Whistleblower Explains How Cambridge Analytica Helped Fuel U.S. 'Insurgency'

Oct 8, 2019
Originally published on October 11, 2019 8:13 am

When Christopher Wylie first began working for the British behavioral research company SCL Group, the company used data drawn from a number of sources as a means of potentially altering outcomes for its, sometimes military, clients.

But over time, Wylie's mission — and that of the company — expanded. Conservative strategist Steve Bannon, who later worked in President Trump's White House, became involved with the SCL subsidiary Cambridge Analytica. Wylie, who served as Cambridge Analytica's research director for a year and a half, watched as his group began to use of data from Facebook and other online sources to target users for disinformation campaigns.

"They targeted people who were more prone to conspiratorial thinking," Wylie says. "They used that data, and they used social media more broadly, to first identify those people, and then engage those people, and really begin to craft what, in my view, was an insurgency in the United States."

Wylie adds: "The things that I was building on originally for the defense of our democracies had been completely inverted to really, in my view, attack our democracies."

In 2014, Wylie resigned from Cambridge Analytica. He later became a whistleblower, exposing the company's role in President Trump's presidential campaign and Brexit. He also revealed the company's links to Russia.

Wylie's new book, Mindf*ck, explains how Cambridge Analytica harvested the information of tens of millions of Facebook users, then used the data to target people susceptible to disinformation, racist thinking and conspiracy theories. Though Cambridge Analytica no longer exists, Wylie warns that the company's tactics continue to be a threat to democracy. He notes that some of its former employees are currently working on the next Trump campaign.

"One of the reasons I wrote the book is to serve as a warning, particularly to Americans," he says. "We have a completely unregulated digital landscape. There is almost no oversight. We are placing blind trust in companies like Facebook to do the honorable and decent thing. ... Even if Cambridge Analytica doesn't exist anymore, what happens when China becomes the next Cambridge Analytica?"


Interview Highlights

On the research Wylie initially did for SCL

I got recruited to join a research team at SCL group which, at the time, was a British military contractor based in London. Most of its clients were various ministries of defense in NATO countries. And what we were looking at is how to use data online to identify people who would be likely targets of different extremist groups. And from that, try to understand and unpack: How would a fairly extreme ideological message spread through different kinds of social networks? And what could we do in order to mitigate its effectiveness? When Steve Bannon got introduced to the company, he realized that a lot of that work could be inverted. And rather than trying to mitigate an extremist insurgency in certain parts of the world, he wanted to essentially catalyze one in the United States.

When Steve Bannon got introduced to the company, he realized that a lot of that work could be inverted. And rather than trying to mitigate an extremist insurgency in certain parts of the world, he wanted to essentially catalyze one in the United States. - Christopher Wylie

On Steve Bannon's role in Cambridge Analytica

He found us in London. He convinced a billionaire [Robert Mercer] to acquire the company, and then he transformed that company into a set of tools that he would be able to use to, in effect, manipulate a certain segment of the American voter population.

When Steve Bannon took over, he wasn't just concerned about particular elections. He followed this notion of the Breitbart doctrine, which is that politics exists downstream from culture. So don't just focus on the day-to-day politics. Try to actually make an impact on an enduring change in culture, because politics will just flow from that.

On how SCL and Cambridge Analytica approached personality profiling

Originally, when we were looking at this for defense purposes, we wanted to figure out ... what were the psychological characteristics of those people that would make them more prone and more vulnerable to certain kinds of [extremist] messaging, so that we could engage them beforehand? That was based on a series of studies, many of which came out of the University of Cambridge, that looked at essentially how, particularly with Facebook data, you can quite accurately predict a person's personality profile. And from that, if you can understand how a person thinks and feels and engages in the world, and what kinds of biases they have, you can then figure out what's going to be most effective at engaging them in a particular objective — originally in some kind of counter-extremism or mitigation strategy.

Later, when it became Cambridge Analytica, it essentially became identifying people in the same way that you'd be looking for people who'd be more vulnerable to ISIS messaging — people who were more prone to conspiratorial thinking or paranoid ideation. Effectively, it looks for the same kinds of people. But rather than discouraging them from joining ISIS, it would be to encourage them to join the alt-right.

