Watch a version of this interview on VICE News Tonight, which airs on HBO weekdays at 7:30 p.m. EST.
LONDON — Christopher Wylie played a big role in building one of the most effective political weapons of the digital age. Now he’s trying to make amends.
The 28-year-old London-based Canadian is defying a non-disclosure agreement to blow the whistle on his former employer Cambridge Analytica, the controversial political analytics firm known for its work on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the U.S. and Uhuru Kenyatta’s in Kenya. He says the U.K.-based company, which he helped found in 2013, has built a powerful software program to predict and influence the choices of voters by using data harvested from 50 million leaked Facebook profiles.
The data was collected by an app called thisisyourdigitallife, owned by the Cambridge-based academic Aleksandr Kogan, which was downloaded by about 270,000 people. Users were paid to take a personality test, which they were told would be used for academic research. They might not have known that it also harvested information on their Facebook friends, creating a vast data set that was ultimately sold by Kogan to Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook says that by selling the information to Cambridge Analytica, Kogan broke its rules, and it removed the app from the site in 2015. Kogan and Wylie had all given it assurances at the time that the data had been destroyed. But on Friday it said it had since received reports that this may not have been true, and that it had suspended Cambridge Analytica, Kogan, and Wylie from the site while it investigated further.
Wylie spoke to VICE News in London Monday on his regrets about the new political reality he helped create, Facebook’s role in electoral upheaval around the world, and what he hopes comes from his revelations.
This segment originally aired March 19, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What is Cambridge Analytica?
Cambridge Analytica is a company that builds algorithms to profile the psychology of people. It was birthed out of a company based in London called SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories) Group, which is a military contractor that works in information operations around the world.
Cambridge Analytica is essentially the digitization of information operations whereby it harvests lots of data on people and builds algorithms that profile personality traits, political views, behaviors that you might have, takes that information and creates a web of disinformation.
It did so by misappropriating at least 50 million Facebook records.
The important thing for people to understand is that Cambridge Analytica isn’t just a normal political consultancy. Its origins are in rumor campaigns, fake news, disinformation all around the world.
What's the difference between this and how the Democrats used social media for targeting under Obama?
First of all, Obama didn't win because of disinformation.
The fundamental difference between standard political targeting and information operations is this idea of informational dominance.
The idea of informational dominance is that I inject my messaging in all the streams of information around my target so that they start to think, they start to perceive things that aren't necessarily true … And they go and behave in a particular way that I've led them to.
What Cambridge Analytica has managed to do is digitize that and make it programmatic.
What are Cambridge Analytica's links with Russia?
When I was there, we were interfacing with a company called Lukoil, which is the second-largest oil company in Russia.
We were pitching microtargeting. Fundamentally we made them aware that we were building a massive data set of private data of American citizens and psychological profiling algorithms and finding out the most impactful way to influence the minds of citizens in America.
That information then went to a very senior level of the company. This is a company that has very public links with the FSB.
At the time, I thought it was really weird that we were interfacing with this oil company, particularly when I saw (Cambridge Analytica CEO) Alexander (Nix)’s slide deck to them, which started with some of their experience in Africa, where the first slide was on rumor campaigns. The second slide was on a voter inoculation. It was on making people distrust civic institutions and the validity of elections.
In addition to that, the professor that we were engaging to run this harvesting program (Global Science Research head Aleksandr Kogan) was working at the same time on a project in Russia, funded by the Russians, on profiling psychology of people. And for me, that's really concerning.
I am not saying that … anybody knowingly colluded with Russians. But we made it pretty damn well clear to very connected Russians what the hell we were doing. What I'm saying is that the company was pretty damn reckless.
What was Steve Bannon's role in the company?
Steve was really interested in… how to change the American culture.
That's what Breitbart was originally set up to do, although Breitbart was sort of failing in expanding beyond its fairly niche segments of angry conservative men. Steve wanted a company that could build him an arsenal of weapons to engage in this sort of cultural combat that he wanted to do.
How culpable is Facebook for what happened?
Facebook is not just a social network any more. It’s a battlefield that states are going to try to operate on.
I’m not going to blame Facebook for getting caught off-guard. They’re a tech company in Silicon Valley; they don’t necessarily think about geopolitics. So I don’t blame them for that.
I think more broadly we need to have a conversation – obviously the CEO of Facebook has a very important voice in that conversation.
It sounds like you are frustrated with their response?
You can't on one hand say it's not a breach, and then on the other hand say it's a violation and we're going to investigate it because it's a very serious matter. You can't have it both ways.
The only reason Facebook is taking action is because I’ve gone public. For me, it’s frustrating to be battling a platform that I agreed to help. The people we really should be focusing on are Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, and Cambridge Analytica.
Why are you coming forward now?
After I left (in late 2014), Cambridge Analytica threatened to sue me. So I had to sign an NDA back in 2015 saying I wouldn’t talk to the media about anything I saw there.
Frankly it’s intimidating having a billionaire (Cambridge Analytica backer Robert Mercer) threaten to sue you.
But that was before 2016 happened, the rise of the alt-right and Donald Trump and a lot of the vitriolic, nativist discourse we’re seeing.
My life was pretty chill before this; I didn’t need to take on a billionaire and now apparently the most important social network in the world. But I think it’s really important that people look at this because the integrity of our democratic process is at stake.
But let me be super clear: I accept that I have a lot of responsibility. A lot of this was my fault. But it is not solely my fault. This happened on Facebook’s watch, and more fundamentally this was funded, authorized, approved, and encouraged by Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica.
Do you feel guilty?
I feel immensely guilty.
Didn't you feel that way at the time?
I let my curiosity get the better of me. I should have done a much better job of due diligence, a much better job at ensuring we had an ethical framework in place.
But… the culture of the company...I fell into that culture, that’s not to excuse it. I accept blame for that.
What does this mean for the future?
There’s an element of inevitability in state actors using the internet to influence democracies in other parts of the world.
What I would say is this isn’t new; it’s just new for the West. The internet has made the American electorate accessible to a lot of other countries.
Has this broken the model for democracy?
I would never want to say democracy is broken. The fact we can have this conversation means it isn’t. But things won’t be like before.
So we need to think about this more broadly. Whether it’s a regulatory legal framework or whether we consider the integrity of our national elections as a national security issue, these are things legislators need to talk about.
Cover image: Christopher Wylie (Photo: VICE News)