MINDF*CK is whistleblower Chris Wylie’s new book about his time spent at Cambridge Analytica – read an extract from a chapter called “We Fight Terror In Prada”
As I pondered what DARPA and its British equivalent, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), were trying to develop with their new social network and digital research programs, my mind wandered to an unexpected but not unfamiliar place for me: fashion. The two fields are not as disparate as it might seem. When a society jerks into extremism, so does its fashion. Think about Maoists, Nazis, Klansmen and jihadists – what do they all have in common? A look. Extremism starts with how people look and how society feels. Sometimes it creates literal uniforms: olive tunics and caps with red stars, red armbands, white pointed hoods, polo shirts and tiki torches, MAGA hats. These uniforms, in turn, are incorporated into the wearer’s identity, transforming their thinking from This is what I believe into This is who I am. Extremist movements latch on to aesthetics because so much of extremism is about changing the aesthetics of society. Oftentimes much of what is promised is not about any tangible policies, but rather a new look and feel for a place or culture.
When I was sixteen, I dyed my hair one day to a mulberry shade of purple. There was no particular reason for choosing the colour aside from the fact it was eye-catching and I liked it. It also landed me in the principal’s office, for violating the school dress code. Far from being upset or intimidated, I was totally at ease. Finally, I was talking to the principal about something other than ‘disability accommodations’. I was told that I needed to change my hair back to a ‘normal’ colour. I refused. The principal was not happy, and the tension over my hair persisted until I left school. When I was still using a wheelchair, I spent a lot of time thinking about fit – fitting through doors, fitting in with my peers, finding clothes that fit. Computers were one passion, but fashion became another, for more than one reason. It was partly about feeling included. But it was also about being seen. As I sat at waist level, noticing the buttons, the cuts, the creases, the bulges and the folds in the clothes of classmates, I felt invisible to them. With purple hair, I was seen. And then, when the principal asked that I go back to ‘normal’ hair, he was ordering me to become invisible again. That was when I understood how powerful – and revealing – a look can be.
As I worked with the five-factor model of personality for the Lib Dems, I started to think more deeply about personality as a construct. Politics and fashion were built on the same foundation, I realised, in that they were both based on nuanced constructs of how people see themselves in relation to others. Fashion is an ideal window into personality, as choosing what to wear (or not) is a decision we all make on a daily basis. People in all cultures make choices about how to adorn their bodies, from the mundane to the extravagant. We all care about what we wear – even the straight old man from Minnesota who never wears anything but a grey T-shirt and jeans. He doesn’t think he cares about how his clothes look, until you offer him a kimono or a dashiki.
I distinctly remember the final meeting I had with my university tutor at LSE, when he asked what I planned to do next. No doubt he expected to hear that I was continuing in politics or applying to a fancy corporate law firm. Instead I told him I was going to fashion school. Silence. Eyebrows raised and clearly disappointed, he unconsciously shook his head. Fashion? As in clothes? You really want to study clothes? But to me, fashion and politics are both, at their core, about cycles of culture and identity. To my mind, they’re essentially two manifestations of the same phenomenon – a conviction that would become central to what we created at Cambridge Analytica.
“Fashion and politics are both, at their core, about cycles of culture and identity” – Christopher Wylie
Fashion has always played a role in my life, and it really was the thing that let me become more comfortable with myself. When I left school and relocated to Montréal, I was moving more and more outside of a wheelchair, but that sense of not being attractive or desirable stayed with me. Wandering around one weekend, I found myself in a vintage book shop and discovered a frayed nine-year-old issue of Dazed & Confused in a stack of old magazines. It was a 1998 issue, with the cover line FASHION ABLE? and showing a model with two prosthetic legs. It was guest-edited by Alexander McQueen, and inside were brilliant pictures of bodies that looked different but beautiful. After looking through that issue, I started experimenting with clothes and going out more. Montréal is the sort of place that will change you if you let it. I found myself drawn to the drag bars and admiring a form of dress that can be glam and sumptuous while mocking and upending conventional notions of beauty, bodies and gender. Drag inverted my thinking. It showed me how to not just defy these social norms, but to laugh at them and simply be who you want to be on your own terms.
