Christopher Wylie’s “Mindf*ck” Places Free Will and Agency at Center of Data Debate
In “Mindf*ck,” (Random House, 2019) Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie recounts his backstory of the two seismic political upsets of 2016: Brexit and Trump. Wiley grew up in Vancouver and was wheelchair-bound during his youth due to a congenital disability. Into computers and online culture, he struggled to be seen in school, but discovered that his look could help him to stand out. Adopting pink hair and a nose-ring, Wylie became different. His different-ness then helped him to notice many small details that led to the insights that became the foundation for Cambridge Analytica.
In early 2013, while living in London and pursuing political work for the moribund LibDem party and studying law and fashion forecasting at the London School of Economics, Wiley interviewed at SCL Group, an established military psyops and election-meddling firm. Unimpressed with the target audience analysis tactics the firm had used to manipulate Young Unmarried Males (YUMs) in the Middle East, Wylie wagered the firm’s CEO, Alexander Nix, that he could improve upon their methodologies by using insights from the world of fashion forecasting. Nix offered Wylie a shot.
Fashion, he reasoned, was all about the behavior of the masses. No one was wearing Crocs — the ugly rubber shoes — until suddenly everyone was wearing them. There had to be a logic for why these trends swept across the population, and Wylie reasoned that those same ideas could be applied to politics.
Enter Steve Bannon, the force behind Breitbart News — whose founder, Andrew Breitbart, famously believed that “culture is upstream from politics.” After Breitbart died in March 2012, Bannon persisted with that vision: reshaping culture and thus ushering in a new era in politics, free of the “political correctness” that Bannon had come to believe was stifling American identity.
Bannon and Wylie met in Cambridge in late 2013 (in a meeting designed by Nix to give the impression that the firm had a strong connection to Cambridge University, when it was actually based in London), and the unlikely pair immediately hit it off as fellow students of culture. While Wylie and Bannon didn’t agree politically (Wylie is progressive— Bannon is, well, not), they talked for hours about how to measure and reshape culture. By early 2014, Wiley and his peers were sent on a listening tour to America to study real Americans in situ.
Around this time, Wylie was also introduced to researchers at Cambridge University’s department of psychology who were able to advance his idea of using fashion to reach specific target audiences. Cambridge academics Brent Clickard, Michael Kosinski, and Aleksandr Kogan each contributed pieces of a puzzle that could allow people’s “Likes” online to be translated to a personality score (or “OCEAN” score) that rated people scales of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. With just a few bits of Facebook data, it was possible to target certain kinds of voters with specific messaging that might actually influence their behavior.
Cambridge Analytica was officially launched in June 2014 — a cake baked in part with money from Robert and Rebekah Mercer, a good deal of deception and grandiose talk from Alexander Nix (the suave Etonian shyster who was SCL’s spiritual life force), and the flourish of naming that came from Steve Bannon: Cambridge Analytica. The name was chosen to sound more like a clever data company ruled by academics, and less like the military psyops firm implied by its previous name, SCL Elections.
Unique to Wylie’s origin story of the firm is the detailed description of how the animating ideas came to be developed, and his central role in the process. For it was his insight to marry military psyops with social media data, and it was Wylie that brought this all together into a signature brew that fermented and became more toxic and explosive by the day. The warning signs came by degrees: Wiley noticed that they seemed to be pitching a large number of shady politicians from Africa and island nations. He was baffled as to why the company was pitching its services and detailing its America-focused datasets to Russian oil firm Lukoil — a firm known to be linked to the FSB, the Russian-state security agency. And he was concerned that many of the people connected to the firm had ties to Russia and Wikileaks.
It took less than a year for Wylie to become dismayed by his creation. If he was Dr. Frankenstein, he decided it was time for him to leave his monster behind. By late 2014, Wylie was out, and soon after, Brittany Kaiser came on to help drive “business development” — a role that would give her a story arc at the firm that would span from late 2014 to early 2018. (She was fired on March 16, 2018, and the next day decided to throw her hat in with Wylie as a “whistleblower” too; her less-credible memoir is reviewed here.)
Wylie details the company’s efforts to win business with various Republican candidates, including Ken Cuccinelli, John Bolton, Tom Cotton, Art Robinson, Ted Cruz, and ultimately Donald Trump. As in Kaiser’s “Targeted,” both authors attribute special malign intent to Alexander Nix, who has earned his stripes as one of the most vile aristocrats to grace global political history in decades.
Cambridge also played a pivotal role in Brexit, and some of Wylie’s close friends were pulled into that narrative also. BeLeave was one group working with Canadian firm AggregateIQ, which was really a front for Cambridge Analytica and SCL. This violated Britain’s election spending-cap laws, because Leave.EU was also spending money with Cambridge Analytica.
The final portion of the book is dedicated to the painstaking reportage of journalist Carole Cadwalladr at the UK newspaper The Guardian, where Wylie ultimately told his story. Cadwalladr had reached out to Wylie in early 2017. After months of working with him to establish facts, they began later that year to work up a strategy for reporting his story in detail. This was no small task, and was filled with real-world legal risks.
To mitigate some of these risks, The Guardian coordinated efforts with The New York Times and UK’s Channel 4 to produce coverage on all three outlets between March 16th and 20th, 2018. This produced a forceful and unassailable wave of stories in both countries and which could not easily be threatened legally, especially with the first amendment coverage afforded the New York times. Still, Wiley faced significant personal and legal challenges in bringing this story to light.
“Mindf*ck” is a story about a thoughtful and curious young person interested in how things work, but who ultimately wound up in a situation beyond their control. That Wylie risked something to try to rectify that is redemptive, and one gets the sense that his contrition is real. He offers some solid observations about how we might make things better (mostly centering around regulation of tech firms and ethical standards for tech engineers and architects) that are both practically sound and from the heart.
It is impossible not to make comparisons to Brittany Kaiser’s competing memoir “Targeted,” (Harper Collins, 2019) covering many of the same events. While Wylie’s book is heavy on backstory, introspection, and contrition, Kaiser’s is an exercise in cherry-picked deflection and reputation-washing. At the very least, Chris Wylie seems like someone who has learned something from this experience and in the process becomes a sympathetic character.
Kaiser, by contrast, spoils her story by obfuscating the identity of her wealthy friend Chase Ergen (or “Chester Freeman,” as she calls him); Ergen does not appear in Wylie’s account at all. The word “Russia” appears in Wylie’s book 408 times, while it appears only 39 times in Kaiser’s. As a result, Wylie’s account seems far more credible and honest — he doesn’t appear to carry any vested interest in advancing or hiding any one narrative, while Kaiser’s account is affected and disjointed in comparison.
At stake in the Cambridge Analytica saga is the very idea of agency. Whether or not we humans have free will, freedom of thought, and capacity to shape our destiny is at the heart of our legal system and the very idea of democracy. Wylie makes a strong argument that malign use of data erodes our agency, and that fixing that is not so facile as allowing individuals to monetize their beer and bluejean preferences, as suggested by Kaiser. While Kaiser offers clichés and slogans (“Remember: You have agency!”), Wylie asks deeper questions and proposes a conversation around data ethics and societal norms. And that conversation can’t come soon enough.
David Troy is an entrepreneur and disinformation researcher based in Baltimore, Maryland.