How does a kid go from doing surveys for the City of Victoria Youth Council to being in the middle of an international information-warfare outfit straight out of a political thriller?
Victoria’s Chris Wylie is at the heart of one of the biggest news stories in the world today. The New York Times and Britain’s Observer published explosive pieces Saturday in which the 28-year-old blew the whistle on a data-mining company accused of improperly using the information of tens of millions of Facebook users to manipulate voters.
It’s a wild tale that has led to an online debate over whether Wylie should be scorned for creating — as he described it to The Observer — “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindf-ck tool,” or praised for courageously revealing how it had been used.
Bannon, a high-profile backer of Donald Trump, was deeply involved at Cambridge Analytica. The company was formed with a reported $15-million investment from conservative U.S. billionaire Robert Mercer in 2013, and was later tied to the Trump and Brexit campaigns in 2016. Wylie, who left the company in 2014, was quoted Monday as saying Cambridge Analytica “took fake news to the next level” by using personal data to built psychological profiles of people, then bombard them with information crafted to change their idea of reality.
“This is based on an idea called ‘informational dominance,’ which is the idea that if you can capture every channel of information around a person and then inject content around them, you can change their perception of what’s actually happening,” Wylie said on NBC’s Today.
Cambridge Analytica and Facebook both dispute aspects of the stories, but reaction has been quick and harsh. Facebook stock fell by almost seven per cent Monday. Politicians in Britain and the U.S. threatened to haul Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg on the carpet.
Britain’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham — yes, the Victorian who used to hold the same job in B.C. — is seeking a warrant to dive into “unco-operative” Cambridge Analytica’s servers.
Canada’s privacy commissioner has launched an investigation into the Facebook matter, one that B.C.’s acting information and privacy commissioner, Drew McArthur, says he will monitor.
Wylie seems to have had an exceptional mind from a young age. He was an honour roll student at Glenlyon Norfolk School, where he was co-winner of a scholarship that went to the top student in Grade 9. He had come to the school after being bullied in the public system; his physician parents sued the latter, successfully.
“He had a reputation for being brilliant,” said teacher Valerie Chatterton, his debating coach. “He had a great interest in what was ethically fair and ethically right from a public policy point of view.” Wylie also had a keen interest in politics, was the only student Chatterton ever had who knew that her father had been a member of Parliament.
In 2005, the Grade 11 student was on the executive of City of Victoria Youth Council, distributing a survey to gauge the mood of local youth. It posed questions like “How would you rate Victoria as a ‘youth friendly’ place to live?” and “Think of life in Victoria right now: Please rate your willingness/desire to stay and settle your life here.”
“We thought, if we can create a survey, we can at least get a sample of what young people think,” Wylie said in a 2005 Times Colonist interview.
Perhaps that experience planted the seeds of what came next. According to Carole Cadwalladr, who wrote The Observer piece, Wylie was just 17 when he found himself working in the office of the leader of the Canadian opposition (then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff). “At 18 he went to learn all things data from Obama’s national director of targeting, which he then introduced to Canada for the Liberal Party. At 19, he taught himself to code, and in 2010, at age 20, he came to London to study at the London School of Economics,” her story read. By 21, still at university, he was working for Britain’s Liberal Democrats.
Then came Britain’s SCL Group, which uses data analytics to help business and government clients shape opinion, and its spin-off, Cambridge Analytica, where the young Canadian with the fertile brain was let loose. Wylie’s ideas were put into practice when the company obtained the personal data of 50 million Facebook users from a researcher who claimed to be collecting it for academic purposes. Cadwalladr, who found Wylie “clever, funny, bitchy, profound, intellectually ravenous, compelling,” wrote that the Victorian eventually became disillusioned with what was being done with his work. Wylie told The Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And build models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
He was gone before the Trump and Brexit campaigns. Records show the Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica $6 million US. Cambridge Analytica has said it did not work on behalf of the Leave side in the Brexit vote, but the Guardian newspaper reported last year that it was Wylie who was the common thread between that company, the Leave side and AggregateIQ, a small Victoria data-driven, politics-focused marketing firm — an assertion that one of the principals of the local company says is simply not true.
“Chris was not in any way connected to anything to do with Leave,” said Jeff Silvester on Monday. He does know Wylie, but through the days when both were involved with the federal Liberal Party, he said. Silvester worked as executive assistant to Dr. Keith Martin when Martin was member of Parliament for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca. Wylie spent a short stint in Martin’s Ottawa office.
Silvester said AggregateIQ did some work for SCL in 2014 but hasn’t spoken to that company since.
Silvester, 41, is one of two Victoria men who combined backgrounds in business and information technology with an interest in politics when they launched the company in 2013. CEO Zack Massingham, 35, studied and worked at University of Canada West when the business-oriented private institution had a campus in the former Blanshard Elementary School. Prior to AggregateIQ, he cut his political teeth working on Mike de Jong’s B.C. Liberal leadership campaign in 2011.
Much has been made in the British press about the pivotal role played in the Brexit vote by the little company in what the Telegraph newspaper called a “provincial Canadian city.” Campaign-spending documents show the Leave side funnelled £3.5 million (about $6.4 million Cdn) through the company to help win the social media fight. That included almost half the £6.8 million spent by the official Vote Leave group. Silvester said last February that most of that money flowed in one door and out the other to pay for online advertising.
Denham contacted AggregateIQ and McArthur’s office as she began an investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes. McArthur’s office began its own investigation into whether AggregateIQ was complying with the Personal Information Protection Act. Silvester said AggregateIQ is co-operating fully.
The Times Colonist tried to reach Wylie through his British lawyer, but did not get a reply.