On how Cambridge Analytica collected data

When the story blew up, one of the things that people often talked about is how it was a hack of Facebook, or some kind of data breach. And what actually happened was that Facebook authorized the applications that Cambridge Analytica ended up using to access the data. The company engaged professors at the University of Cambridge to create an application that then got put onto Facebook where people would go and fill out personality inventories, like surveys about who they are and their attributes. But the way the app worked was that they wouldn't just harvest the data of the person who responded to that survey, but it would go into their profile and look at all of their friends and harvest all of their friends' data as well.

So when you had one person fill out a survey, by default they effectively consented by proxy for hundreds of other people, simply because they were Facebook friends with them. So that scaled really quickly. And at the time, the way Facebook worked, they allowed applications to have that feature. They've since turned it off, and rightfully so, but at the time, you could acquire a lot of data really quickly.

On why people filled out the surveys that Cambridge Analytica used to harvest data

Different kinds of people have different motivations for filling out surveys. Sometimes you would have a group of people who just would fill it out because they're bored, and they don't have anything to do. Or they would just genuinely want to know what is their personality. Or if you had apps that were, "If you were on 'Game of Thrones,' who would be your character? Fill out this survey, and find out." Little do they know that actually it's taking all of that information and porting it over to an alt-right campaign. But in some cases with certain groups of people that were underrepresented in those samples, they would be paid one dollar, two dollars, around there, to fill out a survey. And people do a lot for a dollar, which is actually quite surprising.

On his decision to resign from Cambridge Analytica

It was a gradual process, sort of like boiling a frog in a way. Things change and you don't necessarily notice how much things have changed when you're inside of something. ... But really, one of the things that I remember is seeing videos of people from focus groups and events that Cambridge Analytica was doing who had been targeted and sort of massaged online into believing certain kinds of conspiracies. And just to see like the rage in their eyes — how angry these people were, how they started engaging in highly racialized thinking. ... To see their faces and what that looks like, what a manipulated person looks like, for me, it was really eye-opening.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest became a whistleblower, exposing the role of the British voter profiling company Cambridge Analytica in the Trump presidential campaign and the Brexit campaign. Christopher Wylie revealed how the company had harvested the information of tens of millions of Facebook users and combined that with other data to create psychological profiles and then use those profiles to target people susceptible to disinformation, racist thinking and conspiracy theories. Cambridge Analytica then helped shape the disinformation narratives and pushed them out.

Wylie also revealed Cambridge Analytica's links to Russia. Wylie had the documents and tapes to back him up. He'd served as Cambridge Analytica's research director for a year-and-a-half, then quit in 2014, disturbed by the direction it started taking after Steve Bannon became a major player in the company.

Wylie became the chief source for a year-long investigation into Cambridge Analytica, jointly undertaken by the British paper The Guardian and The New York Times. Both papers published their stories on March 17 last year. Ten days later, Wylie was called before Parliament to testify. After that, several U.S. congressional and Senate committees asked to talk with him. Within weeks, the EU and more than 20 countries had opened inquiries into Facebook, social media and disinformation.

Wylie has written a new book whose title I can't say on the radio, so I'll just call it "Mind F: Cambridge Analytica And The Plot To Break America" (ph).

Christopher Wylie, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start...

CHRISTOPHER WYLIE: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Oh, it's my pleasure. I'd like to start with a brief overview of how Cambridge Analytica figured into the Trump campaign - and we'll get into more detail about this later - but just so we have a basis of understanding of what it did.

WYLIE: The basis of Cambridge Analytica's work was essentially to take large amounts of highly granular data about each individual voter in the United States - a large bulk of that came from Facebook, but it came from many sources - and to look for patterns in that data to essentially infer different psychological attributes and, from that, to find target groups of people, particularly on the fringes of society, who would be more vulnerable to certain kinds of messaging. They focused a lot on disinformation; They targeted people who were more prone to conspiratorial thinking.

And they used that data and they used social media more broadly to first identify those people and then engage those people and really begin to craft what, in my view, was an insurgency in the United States.

GROSS: Feeding them disinformation, sometimes conspiracy theories in support of the Trump campaign.

WYLIE: Yes. And more broadly, you know, the - when Steve Bannon took over, he wasn't just concerned about particular elections. He followed sort of this notion of the Breitbart doctrine, which is that politics exists downstream from culture - so don't just focus on the day-to-day politics, try to actually make an impact on an enduring change in culture because politics will just flow from that.

