Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America
By Christopher Wylie
Published by Random House, Oct 08, 2019
For the first time, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower tells the inside story of the data mining and psychological manipulation behind the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum, connecting Facebook, WikiLeaks, Russian intelligence, and international hackers.
Mindf*ck goes deep inside Cambridge Analytica’s “American operations,” which were driven by Steve Bannon’s vision to remake America and fueled by mysterious billionaire Robert Mercer’s money, as it weaponized and wielded the massive store of data it had harvested on individuals—in excess of 87 million—to disunite the United States and set Americans against each other. Bannon had long sensed that deep within America’s soul lurked an explosive tension. Cambridge Analytica had the data to prove it, and in 2016 Bannon had a presidential campaign to use as his proving ground.
Christopher Wylie might have seemed an unlikely figure to be at the center of such an operation. Canadian and liberal in his politics, he was only twenty-four when he got a job with a London firm that worked with the U.K. Ministry of Defense and was charged putatively with helping to build a team of data scientists to create new tools to identify and combat radical extremism online. In short order, those same military tools were turned to political purposes, and Cambridge Analytica was born.
Wylie’s decision to become a whistleblower prompted the largest data-crime investigation in history. His story is both exposé and dire warning about a sudden problem born of very new and powerful capabilities. It has not only laid bare the profound vulnerabilities—and profound carelessness—in the enormous companies that drive the attention economy, it has also exposed the profound vulnerabilities of democracy itself. What happened in 2016 was just a trial run. Ruthless actors are coming for your data, and they want to control what you think.
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About the Author:
Christopher Wylie has been called “the millennials’ first great whistleblower” and “a pink-haired, nose-ringed oracle sent from the future.” He is known for his role in setting up–and then taking down–Cambridge Analytica. His revelations exposing the rampant misuse of data rocked Silicon Valley and led to some of the largest multinational investigations into data crime ever. Born in British Columbia, Canada, he studied law at the London School of Economics before moving into cultural data science and fashion trend forecasting. He lives in London, England.
Interviews & Reviews
NPR – Author Interviews
“Whistleblower Explains How Cambridge Analytica Helped Fuel U.S. ‘Insurgency'”
Interview by Terry Gross
October 8, 2019
Heard on 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 its, 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?”
Read Interview Highlights and Listen to the Interview »
NPR – Book Reviews
“In New Book, Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower Stops Short Of A Full Mea Culpa“
Interview by Andrew Limbong
October 8, 2019
Ever get mad online? Think about publicly dunking on someone’s take on politics or race or some ongoing cultural conversation?
Turns out that while it may not be personally productive in the end, it could potentially lead to much bigger problems: a gap in democracy, say, thanks to hackers who might be watching, recording and taking notes — making it their mission to build millions of personality profiles.
Enter, Christopher Wylie.
The short version of Wylie’s story goes like this: He’s the whistle-blowing data scientist who worked for Cambridge Analytica — where he looked at all your Facebook posts and likes and rants, and distilled that information so people could figure out how to talk to you such that you’d be convinced to act in a certain way.
The longer version of Wylie’s story is told in his new memoir, Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America. In it, he shows himself as a society outsider — queer, differently abled, not particularly interested in fitting in at school growing up. And yet, he’s fascinated by identity — not just in the way we consider “identity,” when talking about, say, voter demographics — but the enormity of your identity: where you shop for groceries; how you talk about your kids; what you decide to wear. Collecting these little bits of information and truly understanding someone through that lens is what drives him and his eventual work for Cambridge Analytica.
Related Articles, Films and Videos
The Great Hack – A Netflix Original Documentary
Released at Sundance Film Festival January 26, 2019. Worldwide release by Netflix July 24, 2019
“Explore how a data company named Cambridge Analytica came to symbolize the dark side of social media in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
They took your data.
Then they took control.
Data has surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable asset. It’s being weaponized to wage cultural and political warfare. People everywhere are in a battle for control of our most intimate personal details. From award-winning filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, THE GREAT HACK uncovers the dark world of data exploitation with astounding access to the personal journeys of key players on different sides of the explosive Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal.
Academy-Award nominees Amer and Noujaim (The Square, Control Room, Startup.com) continue their tradition of exploring the seismic ripples of social media with this riveting, complex film. THE GREAT HACK forces us to question the origin of the information we consume daily. What do we give up when we tap that phone or keyboard and share ourselves in the digital age?
The Great Hack: Official Trailer – Website – Facebook
Channel 4 News
Cambridge Analytica Uncovered: Secret filming reveals election tricks
Mar 19, 2018
“An undercover investigation by Channel 4 News reveals how Cambridge Analytica secretly campaigns in elections across the world. Bosses were filmed talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.”
Channel 4 News
Cambridge Analytica: Undercover Secrets of Trump’s Data Firm
Mar 20, 2018
“An investigation by Channel 4 News has revealed how Cambridge Analytica claims it ran ‘all’ of President Trump’s digital campaign – and may have broken election law. Executives were secretly filmed saying they leave ‘no paper trail’.”
The New York Times
“How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions“
By Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Confessore and Carole Cadwalladr
March 17, 2018
LONDON — As the upstart voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica prepared to wade into the 2014 American midterm elections, it had a problem.
The firm had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.
So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.
An examination by The New York Times and The Observer of London reveals how Cambridge Analytica’s drive to bring to market a potentially powerful new weapon put the firm — and wealthy conservative investors seeking to reshape politics — under scrutiny from investigators and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge and worked there until late 2014, said of its leaders: “Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair.”
“They want to fight a culture war in America,” he added. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”
Details of Cambridge’s acquisition and use of Facebook data have surfaced in several accounts since the business began working on the 2016 campaign, setting off a furious debate about the merits of the firm’s so-called psychographic modeling techniques.
But the full scale of the data leak involving Americans has not been previously disclosed — and Facebook, until now, has not acknowledged it. Interviews with a half-dozen former employees and contractors, and a review of the firm’s emails and documents, have revealed that Cambridge not only relied on the private Facebook data but still possesses most or all of the trove.
“Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach“
by Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison
Sat 17 Mar 2018
The data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.
A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.
Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
Documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by a Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the company had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale. However, at the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.
“The Cambridge Analytica Files: A year-long investigation into Facebook, data, and influencing elections in the digital age.”
Featuring a variety of articles on the subject:
- The Brexit whistleblower ‘Did Vote Leave use me? Was I naive?’
- Revealed: the ties that bound Vote Leave’s data firm to controversial Cambridge Analytica
- Facebook’s week of shame The Cambridge Analytica fallout
- The Cambridge Analytica fallout
- Politicians can’t control the digital giants with rules drawn up for the analogue era
- Facebook told me it would act swiftly on data misuse – in 2015
- Raid Investigators spend seven hours at Cambridge Analytica HQ
- Speaking out Former Cambridge Analytica exec says she wants lies to stop
- The Cambridge Analytica saga is a scandal of Facebook’s own making
View all related stories from The Guardian in chronological order, newest first.