Hindsight is the only exact science, as these two books confirm. Chris Wylie and Brittany Kaiser are two youngish, idealistic, clever people who got involved in some very dark stuff orchestrated by unscrupulous operators. Eventually, both realised they had become accomplices to activities that were at best unethical and at worst illegal, realisations that prompted them to break loose and blow the whistle. And both their memoirs, though very different in style and tone, are attempts to atone for the societal damage their respective collaborations with the devil have done.
But there the similarities end. Wylie is an unorthodox, gay Canadian who is passionately interested in fashion; Kaiser is a straight, liberal American interested in human rights and other humanitarian causes. And yet both were ensnared in the same net: a sinister dirty-tricks, election-manipulating “consultancy” outfit called SCL run by a sociopathic old Etonian, Alexander Nix, which eventually spawned another company called Cambridge Analytica (CA), which was the vehicle that did most of the democratic damage.
CA succeeded by finding a way of leveraging people’s personal data – as revealed by its activities on Facebook in conjunction with data purchased from credit agencies, data brokers and other sources – to offer psychological profiles in ways that would reveal the kinds of political messages to which they might be receptive. “Facebook,” as Wylie puts it early in his account, “is no longer just a company. It’s a doorway into the minds of the American people and Mark Zuckerberg left that door open for Cambridge Analytica, the Russians and who knows how many others.”
The idea that Facebook “likes” could provide a window into people’s souls did not originate with CA, but in research conducted at Cambridge University (much to that institution’s subsequent chagrin). As a talented geek who is fascinated by human behaviour, however, Wylie immediately understood the significance of the research and had the programming skills to build scalable tools for deducing from the data psychological traits of voters that could then be exploited for political purposes.
As a result, his book is – inadvertently – an invaluable primer on psychological warfare and behaviour modification. It’s clear that Wylie played a key role in developing the technology that enabled political operators to effectively target messages to individual voters. And although nobody knows what – ultimately – makes an individual cast a vote one way or another, what now seems incontrovertible is that social media can suppress voter turnout by finding people who are doubtful or reluctant about voting and persuading them to stay home.
Ever since Brexit and the election of Trump there has been consistent scepticism about whether social media played a significant role in the political upheavals of 2016. That scepticism began to be dented when Carole Cadwalladr and the Observer revealed what Cambridge Analytica had been up to with Facebook data. But paradoxically, it was also boosted by Channel 4’s undercover filming that accompanied Cadwalladr’s scoop. The film showed the SCL boss, Nix, in his pomp, where he came over as a nattily suited trust-funder constantly exaggerating the capacity of his firm to achieve its clients’ objectives. How could such an obvious chancer bring about political earthquakes?
The answer is that he couldn’t, but the tech-heads who worked for the firm could – and did. Given that Wylie was at the heart of this work, and that he displayed real sociological understanding of what the data was revealing, his account provides a useful, crystal-clear exposition of the power of psychographic profiling when it’s done right. And it suggests that electoral campaigning has now moved on to a different level.
Oddly enough, Wylie first intuited this when, before joining SCL, he did a study for – of all people – the Lib Dems. Having spent a few weeks studying how the party went about electioneering, in late 2011, he explained to Nick Clegg and his team that “the data showed that Lib Dem voters were ideological, they were stubborn and they hated compromise. But the party has become the antithesis of these attributes when it joined a coalition government with the Tories. The party was composed of uncompromising supporters and yet it was operating in a government birthed out of compromising its principles. This type of compromise was a betrayal of Lib Dem voters’ ideals and it was bound to drive people out of the party.” He was never invited back.
Brittany Kaiser was a different kind of naif – a well-educated, middle-class, well-meaning admirer of Obama who was interested in politics, and who desperately needed a job because her parents back in the US had lost their savings and were, basically, almost dependent on her. So, by a series of accidents she was introduced to Nix, who, to her surprise, hired her and taught her how to make PowerPoint presentations to pitch for clients.
She turned out to be good at it and her book is a whirlwind account of three frenetic years during which SCL (and CA) appeared to thrive. She found herself seduced by the glamour (tea with Rebekah Mercer, meetings with prime ministers and billionaires, spats with Kellyanne Conway), enjoying being able to funnel money to her parents, alternately bullied and indulged by Nix, perpetually exhausted, hooked on the adrenaline but also needing the money.
In the end, though, it got to her. At 2:30am on the night of Trump’s inauguration ball, dead drunk, dancing with Mercer she suddenly has an epiphany. “Bob and Bekah Mercer,” she thought, “now represented a new kind of force in American politics: wealthy donors with the money and the wherewithal to use their dollars in measurable, provable ways to make sure their expenditures produces some kind of return on investment.”
The “return” was Brexit and Trump. And she was part of it. So her book is some kind of penance for that.
• Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World by Christopher Wylie is published by Profile (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
• Targeted: My Inside Story of Cambridge Analytica and How Trump, Brexit and Facebook Broke Democracy by Brittany Kaiser is published by HarperCollins (£16.99)
Source: The Guardian