Friday, March 23, 2018

Facebook, and the Revelations of Open Secrets

NewYorker |  When Facebook finally acknowledged that Cambridge Analytica was using Facebook data it had obtained surreptitiously, the company’s response was not to alert its users or audit its partners or engage in any sort of meaningful reform. Rather, it sent a polite request to Cambridge Analytica asking it to delete the GSR-sourced material, some of which, according to the Times, remains on the company’s servers.

This weekend’s reports about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica did introduce us to Christopher Wylie, a twenty-eight-year-old Canadian coder and data scientist, who conceived and helped construct C.A.’s psychographic tools. For at least a year, it seems, Wylie had been feeding information to Carole Cadwalladr and her team at the Guardian and its sister paper, the Observer. Now he is out of the shadows. In a thirteen-minute video posted on the Guardian’s Web site on Saturday, Wylie details the story of the creation and deployment of “the weapon” that he and Nix sold to Bannon, and then to Mercer, to fight their “culture war.” It was in those early days of 2014, Wylie says, that he and Bannon began testing slogans like “drain the swamp” and “the deep state” and “build the wall,” and found a surprising number of Americans who responded strongly to them. All they needed was a candidate to parrot them. Cambridge Analytica promised that psychographics could not only target people as voters but also as personalities. “We would know what kind of messaging you’d be susceptible to and where you are going to consume it and how many times we are going to have to touch you with it to change how you think about something,” Wylie told the Guardian. “Web sites will be created. Blogs will be created—whatever we think this target profile will be receptive to. See it, click it, and go down the rabbit hole until they start to think something different.” The goal was to break society. “It is only when you break it can you remodel the pieces into your vision of a new society.” As one former executive of Mercer’s hedge fund told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, last year, “He wants it to all fall down.”

Perhaps the most telling revelation from the recent reporting—aside from the U.K.’s Channel 4 catching Alexander Nix on camera explaining how his company could supply beautiful Ukrainian women to entrap politicians—is that Cambridge Analytica is essentially a shell company created by the British firm Strategic Communications Laboratories. During the 2016 campaign, according to Cadwalladr, C.A. was staffed primarily by non-U.S. citizens, in possible violation of American campaign-finance laws. This included the contractors the firm brought to Austin, Texas, to work with Trump’s digital team there.

“We were really speaking directly to the voters in a number of states,” one former C.A. employee, who worked with a number of non-U.S. citizens or green-card holders, told the Guardian.