In my early years in London, many of my friends were fashion students at Central Saint Martins, which is one of the constituent colleges of the University of the Arts London. I started as a student at UAL and ended up working under the supervision of Carolyn Mair, who had a background in cognitive psychology and machine learning. Dr Mair wasn’t a typical fashion professor, but the match made sense, as I wasn’t a typical fashion student. After I explained to her that I wanted to start researching fashion ‘models’ of another kind – neural networks, computer vision and autoencoders – she convinced the university’s postgraduate research committee to allow me to commence a PhD in machine learning rather than in design. It was around this time that I also began my new job at SCL Group, so my days fluctuated between fashion models and cyberwarfare. I was keen to dive into my academic research on cultural trends, so I told Nix that I did not want to work for SCL full-time, and that if SCL wanted me, they would have to accept that I would be continuing my PhD in parallel to their projects. Nix agreed to this arrangement and SCL eventually agreed to cover my tuition fees, which felt like a godsend for me, since as an international student I had to pay the highest rate of tuition.
“My days fluctuated between fashion models and cyberwarfare” – Christopher Wylie
These two domains serve each other well, as understanding culture can equip you to unpack the dynamics of extremist movements more than purely looking at their professed ideologies can. At SCL we would watch countless numbers of radical jihadist propaganda videos, and we noticed that, beyond the violence of the clips that make it onto the news, there was a rich and well-articulated aesthetic to their style of content. Cool cars were showcased. There would be music. There was a defined masculine look to their idealised heroes, and some of the videos looked almost like clips from reality TV. The irony was that they tried to position their backward ideology as somehow modern or futuristic in a way that echoed the old Italian Futurists’ promotion of a fascism for tomorrow – that it was the most expedient gateway to modernity. These films were propagating a grotesque cult of violence and hate, but beyond that, they also formed part of their culture. Their style was self-indulgent and naïvely romantic, and it bordered on kitsch. Even terrorists have pop culture.
Around this time, in September 2013, I distinctly remember thinking, How cool is this? I get to work in culture, but not just for someone’s branding campaign. I get to work in culture for the defence of our democracy. The military just used different terms – modelled influence attribution or target profiles observed acting in concert. But in fashion, we just call that a trend. Dressing in concert. Hashtagging in concert. Listening in concert. Going to a concert in concert. The cultural zeitgeist itself is just people acting in concert. And these kinds of trends, I was sure, could be discerned in the data. Through online observation and profiling, we wanted to try to forecast these movements’ adoption life cycles, their early adopters, their diffusion rates, their peaks.
On my very first day at SCL, Nix asked whether I’d heard of a company called Palantir. He’d learned about it from an unusually well-connected SCL intern named Sophie Schmidt – the daughter of Eric Schmidt, a billionaire and then executive chairman of Google. A few months earlier, as she was finishing up her internship, she’d introduced Alexander to some of the executives at Palantir. Co-founded by Peter Thiel, a well-known venture capitalist in Silicon Valley who was also an independent director of Facebook, Palantir was a massive venture-capital-funded company that undertook information operations for the CIA, the National Security Agency, whose mission is to analyse signals intelligence and data for national security purposes, and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British counterpart to the NSA. Nix was obsessed. He wanted SCL to do what Palantir was doing.
There was an ‘anything goes’ atmosphere at SCL, perfectly crystallised in a moment that took place a couple of months after we all started. Normally I dress in T-shirts and hoodies, but one afternoon I came into the office after a London Fashion Week event wearing a vibrant burgundy Prada jacket with matching high-waisted trousers and cream-coloured Dr Martens shoes printed with skulls and roses in the style of tattoo flashes. Nix took one look and said, “Chris, what the fuck are you wearing?”
To which Brent answered, “We fight terror in Prada.”