GROSS: When you say when Steve Bannon took over, he had a big role in Cambridge Analytica and then became campaign manager for Trump.

WYLIE: Yes, he did. He found us in London. He convinced a billionaire to acquire the company, and then he transformed that company into, you know, a set of tools that he would be able to use to, in effect, manipulate a certain segment of the American voter population.

GROSS: So I want to talk about your contribution to this before you became a whistleblower. So you went to work for a company called SCL - Strategic Communication Laboratories.

WYLIE: Yes.

GROSS: What were they when you joined, and what's their relationship to Cambridge Analytica?

WYLIE: Yeah. So I got recruited to join a research team at SCL Group, which, at the time, was a British military contractor based in London. Most of its clients were various ministries of defense in NATO countries. And what we were looking at is how to use data online to identify people who would be likely targets of different extremist groups and from that try to understand and unpack - how would a fairly extreme ideological message spread through different kinds of social networks, and what could we do in order to mitigate its effectiveness?

When Steve Bannon got introduced to the company, he realized that a lot of that work could be inverted. And rather than trying to mitigate an extremist insurgency in certain parts of the world, he wanted to essentially catalyze one in the United States.

GROSS: One of your major contributions to Cambridge Analytica, which started off as SCL...

WYLIE: Yeah.

GROSS: So one of your major contributions was to find this technique of personality profiling that you thought could be applied to the kind of work Cambridge Analytica was doing. Can you describe that personality profiling approach?

WYLIE: Yeah. So you know, when you think about all of the things that you put online - so whether it's, you know, your - what TV shows you like or, you know, what movies you watch or what you listen to, these are all little discrete clues about sort of who you are as a person. And you know, originally when we were looking at this for defense purposes, we wanted to figure out - beyond what the military had already identified, which was essentially young unmarried males with certain demographic characteristics - what were the sort of psychological characteristics of those people that would make them more prone and more vulnerable to certain kinds of messaging? - so that we could engage them beforehand.

That was based on a series of studies, many of which came out of the University of Cambridge, that looked at essentially how, particularly with Facebook data, you can quite accurately predict a person's personality profile. And from that, if you can understand how a person sort of thinks and feels and engages in the world and what kinds of biases they have, you can then figure out what's going to be most effective at engaging them in a particular objective.

So originally in some kind of counter-extremism or mitigation strategy - later when it became Cambridge Analytica, it essentially became identifying people who, in the same way that you'd be looking for people who'd be more vulnerable to ISIS messaging, people who were more prone to conspiratorial thinking or, you know, paranoid ideation. Effectively, it looks for the same kinds of people. But rather than discouraging them from, you know, joining ISIS, it would be to encourage them to join the "alt-right."

GROSS: You had to figure out a way to harvest data that you could use to create personality profiles so that you'd know who to target. And a lot of the data came from Facebook. How did Cambridge Analytica get the data?

WYLIE: You know, when the when the story blew up, one of the things that people kind of often talked about is how it was a hack of Facebook or there was some kind of data breach. And what actually happened was that Facebook authorized the applications that Cambridge Analytica ended up using to access the data.

The company engaged professors at the University of Cambridge to create an application that then got put onto Facebook, where people would go and fill out personality inventories - like surveys - about, you know, who they are and their attributes. But the way the app worked was that they wouldn't just harvest the data of the person who responded to that survey, but it would go into their profile and look at all of their friends and harvest all of their friends' data as well.

So when you had one person fill out a survey, by default, they effectively consented by proxy for, you know, hundreds of other people simply because they were Facebook friends with them. So that scaled really quickly. And at the time, Facebook - the way Facebook worked, they allowed applications to have that feature. They've since turned it off. And rightfully so. But at the time, you could acquire a lot of data really quickly. Because with each respondent to that survey, you'd get another sort of 300 profiles with it.

GROSS: In return for filling out the personality profile, you were given, like, a couple of dollars, or something?

