About a year after I testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, a young guy with pink hair surfaced in front of the British Parliament and told of how a company called Cambridge Analytica had manipulated Britons into voting to leave the European Union. His name was Christopher Wylie, and in March 2018 he blew the whistle about a firm that was able to influence voters with Facebook data and psychological-warfare techniques developed during the global fight against terrorism. Two months later, Wylie testified before the U.S. Congress, describing how the company, founded in part by former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon, used social media to promote the political campaigns of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), regimes in the Middle East and Africa, and, most significantly, Donald Trump.
Wylie returns in 2019 with a tell-all book called “MindF*ck” that takes readers into some of the darkest corners of social media manipulation while at the same time showcasing one man’s journey as a self-styled whistleblower - just when whistleblowers are again grabbing the headlines as Congress ponders the impeachment of President Trump. “MindF*ck,” it seems, is Wylie’s shot at redemption, his public alert to the dangers of loose data and the sinister spin artists of social media. “As one of the creators of Cambridge Analytica,” he explains, “I share responsibility for what happened, and I know that I have a profound obligation to right the wrongs of my past.”
“MindF*ck” demonstrates how digital influence operations, when they converged with the nasty business of politics, managed to hollow out democracies - not to mention Wylie’s very soul. Of his time at Cambridge Analytica, he writes: “I stupidly fell for the hubristic allure of Facebook’s call to ‘move fast and break things.’ I’ve never regretted something so much. I moved fast, I built things of immense power, and I never fully appreciated what I was breaking until it was too late.” He details in hundreds of pages his role in making social media a battlefield for political warfare.
My path and Wylie’s never crossed, but they seem to have paralleled in the social media influence space. Over a decade, terrorists moved to the internet and social media, and I followed along. I first worked in counterterrorism at the FBI, then spent years tracking terrorists on social media for the military and designing campaigns to counter violent extremism, before leading a team that stumbled into the Russian disinformation operations targeting the 2016 election. Wylie, in short order, studied the Obama social media political campaigns in America, did voter-targeting campaigns for British politicians and checked in for some war-on-terror psychological operations with Strategic Communications Lab (SCL) before moving to SCL’s burgeoning political-influence subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica. By age 25, Wylie had completed an impressive tour of the world of social media manipulation.
His account of the charlatans of digital influence rings true to me. And his personal story, woven into the book’s narrative, illustrates the confusion of our current political era as well as the challenge to Wylie’s fellow members of the social media generation as they seek identities real and imagined, physical and virtual. “I am a queer whistleblower,” Wylie writes, “and this was my second coming out.” He says early on in the book, “At just twenty years old, I was already a midlife crisis waiting to happen.” His crisis continued post-Cambridge Analytica when he was banned from both Facebook and Instagram. Wylie seems lost without a social media presence, unable to fully realize himself. He makes clear how important the virtual world is to personal identity for his generation and those that follow. (Here, Wylie and I diverge: Having spent the majority of my life without WiFi, I see time away from tweets, likes and shares as a vacation.)
Wylie’s book offers invaluable lessons for any generation about how social media influencing works. “We Fight Terror in Prada,” the third chapter, reminded me of the better information-warfare briefings of my counterterrorism years. Wylie describes how SCL, which he joined in 2013, used social media in programs to break down psychological resilience. It did this by creating “unrealistic perceptions in the targets that result in confusion and damaging self-efficacy,” then following up with counternarratives “to foster distrust,” “trigger negative emotions” and “provoke disunity.” According to Wylie, his understanding of these psychological dynamics influenced the foundation and rapid creation of Cambridge Analytica’s political-warfare operations.
In a chapter titled “The Dark Triad,” he illustrates how rapidly techniques to target social media users improved - and then shifted from use on terrorists and criminals to use on voters. By 2014, Cambridge Analytica had harvested millions of Facebook profiles identifying users’ “five big traits”: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The firm then mapped these traits alongside what it called the “dark triad” minority traits of “narcissism (extreme self-centeredness), Machiavellianism (ruthless self-interest) and psychopathy (emotional detachment).” By Wylie’s account, Cambridge Analytica would engage those who exhibited dark triad traits, “introducing narratives via Facebook groups, ads, or articles that the firm knew from internal testing were likely to inflame the very narrow segments of people with these traits.” Readers encountering this passage will very likely wonder if they’ve ever been deliberately engaged this way on social media.
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Throughout his book, Wylie demonstrates how our social media data has become the oil that feeds the algorithmic engines of an artificially intelligent world mastered by Big Tech kingpins and ruthless oligarchs.
In addition to illustrating how social media manipulation works, Wylie offers insight into some of its chief characters, including those credited with elevating Trump. Hired by Cambridge Analytica’s now-infamous Alexander Nix, Wylie quickly paints his boss as a cheap, elitist scoundrel who would knock over expensive wine bottles and then exclaim, “When you have $20 million, it doesn’t really matter, does it?” Having viewed the undercover video recordings of Nix explaining how to sully political challengers by setting them up with prostitutes, I found this not at all surprising. As for Bannon, Wylie’s conversations with him contribute to a richer understanding of this culture warrior. In the chapter “Steve From America,” Wylie describes how he and Bannon “were clearly on the same wavelength, and the conversation ... flowed so naturally, it felt as if we were flirting.” Wylie concludes only a few months later that “Bannon was also a monster.” He writes, “The social and cultural research I’d been enjoying ... had given birth to this (BEGIN ITAL)thing(END ITAL) - and it was terrifying.”
The deeper Wylie descends into the world of Nix and Bannon, the more troubled he becomes: “We were creating a machine to contaminate America with hate and cultish paranoia, and I could no longer ignore the immorality and illegality of it all.” Throughout the book, I felt a tension between Wylie and Bannon over who gets to decide what means are just. I doubt that Bannon would refute any of Wylie’s account, but he probably doesn’t see the harms the same way Wylie does. Ultimately, the book demonstrates that gatherings of disingenuous, backstabbing, contemptible, often bumbling people can be devastatingly successful when interests align. This may even be the definition of modern politics.
To read “MindF*ck,” one might conclude that Cambridge Analytica alone engineered the entire global populist revolution we see today. But political strategists I’ve met in recent years refer to the company as digital snake oil, only one of many social media efforts pushing Trump. It was probably less effective than Facebook’s own staff assisting Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale in 2016, and it didn’t have nearly the impact of the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. Wylie marks a lot of suspicious dots from his 2013-2014 time at Cambridge Analytica, but they don’t necessarily connect in a grand 2016 Cambridge Analytica-Brexit-Trump conspiracy, as I believe he intended them to.
Wylie should be applauded for actively seeking to warn America and the world about the likes of Cambridge Analytica and the digital dangers of social media. In the age of celebrity whistleblowers like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, it’s puzzling, though, that Wylie seems dumbfounded by the negative consequences of attaining his goal: isolation, scorn from the opposition and an uncertain future.
Wylie’s epilogue offers recommendations for legislators and a call for “a code of ethics for software engineers,” but I found myself wondering why he wasted time authoring these when, as he notes, “Cheating is a pretty good strategy to win, as there are very few consequences.”