His revelations about how the shadowy data firm he worked for harvested up to 50 million Facebook profiles have shaken the world – here we talk to him about how fashion affects our lives, and changes politics
Steve Bannon – former Trump strategist, Breitbart executive, and totem of the right-wing – is obsessed with the idea that if you can control culture, you can control politics. This is pehaps why he was so interested in Chris Wylie: a gay, vegan fashion trend forecaster who helped to build Bannon’s “psychological warfare tool” at shadowy data firm Cambridge Analytica.
In 2014, the then 24-year-old was working on his fashion PhD when he helped launch Cambridge Analytica, later headed up by Bannon. “Fashion permeates our lives, and our lives permeate fashion,” Wylie’s research proposal reads. Now 28, he’s blown the whistle on the company for harvesting millions of voters’ personal information from up to 50 million Facebook profiles in the run up to the U.S election in 2016. In the story first broken by the Observer, Wylie outlined his part in building an algorithm that scraped data and informed tailored political advertisements. This data fuelled Bannon’s “culture war”, a war that may have changed the world – and not for good.
Wylie meets me on an overcast London afternoon in the Dazed office. John Waters may have once said “hackers don’t have fashion”, but Wylie’s personal style has been an emerging talking point – he’s already a meme, while national newspapers have devoted column inches to his look. He arrives wearing camo and a pair of Puma x Han Kjobenhavn trainers. The day before our meeting, he gave evidence for a mammoth, live-broadcasted four hours in the House of Commons – the first time he wore a suit in about a year. His hair is bright pink, but it’s been grey and purple before. He counts Rick Owens, Craig Green, and Dries Van Noten as some of his favourite designers.
Currently, Wylie’s existence is punctuated with calls from MPs, television appearances, and granola bar breaks, and he agrees that there’s a bit of respite from the media circuit as we talk about the fascinating, albeit unsettling, cyclical relationship between politics, fashion, and wider culture, that’s underpinned this recent scandal.
I meet with Wylie to discuss the aesthetics that inform both the political beast and fashion world, the weaponising of queerness by right wing figures that “love the gays”, and what’s next after whistleblowing.
Your background across fashion, politics, and tech is quite unique. How did this inform your work at Cambridge Analytica?
Chris Wylie: I’ve worked in politics, I work on building algorithms and data science, and then also my ever-ongoing unfinished PhD is (on) machine learning for fashion – they’re all interrelated. Steve Bannon really crystallised into my head the ‘Breitbart Doctrine’ – politics flows from culture, so if you want to change politics you first have to change culture.
Another proxy for culture is fashion, right? Politics and fashion are both about identity. They are both highly cyclical. There are lots of different aesthetics in both politics and fashion. And more broadly, fashion and politics are both products of our culture. You can think about political movements like a fashion trend – lots of people suddenly adopting a new idea or concept. And since how we engage fashion and politics are both influenced by who we are, our personality, for me they are just displays of ourselves in different contexts. What is it that we are yelling about in the public square, and on the flip side, what is it we’re adorning our bodies with?
Your PhD research at LCF was in forecasting personality and aesthetic preferences in fashion consumers. Can you explain it simply?
Chris Wylie: My research in fashion was on two things. First, what causes different people to like different aesthetics. And second, if we can understand that, (whether) we can use data to predict what someone will like to wear. I looked at personality traits because we often use the same kinds of words to describe our style as we would our personality, and I wanted to unpack that and see if there was anything to that.
What I found was that there are really interesting relationships to personality traits and fashion preferences. Some of them were really intuitive. Extroverts like bolder colours and brands like Paul Smith or Christopher Kane. People who were lower in openness tended to like more conventional styles and brands like Ralph Lauren, Gap, John Lewis, and so on. So then the question was, well, if we know what the profile for certain types of style, can we use data to predict what a person would like to wear just from consumer or social data? And the answer was yes.
Where do you see politics and fashion intersecting in the world?
Chris Wylie: You end up getting the same sorts of relationships emerging, with certain personality traits being more indicative of certain types of brands of clothing or styles of adornment, and indeed with political ideology. So there’s Levi’s in the United States: Levi’s will use words like ‘reliance’, ‘achievement’ - the iconic cowboy! These words often related to more conservative values with a narrative about being independent, striving for success. Donald Trump is less of an ideology and more of an aesthetic – he’s the Uggs of the presidency, the Crocs, a very ugly style and ideology that just happens to be on-trend.
What skills can you use across these sectors?
Chris Wylie: A lot of people in politics will spend too much time focussing on their own media bubble. They won’t step out and see the cultural shifts that are happening in the population. People have commented quite a bit on how I don't physically look like a political staffer – I have pink hair and a nose ring, I'm wearing camo. But I don't pay attention to the talking heads in the media bubble, I pay attention to what we are engaging with culturally, as you can learn a lot more about politics by watching how people dress or what they’re listening to. People talk about how fashion reacted to politics, I don't actually agree with that, I think that fashion, music, and other visual media are very influential to politics and not the other way around.
“People talk about how fashion reacted to politics, I don't actually agree with that, I think that fashion, music, and other visual media are very influential to politics and not the other way around” – Chris Wylie
What did Steve Bannon make of this?