WYLIE: Yeah. So some - you know, different kinds of people have different motivations for filling out surveys. So, you know, sometimes you would have a group of people who just would fill it out 'cause they're bored. They don't have anything to do. Or they would just genuinely want to know, what is their, you know, personality. Or, you know, if you had apps that were sort of, like, you know, what if - you know, if you were on "Game Of Thrones," who would be your character? Fill out this survey and find out.

You know, little do they know that, actually, it's taking all of that information and porting it over to an "alt-right" campaign. But you know, in some cases, with certain groups of people that were underrepresented in those samples, they would be paid, you know, $1, $2, around there, to fill out a survey. And people do a lot for a dollar, which was actually quite surprising.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Wylie, and he's the author of the new book, "MindF***" - I can't really say the word on the air - "Cambridge Analytica And The Plot To Break America." He was the research director there for a year and a half and then became a whistleblower exposing Cambridge Analytica's role in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. and in the Brexit election. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA QUINTET'S "CONTRADANZA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Wylie. He was the research director for Cambridge Analytica, which harvested millions of people's personal data from Facebook and used that and other data to target them with ads, often fake news and conspiracy theories, disinformation, in support of the Trump presidential campaign and the Brexit campaign. Wylie was the research director for Cambridge Analytica but then became a whistleblower, and he'd testify to all kinds of groups in England and in the U.S. exposing what Cambridge Analytica did.

So Cambridge Analytica undergoes this big transformation. Steve Bannon comes in from America. He wants to harness this information for his own purposes. He brings in Robert Mercer, who's a hedge fund billionaire, who basically buys the company. And Mercer was, like, a major right-wing donor, a major donor, eventually, to the Trump campaign. So Cambridge Analytica becomes harnessed by Mercer and Bannon to serve the purposes of the far-right or the "alt-right."

You're still working with Cambridge Analytica at that time. And as the research director, you had to understand the personalities and inclinations of Americans. Cambridge Analytica sent a lot of people to America to do psychological research, psychological profiling. Just give us an overview of what that was like.

WYLIE: You know, I'm Canadian, and most of the people on the team were not Americans. So when we go into the United States, we don't grow up with the same narratives or the same biases, cultural biases that a lot of Americans do. So we look at, you know, the United States in the same way that we'd be studying Africa, for example. So we had a lot of anthropologists who would come and sociologists who would come to actually do qualitative research, anthropological research, looking at the dynamics of different kinds of people.

And, you know, it's amazing. You know, you really start to unpack really bizarre things. You have all kinds - you know, you have the rise of extremist groups in the United States. It's just you don't call them that, right? You've got, you know, some very cultish followings and belief systems. And we identified that fairly early on, and it was amazing. Like, I would go and I would sit with people. You know, there was one example where I sat in the living room with people as they were watching Fox News. And just how bizarrely almost therapeutic it was for them to come home, and they could release all of their stresses by yelling at the TV and blaming Obama for everything. You know, the fact that they didn't have health care, that - you know, that they were underemployed, was all a plot, you know, from Obama to change the, you know, the face and the fabric of America and that they were the victims here and it was Obama's fault.

And you sort of sit and you start to really realize that underneath this, you know, very advanced, modern democracy, there are some, like, really screwed up things happening in society. And, you know, so we would do reports and send them back. Later, when the data profiling actually started, those were the first sets of targets that the companies started to engage. So first identifying those people and then inviting them into groups or pages. And very quickly, you know, imagine you're sitting there in your living room at midnight, and you just see some ads and you click on it. And then all the sudden, you know, you join a group and you start reading about stuff.

And then all the sudden, you know, other people start friending you or sending you messages, like, hey, like, welcome to the group - you know, whatever, Smith County Patriots. You know, I'm just a regular American from a couple counties over. Like, have you seen this? Isn't this crazy? And people would start to engage and build relationships with other people on these groups thinking that it feels very random - like, I chose to click on this. I chose this - but actually not realizing that they were there because they were chosen.

GROSS: So when Cambridge Analytica starts actually organizing events, targeting people who had already kind of bought in on Facebook to the paranoia that Cambridge Analytica was spreading, you say that the events would be held in small places, like a small bar or a coffee shop, to make it look like it's really crowded, like, this is really...

WYLIE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...A popular thing.

