As the information on Cambridge Analytica’s theft of information from Facebook users was coming to light, so was information on their communications with a state-owned Russian oil firm.
When the Russia question came up during a hearing at the British Parliament last month, Alexander Nix did not hesitate.
“We’ve never worked in Russia,” said Mr. Nix, head of a data consulting firm that advised the Trump campaign on targeting voters.
Except that was a blatant lie. Cambridge met with Russian state oil company Lukoil for at least two years. And Lukoil had some very specific concerns.
Lukoil was interested in how data was used to target American voters, according to two former company insiders who said there were at least three meetings with Lukoil executives in London and Turkey.
Steve Bannon, was vice president of Cambridge Analytica at the time of the Lukoil discussions, had a very clear idea of how they could use the firm to win elections, not by pushing a candidate, but by shaping American culture.
In 2014, Steve Bannon – then executive chairman of the “alt-right” news network Breitbart – was [CA Developer and Analyst Christopher] Wylie’s boss. And Robert Mercer, the secretive US hedge-fund billionaire and Republican donor, was Cambridge Analytica’s investor. And the idea they bought into was to bring big data and social media to an established military methodology – “information operations” – then turn it on the US electorate.
Steve Bannon has made no effort to disguise his intention to bring down liberal democracy and replace it with white nationalism. He’s currently on a European tour, where he’s cheered on fascism at every stop and praised Mussolini’s fashion sense—all those fetching black shirts and sharp uniforms.
Cambridge Analytica was the tool that Bannon and the Mercers built to enable their fascist utopia. Their instrument for taking everything that marketing firms has learned about selling shoes or getting people to “click here,” and putting it to use as a landmine for democracy.
We are still only just starting to understand the maelstrom of forces that came together to create the conditions for what Mueller confirmed last month was “information warfare”. But Wylie offers a unique, worm’s-eye view of the events of 2016. Of how Facebook was hijacked, repurposed to become a theatre of war: how it became a launchpad for what seems to be an extraordinary attack on the US’s democratic process.
All of this may seem like a torrent of information, and it is. But the pieces behind “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool” are coming together, and there are—at least—two big stories.
- Christopher Wylie was approached by Steve Bannon to build a “psychological warfare mindfuck tool” that would use big data and social media, not to directly market a candidate, but to drive open cracks in American culture. The intention was to ratchet up racial, gender and social concerns, increasing unrest and convincing Americans—especially white Americans—that they were being left behind in their own country.
- To drive their hate machine, Cambridge Analytica scraped information from over 50 million Americans on Facebook.
- In 2014 and 2015, as they were building their tool, Cambridge had multiple contacts with Russian officials who were, not so coincidentally, seeking exactly the same kind of information and tool that Cambridge was building.
- As Cambridge moved into supporting Trump, they used the information they had derived from Facebook data, and Facebook’s own targeted ad tools, to put information in front of voters in critical areas.
- The ads, stories and links that Cambridge provided were often not specifically “vote for Trump” pieces, so much as they were continuations of their cultural-change effort. They were intended to create a narrative that working class white voters were being ignored by the Democratic Party, who were wholly owned by urban blacks and immigrants, and that blacks and immigrants were benefiting while whites were “forgotten.” Added onto this was a layer of stories about emasculating feminists.
If some of this sounds like the actions of the Russian “hackers” in 2016 election, it’s because their approaches and actions were almost identical. Both start in 2014 working to cause disruption and exacerbate social unrest. Both turn to supporting Trump once he becomes a candidate. Both use Facebook data and tools to target their actions. And both contact WikiLeaks as the go-to site for laundering the release of data.
This could be astounding coincidence—but a simpler explanation is that Cambridge Analytica, Steve Bannon and others in Trump’s digital effort coordinated their entire approach with Moscow.
The second story here is Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s giant social media firm was aware of Cambridge’s actions at least two years ago. But rather than let users know that their information had been lifted, they handled it quietly, behind the scenes. Facebook is now beating its chest, claiming that it really thought CA had destroyed the data, and that the skimming of 50 million profiles didn’t represent a reportable “breach.”
But this story comes on top of stories that show Facebook was not only eager to market their tools to Trump—at a huge discount—but was openly selling political ads during a US election to Russian companies that were so open about their intentions that they were paying Facebook in rubles.
In testimony to a Senate judiciary subcommittee, a senior Facebook lawyer admitted that Russian operatives had used the social network to spread “deeply disturbing” content designed to aggravate America’s racial and ideological divides.
Cambridge Analytica’s story is one of an amazing willingness to inflict damage on the public by people who see bringing down the government as a goal and information tools as a weapon.
“[Bannon] got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. ...
But Wylie wasn’t just talking about fashion. He had recently been exposed to a new discipline: “information operations”, which ranks alongside land, sea, air and space in the US military’s doctrine of the “five-dimensional battle space”.
Facebook’s story appears to be one of such overarching greed that they would sell anything to anyone for dollars—or for rubles—and then feign innocence.
An investigation about Cambridge Analytica is slated to run in the UK this week, but the company is currently fighting to keep this information from becoming public.