‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower

As Wylie describes it, he was the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.”

…to bring big data and social media to an established military methodology – “information operations” – then turn it on the US electorate.

…“The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.”

… Aged 24, while studying for a PhD in fashion trend forecasting, he came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles. And then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup.

“We ‘broke’ Facebook,” he says.

…he had the receipts, invoices, emails, legal letters – records that showed how, between June and August 2014, the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users had been harvested. Most damning of all, he had a letter from Facebook’s own lawyers admitting that Cambridge Analytica had acquired the data illegitimately.

…at 17, he was working in the office of the leader of the Canadian opposition; at 18, he went to learn all things data from Obama’s national director of targeting, which he then introduced to Canada for the Liberal party. At 19, he taught himself to code, and in 2010, age 20, he came to London to study law at the London School of Economics.

“Politics is like the mob, though,” he says. “You never really leave.”

…Meanwhile, at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre, two psychologists, Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell, were experimenting with a way of studying personality – by quantifying it.

Starting in 2007, Stillwell, while a student, had devised various apps for Facebook, one of which, a personality quiz called myPersonality, had gone viral. Users were scored on “big five” personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism – and in exchange, 40% of them consented to give him access to their Facebook profiles. Suddenly, there was a way of measuring personality traits across the population and correlating scores against Facebook “likes” across millions of people.

…“I wanted to know why the Lib Dems sucked at winning elections when they used to run the country up to the end of the 19th century,” Wylie explains. “And I began looking at consumer and demographic data to see what united Lib Dem voters, because apart from bits of Wales and the Shetlands it’s weird, disparate regions. And what I found is there were no strong correlations. There was no signal in the data.

“And then I came across a paper about how personality traits could be a precursor to political behaviour.”

… The job was research director across the SCL group, a private contractor that has both defence and elections operations. Its defence arm was a contractor to the UK’s Ministry of Defence and the US’s Department of Defense, among others. Its expertise was in “psychological operations” – or psyops – changing people’s minds not through persuasion but through “informational dominance”, a set of techniques that includes rumour, disinformation and fake news.

SCL Elections had used a similar suite of tools in more than 200 elections around the world, mostly in undeveloped democracies that Wylie would come to realise were unequipped to defend themselves.

…“[Bannon] got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.”

But Wylie wasn’t just talking about fashion. He had recently been exposed to a new discipline: “information operations”, which ranks alongside land, sea, air and space in the US military’s doctrine of the “five-dimensional battle space”. His brief ranged across the SCL Group – the British government has paid SCL to conduct counter-extremism operations in the Middle East, and the US Department of Defense has contracted it to work in Afghanistan.

…Robert Mercer was a pioneer in AI and machine translation. He helped invent algorithmic trading – which replaced hedge fund managers with computer programs – and he listened to Wylie’s pitch. It was for a new kind of political message-targeting based on an influential and groundbreaking 2014 paper researched at Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre, called: “Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans”.

…It was Bannon’s interest in culture as war that ignited Wylie’s intellectual concept. But it was Robert Mercer’s millions that created a firestorm. Kogan was able to throw money at the hard problem of acquiring personal data: he advertised for people who were willing to be paid to take a personality quiz on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Qualtrics. At the end of which Kogan’s app, called thisismydigitallife, gave him permission to access their Facebook profiles. And not just theirs, but their friends’ too. On average, each “seeder” – the people who had taken the personality test, around 320,000 in total – unwittingly gave access to at least 160 other people’s profiles, none of whom would have known or had reason to suspect.

…Cambridge Analytica had its data. This was the foundation of everything it did next – how it extracted psychological insights from the “seeders” and then built an algorithm to profile millions more.

…“It didn’t make any sense to me,” says Wylie. “I didn’t understand either the email or the pitch presentation we did. Why would a Russian oil company want to target information on American voters?”

Mueller’s investigation traces the first stages of the Russian operation to disrupt the 2016 US election back to 2014, when the Russian state made what appears to be its first concerted efforts to harness the power of America’s social media platforms, including Facebook. And it was in late summer of the same year that Cambridge Analytica presented the Russian oil company with an outline of its datasets, capabilities and methodology. The presentation had little to do with “consumers”. Instead, documents show it focused on election disruption techniques. The first slide illustrates how a “rumour campaign” spread fear in the 2007 Nigerian election – in which the company worked – by spreading the idea that the “election would be rigged”. The final slide, branded with Lukoil’s logo and that of SCL Group and SCL Elections, headlines its “deliverables”: “psychographic messaging”.

…There’s no evidence that Cambridge Analytica ever did any work for Lukoil. What these documents show, though, is that in 2014 one of Russia’s biggest companies was fully briefed on: Facebook, microtargeting, data, election disruption.

…Russia, Facebook, Trump, Mercer, Bannon, Brexit. Every one of these threads runs through Cambridge Analytica. Even in the past few weeks, it seems as if the understanding of Facebook’s role has broadened and deepened. The Mueller indictments were part of that, but Paul-Olivier Dehaye – a data expert and academic based in Switzerland, who published some of the first research into Cambridge Analytica’s processes – says it’s become increasingly apparent that Facebook is “abusive by design”. If there is evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, it will be in the platform’s data flows. 

‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower | News | The Guardian

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