WYLIE: Because if you only had, say, 5% to 10% of people on these groups actually agreeing to show up to an in-person event, if those groups are relatively small, you know, by Facebook standards or by social media standards, a couple thousand people, you're still getting, you know, 50 to 100 people agreeing to show up to an event. And so, you know, you would have these sort of staged events where they would be, you know, in a coffee shop or in a bar, as you said, and what - it does something very fundamental to a person because what starts off as sort of this, you know, dabbling in a digital fantasy, you know, in the comfort of their living room, it moves into their reality because they're now standing in a crowded room that's filled with people who are all talking about the exact same thing that they're thinking about and they're feeling. And you know, when they go and meet people, you know - they're a plumber, they're an electrician, they're a teacher - they don't seem to have, you know, a big political agenda or something behind them.

And so when you hear, as that person, you know, somebody talking about, you know, what Obama is doing by moving, you know, soldiers into Texas because he's planning something or, you know, all these people crossing the border, that, you know - or the deep state or all of this, you're listening to people who just look and sound exactly like you, and they couldn't possibly have an agenda. But then when you turn on, you know, NPR, CNN or NBC or whatever or read The New York Times, you don't see any of these things that are, you know, in your view, actually happening in your country. And you start to detach yourself from this institution of journalism because you stop believing it; you think that this is actually propaganda that I'm reading.

GROSS: So one of the things that Cambridge Analytica found in doing research on Americans and personality profiles of Americans is that there are a lot of Americans who have racist feelings that they don't publicly express for fear that they'll be shunned as a result. But if you give them an opportunity to express it without any criticism, then it will start to surface.

WYLIE: Yeah.

GROSS: So if you could talk a little bit about finding that out and how that was harnessed by Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign.

WYLIE: Yeah. Steve Bannon, you know, discovered that there's nothing more powerful than a humiliated man. And that, you know, when you looked at a lot of the narratives that emerged originally from the anthropological research that was happening and then later got verified in more quantitative research, that there were groups of typically heterosexual white men who sort of felt that, because they could no longer be, quote-unquote, "a real man," they couldn't show who they, quote-unquote, "felt like they really were," they almost felt closeted.

And it was really interesting to look at people in, you know - who are very privileged in many respects - racially and, you know, with their sexual orientation and everything - you know, to be a straight white man in America is to have, you know, the world in front of you. But at the same time, there was a group of people who felt like they couldn't be who they were. And the pent up sort of...

GROSS: Couldn't be who they were because...

WYLIE: Because...

GROSS: ...Women would...

WYLIE: Because...

GROSS: ...Criticize them or...

WYLIE: Because it is no...

GROSS: Yeah.

WYLIE: ...It is no longer acceptable - and in my view, rightfully so - to, you know, walk up to the secretary and, you know, squeeze her bum. It's no longer - you can't catcall. You can't do things that, for these men, when they were growing up, was normalized. And over time, you know, society moved on from that, and they felt that, you know, this is who I am, and America's changing, and that means that I can't be who I am. And when you have, you know, people who feel like they're being oppressed, even if it's a misperception of oppression, that's a really powerful force. And Steve Bannon tapped into that.

GROSS: How? How did he tap into it?

WYLIE: Because if you give people an easy excuse, you know, not to say that actually the behavior that you want to, you know, exhibit at work or at a bar is unacceptable, but rather that it's because, you know, Obama doesn't want you to have power anymore because we're giving the power over to the - to women or to immigrants or whomever, that all of the sudden, you are now - you now have a very easy justification. I'm not a bad person struggling with, like, bad habits; I'm actually being oppressed, and I now have an easy explanation as to, you know, why it is that I feel this way. And actually, I'm angry about it because it's not me that's the problem; it's them that's the problem.

And, you know, you - if you have a group of people who feel like their privilege is being taken away, their entitlements are being taken away, and they feel like they're being oppressed and, in effect, closeted, you know, they will come out. When you look at a Tea Party rally - you know, one of the things that I even told him, is I said, when you look at a Tea Party rally, to me it sounds a lot like gay pride because, you know, they would have these flags that say don't tread on me, don't get in my way, let me be who I want to be and just get out of my way. You look at a gay pride rally, there's more glitter.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WYLIE: But it's the same message. And so, you know, part of this for him was to, like, uncloset these people. You know, these racists and misogynists needed to come out.

