Christopher Wylie

Books: Technology | Politics

Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America (2019)

Mindfuck Cambridge AnalyticaHow did a gay, liberal, Canadian end up one of the architects of Cambridge Analytica–the company behind interference in multiple elections in 2016?

It's a long story, and involves everything from greed to psychological warfare to a desired to see how just far the technology could be pushed.

After Western militaries were grappling with how to tackle radicalization online, the firm wanted me to help build a team of data scientists to create new tools to identify and combat extremism online. It was fascinating, challenging, and exciting all at once.

The whole story was far worse–and far more terrifying–than I could have imagined.

Computer models are not magical incantations that can predict the world— they can make predictions only when there is an ample amount of data to base a prediction upon. If there was no data in the system, then there could be no models or targeting.

When I talk about Facebook, I'm frequently asked why people should bother to care abouthow much data Facebook–and other countries–collect about them. This book is a master class in exactly what can go wrong.

One of the things that Christopher–and later CA did–was to attempt to recognize that they didn't know what they should have about the people they were trying to reach.

I went to speak to people because I knew I was already biased and colored by my own experiences. I did not know what life was really like for an older British man living on a council estate in Newcastle, or a single mother of three in Bletchley. I wanted them to tell me what they wanted me to know about their lives, in their own words and on their own terms. So I got local constituency parties and polling firms to help randomly select people to speak to.

It starts a bit with Christopher's past and how he ended up where he did, but quickly we learn about the various things that make CA so very good at manipulating people.

(T)he five-factor model of personality, which represents personality as a set of ratings on five scales: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. With time and testing, the measurement of these five traits has proven to be a powerful predictor of many aspects of people's lives.

The background of the company that eventually spun off CA, possibly explains everything about what happened.

the SCL Group. Originally known as Strategic Communication Laboratories, the firm was led by Nigel Oakes and had existed in various forms since 1990. … The firm worked primarily for militaries, conducting psychological and influence operations around the world, such as jihadist recruitment mitigation in Pakistan, combatant disarmament and demobilization in South Sudan, and counternarcotics and counter– human trafficking operations in Latin America.

Think about that. The parent company of CA specialized in psyop. Is it any wonder they were so good at manipulating voters?

One thing I want to note about this book is that he tried very hard to not get bogged down in technical details and tries and explain the technology in simple English terms.

I read this because I wanted to understand more about what went wrong, and if there is anything we can do to protect ourselves in the future.

Unfortunately, my conclusion is that education–teaching people to learn critically at what they see online–is the only way we'll be able to combat the Pandora's box that CA and Steve Bannon opened.

Publisher: Random House

Rating: 8/10