Wylie: Bannon wanted “weapons” to fight a “culture war” at Cambridge Analytica
Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica who provided multiple reports about how the London-based data firm misused Facebook data of as many as 87 million people during the 2016 election, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday as part of a congressional probe into data privacy and security.
The revelations have since forced the social media titan and other tech companies to reevaluate how they manage user data.
During the three-hour-long hearing, Wylie provided new details into the firm’s more controversial practices, including discussions of voter suppression, targeting African-American voters, and testing of slogans in 2014 that would be later used throughout the Trump campaign in 2016.
The whistleblower told lawmakers that former vice president of Cambridge Analytica and Trump ally Steve Bannon, “saw cultural warfare as the means to create enduring change in American politics.”
“The company learned that were segments of the population that responded to messages like ‘drain the swamp’ or images of walls or indeed paranoia about the deep state that weren’t necessarily reflected in mainstream polling or mainstream political discourse that Steve Bannon was interested in to help build his movement,” Wylie told lawmakers. He said that under Bannon’s leadership at Cambridge Anlaytica, U.S. clients could request testing voter suppression efforts in their contracts.
“Steve Bannon is a follower of something called the ‘Breitbart doctrine’ which posits that politics is downstream from culture. So if you want any lasting or enduring changes in politics you have to focus on the culture. When Steve Bannon uses the term culture war, he uses that term pointedly and they were seeking out companies that could build an arsenal of informational weapons to fight that war,” he added.
When pressed on how the firm targeted black voters, Wylie said that Cambridge Analytica would target anybody with “characteristics that would lead them to vote for the Democratic party, particularly African American voters.”
“Traditional marketing doesn’t misappropriate tens of millions of people’s data, and it is not or should not be targeted at people’s mental state like neuroticism and paranoia, or racial biases,” urged Wylie.
Wylie also noted the connections between Cambridge Analytica’s research and projects to Russian entities were cause of great concern to him. He pointed to connections with Moscow-based Lukoil, testifying that Cambridge Analytica made presentations and sent documents to Lukoil on its experience in disinformation and rumor campaigns.
“The company had engaged contractors who had previously worked in Eastern Europe for pro-Russian parties and indeed the company decided to test Americans views on the leadership style of Vladmir Putin and American views on Eastern European issues relating to Russian expansionism,” Wylie added.
“There was a lot of contact with Russian companies that made it known this research was being done,” Wylie added, saying “a lot of noise was being made to companies and individuals who were connected to the Russian government.”
Wylie testified that the lead researcher that managed the Facebook harvesting project for Cambridge Analytica was at the time working on projects that related to “psychological profiling in Russia with Russian teams.”
As for recommendations for moving forward, Wylie stressed the need for public oversight over user data. He said the issue of privacy should be taken as seriously as other national security issues.
“When you look at industries that are important — cars, food, medicine, nuclear power, airlines, we have rules that require safety and put consumers first,” said Wylie.
He urged that in the 21st century, it’s “nearly impossible to be functional in the workplace and society at large without the internet.”