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Whistleblower: Steve Bannon wanted to suppress voters

Whistleblower: Steve Bannon wanted to suppress voters


Former Cambridge Analytica research director Christopher Wylie testifies before Senate judiciary committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday.
© Reuters Former Cambridge Analytica research director Christopher Wylie testifies before Senate judiciary committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday.

Former White House senior strategist Steve Bannon and billionaire Robert Mercer sought Cambridge Analytica’s political ad targeting technology as part of an “arsenal of weapons to fight a culture war”, according to whistleblower Christopher Wylie.

“Steve Bannon believes that politics is downstream from culture. They were seeking out companies to build an arsenal of weapons to fight a culture war,” Wylie said, when asked why investors thought that the political consultancy’s efforts would work, targeting people based on psychological profiles and assessment of their personality.

The pink-haired 28-year-old was appearing to give evidence on Capitol Hill for the first time since his decision to blow the whistle on the use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica set off shock waves that are still reverberating through Westminster, Washington DC and Silicon Valley.

During his testimony to the Senate judiciary committee, Wylie also confirmed that he believed one of the goals of Steve Bannon while he was vice-president of Cambridge Analytica was voter suppression.

“One of the things that provoked me to leave was discussions about ‘voter disengagement’ and the idea of targeting African Americans,” he said, noting he had seen documents referencing this.

Facebook posts were targeted at some black voters reminding them of Hillary Clinton’s 1990s description of black youths as “super predators”, in the hope it would deter them from voting.

Wylie also explained why Cambridge Analytica was testing messages like “drain the swamp” and “build the wall” in 2014, before the Trump campaign existed.

Related: Facebook suspends 200 apps as part of investigation into data misuse

“The company learned that there were segments of the populace that were responsive to these messages that weren’t necessarily reflected in other polling,” he said.

The whistleblower previously revealed to the Observer that the political consultancy used the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook profiles to help Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit leave campaign.

The revelation triggered a public debate over privacy and micro-targeted advertising, and led Facebook to overhaul the way it works with third-party researchers and app developers.

Wylie was joined by two academics, Mark Jamison from the University of Florida, who focuses on how technology impacts the economy, and political scientist Eitan Hersh from Tufts University.

Hersh did not believe that Cambridge Analytica’s approach was successful at persuading people to vote differently during the 2016 presidential election. “It’s hard to move people. It’s easier to mobilise or demobilise than it is to persuade people,” he said.

Wylie agreed, but noted that Cambridge Analytica had a treasure trove of “dense and valuable” data compared to traditional marketing approaches that allowed it to create a “precise algorithm”.

Many of the senators’ questions focused on Facebook and other internet companies’ business models and whether individuals were aware of the degree of privacy invasion they are subjected to.

California senator Kamala Harris said that Facebook’s business model is not always working “in the best interest of the American people”.

“Users have little to no idea of just how Facebook tracks their information,” she said. “In the real world, this would be like someone following you as you walk down the street, watching who you are, where you’re going, and who you’re with. For most people, this would be an invasion of privacy and most people would call the cops.”

Wylie said that Facebook has created a platform that encourages the abuse of people’s privacy. “It’s true you can’t buy Facebook’s data but they make it readily available to its customers via its applications,” he said.

He added that the way Facebook profiles are designed makes it “conducive to scraping data” and that this is a setup that “catalyses its misuse”.

Throughout the committee hearing, several republican senators including Ted Cruz and Thom Tillis pointed to the Obama campaign’s use of Facebook data, to highlight the fact that such practices are bipartisan.

However, people who downloaded the Obama campaign app were aware they were using a political app. By contrast, the data obtained by Cambridge Analytica was obtained via a personality quiz application whose users had no idea their data would be used by a political campaign.

Canadian Wylie, a data analytics expert, joined Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL) in 2013. Shortly after, he came up with an idea that led to the creation of an offshoot called Cambridge Analytica, which offered predictive analytics, behavioural sciences and data-driven advertising technology to political campaigns and businesses.

Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained the personal information of millions of Facebook users to build profiles of US voters in order to target them with personalised political advertisements, via a related UK-based entity called SCL Elections.

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” said Wylie in March. “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.”

Wylie has previously told MPs at a British select committee that the EU referendum was won through fraud after Vote Leave allegedly used a network of companies to get round election spending laws. He said he thought there “could have been a different outcome had there not been, in my view, cheating”. He also met privately with House Democrats in April, but Wednesday’s hearing was his first public appearance before US lawmakers.

Related: Cambridge Analytica kept Facebook data models through US election

Wylie worked with Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan to obtain data from Facebook users and their friends including likes, activities, check-ins, location, photos, religion, politics and relationship details.

A year later the Guardian published an article revealing that Cambridge Analytica was using the Facebook data to target voters for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. At the time Facebook removed the personality quiz app, and demanded certifications from Kogan, Wylie and Cambridge Analytica that the information had been destroyed.

Cambridge Analytica closed down in early May, denying any wrongdoing, but saying that the negative media coverage left it with no clients and mounting legal fees.

This week the New York Times reported that the department of justice and FBI have begun investigating the now-defunct political consultancy.

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