GROSS: My guest is Christopher Wylie. His new book is called "Mind F: Cambridge Analytica And The Plot To Break America." After a break, we'll talk more about the company's role in the Trump campaign, and Wylie will tell us why he became a whistleblower. And then Ken Tucker will review the first solo album by Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETROS KLAMPANIS' "EASY COME EASY GO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who revealed the role that the voter profiling company Cambridge Analytica played in the Brexit and Trump campaigns. He revealed how the company had harvested the information of tens of millions of Facebook users and combined that with other data to create psychological profiles and then use those profiles to target people susceptible to disinformation, racist thinking and conspiracy theories. Cambridge Analytica then helped shape the disinformation narratives and pushed them out.

Wylie served as Cambridge Analytica's research director for a year and a half, then quit in 2014, disturbed by the direction it started taking after Steve Bannon became a major player in the company. Wylie's new book is called "Mind F: Cambridge Analytica And The Plot To Break America." When we left off, we were talking about how Cambridge Analytica wanted to target people who had racist or sexist views but were afraid to reveal those views in public.

How did Cambridge Analytica know who to target, who - people who would have those kind of, you know, like, racist or sexist opinions but feel too inhibited to express them but felt empowered when they heard people in the Trump campaign or Trump himself expressing them? So how did they know who to target?

WYLIE: So there's no such thing as sort of a silver bullet - like, if you like this one thing on Facebook, that means that you're going to be an alt-right target. But there are certain sort of common features, you know? For example, certain kinds of movie viewing, right? So if you look at movies with Adam Sandler in it - not to, you know, bash Adam Sandler or to associate him in any way with the alt-right - there were certain kinds of films, for example, where, if you actually looked at the narratives within those films, you know, it's guy gets girl. It's very - you know, a very standard sort of formulaic relationship or some kind of formulaic problem. Men are exhibited in a certain way. Women are exhibited in a certain way. You know, that would be, for example, a clue.

How people engage with, for example, parenting - right? So, like, you know, one of the strongest predictors for alt-right nationalism was, like, your views on corporal punishment with children. If you think that children should be physically disciplined, you're much more likely to engage or dabble with more extreme right-wing views than other people would.

There's no single thing that you would look for, and oftentimes, this is what an algorithm would do because a single person couldn't possibly look at millions of different features, all the different possible combinations of things that you could, you know, like or click on or what have you. So oftentimes, it was, you know, a constellation of things that would create a target profile, but there were some common features to it.

GROSS: So you write in the book that one of the things Cambridge Analytica did, one of its goals, was to try during the 2016 presidential campaign to move people on the left to vote for a third-party candidate, Jill Stein. So how did Cambridge Analytica try to promote third-party candidates like Jill Stein?

WYLIE: One of the things that the company started to unpack was just, you know, how much hurt and pain there are in all kinds of different groups in the United States. There's a lot of resentment across the board in different groups, and so, you know, when you, for example, target African Americans with, you know, narratives about how, in the '90s, you know, Democrats had this idea or supported - or some Democrats supported this notion of super-predators and put lots of African Americans in prison or that they're just, you know, taking you for a ride. They just want your vote. They're not actually going to help you.

You know, and - or, on the flipside, you know, identifying people on the progressive side of the spectrum who also were more prone to conspiratorial thinking - you know, things about chemtrails or vaccines or things like that - and promoting, essentially, a mirror image of conspiracy theories at certain kinds of progressive people who otherwise would support Democrats to support a third-party candidate or to not vote because of it.

GROSS: You started hearing things in the Trump campaign that you knew Cambridge Analytica had tested, including in reports sent to Steve Bannon before Trump announced his candidacy - phrases like build the wall, drain the swamp. What was the first you heard of those phrases, and how were they tested?

WYLIE: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

WYLIE: You know, I left the company because I didn't agree with what it was doing, and so after Donald Trump, you know, announced his candidacy and started rising in the polls, I started hearing just, like, in news reports just these phrases that I distinctly remember in reports that were sent within the company about phrasing or sort of constructs that were really effective at winning over certain groups of people. When people talked about immigration, for example - so often, people would just say, like, if I had people coming into my house, I would just build a big fence, or I'd build a wall around it. Why aren't we just doing that?