Chris Wylie: Steve Bannon is very open to ideas and likes engaging in a ‘higher level’ of academic discourse. You can have a conversation with him about postmodernist theory or intersectional feminism. He will then try to re-appropriate it in a way that achieves his own aims. If you look at the rise of the alt-right, they were picking at bits of people’s identities where they felt disempowered, where otherwise they were in positions of power and privilege – so young white men in the United States who they give this narrative of being ‘closeted’ and victimised. It’s not in any way justified, but it’s how people genuinely think. Bannon found it interesting that there were this group of white straight men that felt forced ‘into the closet’ by feminism, and he built on that resentment.
Bannon is so interested in gay culture – he sees (gay men) as the perfect people of the alt-right. That’s why he loved Milo (Yiannopoulos). He's a caricature of a gay person, like gay drag, that an ultra conservative straight man would see. It’s in the same way that Donald Trump is like (a) drag queen of a president, a grotesque parody. They obviously missed the mark in truly understanding diversity, but they have their token minority. But the idea of changing culture means (Bannon) had to find the early adopters, and he saw gay people as these cultural mavens, whether it’s true or not. He wanted to pinkwash the alt-right with gay speakers to make it feel less extreme. There was the Pulse (nightclub, Orlando) shooting, which was a perfect opportunity to push Islamophobic messaging. Conservative people could come to the defence of gay people, not because they respect them or want to protect them, but to repurpose a narrative.
While facilitating a government that’s rolling back LGBT policy.
Chris Wylie: And undermining everyone's rights.
How did this sit with you as a liberal gay man? Were you uncomfortable?
Chris Wylie: It was bizarre. You have to understand that when I started it was at SCL Group, a British military contractor, before Cambridge Analytica existed. The work I was doing was on counter-extremism in conflict zones, looking at interventions in health behaviours in Africa or rituals or practices that, for example, spread HIV. I think in those situations, it’s appropriate use of aggressive information operations. When I first joined the company, some of the projects that I was working on weren't necessarily as dark and Orwellian as what Cambridge Analytica turned out to be. When we were introduced to Steve Bannon, you have to also remember that this was 2013 – he wasn’t ‘the’ Steve Bannon. I just knew Breitbart as a blog for angry white guys, whatever, when you're working in information operations you meet a lot of weird people.
Over time, as work became about catalysing the alt-right, it did become more unsettling. I started to meet some, frankly, bat shit crazy people, filled with ideas reminiscent of 1930s Germany. My fatal flaw, if we’re going to talk about my own character, is that I’m a really curious person. I had a huge amount of money to do whatever kinds of research was interesting. I didn't do a good job of making sure that we did that research in an ethical framework. It was attracting people that couldn't care less about the ethics of what we were doing. That encouraged the company’s behaviour and instilled a grossly unethical culture.
I did grow more and more uncomfortable with how things were going, and that’s in part why I left. I wouldn't say it's the only reason I left. Personally, I had a very toxic relationship with Alexander Nix and Steve Bannon. Bannon's really interesting to talk to, but then as soon as he feels like he owns you then he'll treat you in that way, and the same with Nix. What started out as a very exciting project where there was freedom to explore, became highly constrained. You had to do this very pointed research on catalysing what in my view are extremist ideas, whether or not those ideas have any basis in truth.
“I didn't do a good job of making sure that we did that research in an ethical framework. It was attracting people that couldn't care less about the ethics of what we were doing” – Chris Wylie
Do you think this is the moment that caring about data and where it goes will be more of a priority for everyday people?
Chris Wylie: You really have to look at the context of what your information is being used for. It can be used to predict all kinds of things about you. You can create an algorithm that predicts sexual orientation, even if somebody hasn't actually disclosed it, based on a whole combination of behavioural and consumption patterns. Your entire life is in one place, whether or not you actually intended to reveal that information. Secondly, look at the power Facebook and other platforms have on our day-to-day lives. I was very publicly banned from Facebook, and now I can't use Instagram. It’s not all, “boohoo, I can’t look at thirst traps and food pics”, it’s that there’s also lots of apps that require Facebook authentication. So I can’t use Tinder, even though Tinder might not have any beef with me. There are large swaths of the internet or apps that I can't use – so much requires Facebook. It’s fine until there’s a problem.
What about the #DeleteFacebook movement?
Chris Wylie: I actually think it’s problematic. It almost creates this false dichotomy – you either give away all rights to your information or you just don't use anything at all. And it’s not just Facebook, Google collects tonnes of data on you. We should be demanding to fix Facebook. It frustrates me that every tech company does this. Everything that you look at online, they know about.
Now that you’ve owned up, do you feel a responsibility to keep working to fix this? What’s next after whistleblowing?
Chris Wylie: I need to finish putting right my mistakes in setting up Cambridge Analytica. So I am working with British authorities, investigators, and MPs at Parliament to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I want them to really understand we cannot treat data as some technical matter, it’s a social issue. We have to have a regulatory framework that puts people and safety first. After that, I’m not sure. I’d love to move on and go back to fashion – particularly in trend forecasting and tech. But I have no idea where I’ll end up.