FRESH AIR: When Christopher Wylie first began working for the British behavioral research company SCL Group, the company used data drawn from a number of sources as a means of potentially altering outcomes for their, sometimes military, clients.
But over time, Wylie’s mission — and that of the company — expanded. Conservative strategist Steve Bannon, who later worked in President Trump’s White House, became involved with the SCL subsidiary Cambridge Analytica. Wylie, who served as Cambridge Analytica’s research director for a year and a half, watched as his group began to use of data from Facebook and other online sources to target users for disinformation campaigns.
“They targeted people who were more prone to conspiratorial thinking,” Wylie says. “They used that data, and they used social media more broadly, to first identify those people, and then engage those people, and really begin to craft what, in my view, was an insurgency in the United States.”
Wylie adds: “The things that I was building on originally for the defense of our democracies had been completely inverted to really, in my view, attack our democracies.”
In 2014, Wylie resigned from Cambridge Analytica. He later became a whistleblower, exposing the company’s role in President Trump’s presidential campaign and Brexit. He also revealed the company’s links to Russia.
Wylie’s new book, Mindf*ck, explains how Cambridge Analytica harvested the information of tens of millions of Facebook users, then used the data to target people susceptible to disinformation, racist thinking and conspiracy theories. Though Cambridge Analytica no longer exists, Wylie warns that the company’s tactics continue to be a threat to democracy. He notes that some of its former employees are currently working on the next Trump campaign.
“One of the reasons I wrote the book is to serve as a warning, particularly to Americans,” he says. “We have a completely unregulated digital landscape. There is almost no oversight. We are placing blind trust in companies like Facebook to do the honorable and decent thing. … Even if Cambridge Analytica doesn’t exist anymore, what happens when China becomes the next Cambridge Analytica?” MORE