And that got reported back to Steve Bannon. I think that Steve - you know, when he started advising the Trump campaign and speaking to the Trump campaign, even before Donald Trump had announced that he was running, I suspect that this was something that got communicated because it's, for me, eerily similar - those campaign narratives to some of the reports that we had internally within the company.

GROSS: Cambridge Analytica not only helped shape the narrative for the Trump campaign and helped the Trump campaign find people who would be susceptible to false information, to fake news that the Trump campaign was putting out. You read that Cambridge Analytica had connections to Russia. Can you give us a sense of what those connections were?

WYLIE: Well, some of the consultants that were hired on the campaign - and even before that - their business partners were former GRU officers. That's Russian security services. Some of them were indicted later by Mueller. You know, when we had some of the psychologists on - you know, working on these projects going to St. Petersburg in Russia to give presentations to Russian colleagues on the effectiveness of psychological profiling specifically in American political campaigns, where those same psychologists were also working on state-funded projects in Russia to look at psychological profiling of social media users with respect to, you know, bullying behavior, trolling - that sort of thing - and then also when all of this work was being done, we got approached by large Russian companies, including oil companies, that had no sort of clear purpose as to why they would want large American voter datasets but were asking about - you know, what is it that the company has? What is the capability of the company?

And, you know, there's email correspondence where, you know, briefings that were put together on internal capacity and, you know, how many American records were profiled that got sent to the CEO of, you know, a large Russian company who is personal friends with Vladimir Putin. You know, when you look at some of the the clients that it had - for example, in Britain during the Brexit campaign - you know, some of the largest funders of pro-leave, pro-Brexit campaigns were simultaneously meeting regularly with the Russian ambassador in London to talk about all kinds of things, including references to what was happening both on the Brexit campaign - but also, you know, they were travelling to the United States and meeting with the Trump campaign.

GROSS: When you were at Cambridge Analytica, you met with executives from Lukoil, which is, I think, the largest oil company in Russia, and you later learned that Lukoil is sometimes used as a front for the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency. So you were afraid that everything you were telling the Lukoil executors, you might as well...

WYLIE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Have been telling to Russian intelligence.

WYLIE: Yeah. Well, you know, I found out that Lukoil has a formal information-sharing agreement with the FSB, which is Russian intelligence. It's one of the Russian intelligence agencies. And the same company had been involved in different kinds of influence operations throughout Europe with different European countries', you know, politics. And so one of my concerns was, first of all, why does this Russian oil company need information on, you know, American voter datasets, you know, or what the company is doing in American politics?

But then also that - you know, this company has a very deep relationship with Russian intelligence organizations and that by communicating our capacity and also at the same time letting them know that some of the psychologists that are working on this project are also partly in St. Petersburg in Russia, where they're giving very open presentations to Russians about the effectiveness of voter targeting using social media data, it wouldn't be outrageous to suggest that there might have been a move to access that information, whether Cambridge Analytica knew it or not. There was a lot of relationships and a lot of communications with different fairly senior Russian officials that I found personally very concerning and odd - that there was just one country that was very - seemed to be very interested in what the company was doing.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Wylie, and he's the author of the new book "Mind F" - I can't really say the word on the air - "Cambridge Analytica And The Plot To Break America." He was the research director there for a year and a half and then became a whistleblower, exposing Cambridge Analytica's role in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. and in the Brexit election. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Wylie. He was the research director for Cambridge Analytica, which harvested millions of people's personal data from Facebook and used that and other data to target them with ads, often fake news and conspiracy theories, disinformation in support of the Trump presidential campaign and the Brexit campaign. Wylie was the research director for Cambridge Analytica but then became a whistleblower, and he testified to all kinds of groups in England and in the U.S., exposing what Cambridge Analytica did.

In July of 2014, you were CC'ed on a confidential memo that was sent to Steve Bannon, Rebekah Mercer - who is the daughter of Robert Mercer, who bought Cambridge Analytica, and they're both major funders of the right - and Alexander Nix, who was on the board of Cambridge Analytica. And so this memo was from Giuliani's law firm in response to Cambridge Analytica's requests for advice on how U.S. law regarding foreign influence on campaigns applied to Cambridge Analytica, and the memo made it clear that the Foreign Agents Registration Act said that foreign nationals are strictly prohibited from managing or influencing an American campaign or PAC, which would mean that Cambridge Analytica, as a British company, really shouldn't have a role in the American campaign. And the memo recommended that Nix recuse himself from management of Cambridge Analytica until a loophole could be explored, and the memo suggested filtering the work of Cambridge Analytica's foreign nationals through American citizens.

