first? A journalist who started digging found Trump’s team worked with CA and helped Wylie see the light? Or did he feel the water was getting a little bit too hot and that’s when he decided it was time to turn his back on what he had been working on for years? His track record of working with data and politics, and the idea it put forth years ago to the Liberal Party of Canada indicates that until that point, he didn’t seem to have much scruple with what he was doing.

What he also added is when something like this happens, the organization will wave the NDA you’ve signed and use legal actions to try to coerce you, and thus, this reinforces the importance of going to the ICO, the FBI, or lawyers specialized with this kind of thing.

Christopher Wylie is now Research Director for H&M. When I asked about it, he immediately praised the H&M culture. It sounds like a perfect match given his studies in “predicting fashion trends” from the University of Arts in London, his personality, and his experience.

He got many job offers — most of which were from very large global brands bluntly asking how to do like Cambridge without getting caught… Many of them were obviously eager to leverage the talent, but set up boundaries around the guy…

While all others insisted on NDAs, H&M didn’t ask for one. Personally, I like that because they know perfectly well that if they ever do something unethical, someone can easily go public. In any case, an NDA should never be a barrier to denouncing illegal activities…

I also liked the analogy he made to the pharmaceutical and other industries. Before anything is done, a team of four data ethics people will look into it. Read me well: not data scientists, no lawyers, but data ethics people.

Chris also shared his concern for brands being unsuspectedly hijacked by Russia. He shared a story about a well-known brand whose ads were hijacked to say “You’ve got the genes, we got the jeans” (or something close to this)— portraying all white people and leading to a legitimate destination on the brand’s website. In Chris’s opinion, Russia would be doing this to subconsciously condition our culture and environment, namely, hatred of Blacks and racism. I was unable to find any documented example of this.

But in another case, Russia is suspected to have influenced the Nike Kaepernick boycott. But why? What could Russia gain in pushing for a Nike boycott?

A Wired article says, “Our understanding of how the Russians work — not just in the American political environment but in Europe and elsewhere — is they embed these sock puppet assets into the natural political landscape of the country they are trying to influence”. Remember Trump supporters oddly had a strong affinity with KitKat and Nike. Coincidence?

Whenever the topic of Facebook is raised, Chris’s reaction is an immediate one of hanger. He is very frustrated Zuckerberg refused to testify in the U.K. They banned Wylie because he “exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profile” and “Mr. Wylie has refused to cooperate with us”. According to Chris, Facebook wanted to see all the documents he had provided to lawyers and investigators, thus, it would have been inappropriate to disclose them to Facebook.

He still calls out Facebook for their blatant lack of care with regards to data. Just last week, it was revealed Facebook stored hundreds of millions of passwords in plain text. Basic and stupid.

A year later, Wylie is still banned from Facebook, but very active on Twitter.

Cambridge Analytica is only the tip of the iceberg. Experian, Epsilon and Acxiom are some but a few of well-known data brokers. They pride themselves for working with political parties.

A HBS Digital Initiative article reveals that Project Alamo, a proprietary database now owned by Trump, contains the identities of 220 million people in the US, 4,000 to 5,000 individual data points about the online and offline life of each person. After the initial project completion, vast quantities of external data were added, including voter registration records, gun ownership records, credit card purchase histories, and internet account identities which Trump campaign was able to purchase from certified Facebook marketing partners Experian PLC, Datalogix, Epsilon, and Acxiom Corporation.

If you want to have fun reading some bullshit from those providers, start right here and read a summary of their answers to a Senate Hearing:

In fact, marketers are eager to leverage this kind of data and expertise. The Tactical Tech report reveals that “In its ‘Audience Lookbook’, the data broker Experian claims its US database has access to ‘the freshest data’ from ‘more than 300 million individuals and 126 million households, more than 50 years of historical information, thousands of attributes to reveal demographics, purchasing habits, lifestyles, interests and attitudes’.Using that data, Experian boasts it can ‘address 85% of the US, link to 500 million email addresses’and segment individuals into 71 unique types according to categories like ‘Financial Personality’ and ‘Ethnic Insight’. Experian claims this data will help companies reach the ‘right audiences’ with the ‘best messages’.”