So to sum up, it sounds like the memo from Giuliani's law firm was saying, well, you can't do this stuff legally, so let's look for some ways to get around the law.

WYLIE: Yeah. I mean, this was one of the things that, you know, really concerned me - was that, you know, the American legal counsel, which was Rudy Giuliani's law firm at the time, you know, looked into the legalities of Cambridge Analytica working on, you know, political campaigns that were handpicked by Steve Bannon. And it was pretty clear that, you know, it is not legal in the United States for non-U.S. citizens to exert an influencing or managerial role on an American domestic political campaign.

And what I found so concerning is that the legal advice, first of all, said this is probably illegal. But it's OK because we'll try to find some kind of way around it. "Loophole" is a literal quote. The word loophole was used in that memo. And that - I just found it really concerning that even when our own lawyers are saying this is probably not OK that there's just this total disregard for, you know, any kind of rules. And it's OK. Fine. We'll find some Americans, and we'll put their names on communications, and then it will be fine.

And you know, whether that was, you know, legal or not, I'm not an expert on, you know, American law. But it felt like it was cutting it pretty close. And you know, the unfortunate thing is that a lot of people who started working at the company who weren't fully aware of what was happening would get sent to the United States not realizing or being told that, like, actually their participation on some of these projects probably was not fully compliant with U.S. law.

GROSS: What was the last straw that made you quit Cambridge Analytica?

WYLIE: I think - I mean, you know, it was a gradual process. You know, you - it's sort of like boiling a frog in a way that things, you know, change. And you don't necessarily notice how much things have changed when you're inside of something. But I think it was, you know, when I get, you know, copied into really suspicious communications, whether it's with, you know, Russian officials or whether it's from our lawyers saying this is unlawful.

But really, one of the things that I just remember is seeing videos of people from focus groups and events that Cambridge Analytica was doing who had been targeted and sort of massaged online into believing certain kinds of conspiracies. And just to see, like, the rage in their eyes - that they - how angry these people were, how they started engaging in highly racialized thinking. And to see people - the actual effect of people - you know, to see their faces and what that looks like, what a manipulated person looks like, for me, was really eye-opening. You know, when you sit in London and you work on a computer, you don't necessarily always think about that these records in a database are, like, actual human beings. And you know, it was seeing that that I think really worried me about what it was doing. And so I left.

And very shortly after leaving, you know, they sued me. They tried to pressure me into, you know, signing all kinds of documents to say I would never work in any kind of political thing again or data thing again. And they made me sign, like, this sort of extremely strict nondisclosure agreement because they were worried that I would start telling people about what I had seen, which I ended up doing.

GROSS: What's left of Cambridge Analytica now?

WYLIE: So Cambridge Analytica has dissolved. As a corporate entity, it no longer exists. But the people are still working. Several of the people who were working at the company are now working on the next Trump campaign.

You know, my concern is that even if Cambridge Analytica has dissolved as a company, its capabilities haven't. And you know, one of the reasons I wrote the book is to serve as a warning, particularly to Americans, to sort of look at, like - we have a completely unregulated digital landscape. There is almost no oversight. We are placing blind trust in companies like Facebook to do the honorable and decent thing, which is to pay attention to what's happening on their platform.

And really, even if Cambridge Analytica doesn't exist anymore, what happens when China becomes the next Cambridge Analytica? What happens when Iran or North Korea or, indeed, Russia becomes the next Cambridge Analytica? Just because the company has dissolved doesn't mean its capabilities have dissolved. And this really gets to a lot of the responsibility of, you know, companies like Facebook to actually do their job and, you know, respect the democracies and the societies that allow them to be a business and actually, you know, prevent scaled manipulation and disinformation, you know, from existing on their platforms.

GROSS: Christopher Wylie, thank you so much for talking with us.

WYLIE: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Christopher Wiley's new book is called "Mind F: Cambridge Analytica And The Plot To Break America." After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review the first solo album by Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes. This is FRESH AIR.

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