Those data brokers might be much more active in the US, where privacy laws and regulations aren’t as strict as in the EU. Although I can’t tell for sure if those data brokers are engaged in similar Cambridge Analytics shady activities, I can easily speculate they have the same data science capabilities.

When I ask marketers if they would lift their nose on tens of millions of rich profiles, none of them ever told me they wouldn’t do it. In fact, marketers are drooling for this kind of data — with the expectation this Big Data and machine learning will lead to amazing outcomes. A marketer’s Holy Grail, the Revelation, the Precious.

Here’s something I wanted to ask Chris.

So, really, what was the real problem with Cambridge? Was it the fact it collected the data? I don’t think so, because Facebook apps could do it and at the time, either it wasn’t deemed illegal, it worked around the very porous Facebook policies, or it was disguised as being for academia.

The problem was certainly not the fact that smart data scientists like Wylie leveraged the data to build very accurate and effective models — that’s the essence of data science.

So, really, what was the problem with Cambridge?

I would dare to offer a pretty controversial answer.

The real problem with Cambridge Analytica is the populace found out about it. After all, as long as you don’t know you are the target of propaganda and manipulation, everything looks normal.

The Israel Election Committee is banning anonymous online ads. Facebook has put in place new guidelines in order to abide by the new C-76 law relating to political advertising. They are able to trace every individual who has seen an ad. On the other hand, Google is throwing the towel and banning all political ads.

But money talks. According to Axios, Trump has already spent $3.5m on Facebook and $1m on Google. The campaign is led by Brad Pascale, the guy behind Project Alamo mentioned previously. They are outspending the Republicans almost 2 to 1.

In my humble opinion, that’s smoke and mirrors… Cambridge Analytica, or I shall say SCL, didn’t hesitate to create legal corporate entities in each country where they needed to. And a year later, the spider nest of complex relationships and investments, many clearly leading to Russia, isn’t solved.

The Axios article says, “data from news analytics companies suggests that the same organic media trends that propelled Trump’s base on Facebook in 2016 are still prevalent leading up to 2020.”

Wait a minute!

In other words, it’s not only about the ads, it’s also — and mostly — about organic reach. But it has been proven Russia interfered in two ways. First, with 3,500 different ads (you can download them here), but even more so with 80,000 pieces of organic content — be it Facebook pages and groups or posts and comments.

Russia-sponsored ad example. The large number of likes gives the ad more trust and authority, even if fake.

The Mueller investigation couldn’t conclude Trump’s team was directly involved with Russia, but it certainly doesn’t mean Russia didn’t mangle in the election without the help of the Trump team… At least, what is emerging from many other cases is propaganda and manipulation were used to destabilize democratic decisions and the freedom of choice.

Even if Facebook and others are fighting fake news and fake accounts, do you seriously think Russia will sit tight and not continue to build up its information warfare?

Wrapping up

Chris shared a great analogy which I really thought was spot on when talking about Russia’s influence in foreign politics.

Politicians likes to believe they are the captain of their ship, sailing the ocean and steering the wheel. The reality is someone else is redefining what the environment looks like: the waves, the wind and the depth of the ocean. There’s still a captain, but he is not the one really in control.

I would like to reframe this analogy to the individual level and consider what Chris said early on: to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that.

We like to think we have freewill, that we are the captain of our own decisions. But marketers are shaping our beliefs and our culture, and if you control culture, you control politics.

Chris described himself as “the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfucking tool.” I met Christopher Wylie — I didn’t meet a profile, a number, or a collection of data points. Meeting him, even for such a short amount of time, was a unique experience.

Thank you Chris Wylie for coming out. A lot have happened because of you, but I’m now more worried than ever about the doomsday upon us.

  • The Great Hack — The Cambridge Analytica scandal is examined through the roles of several affected persons. Available on Netflix.

Stéphane Hamel is a seasoned independent consultant, teacher and speaker. He shares his passion for digital analytics — be it technical ‘how to’ or assessing organizations’ digital capabilities and maturity.

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All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust. Digital marketer & analyst with a strong interest in privacy and the ethical use of data.