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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie reveals Cambridge Analytica’s dark arts

The man who says he created Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool puts his case to the public

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie at the Frontline Club in London. 20 March 2018. Caroline Byrne / The National
Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie at the Frontline Club in London. 20 March 2018. Caroline Byrne / The National

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower behind the Facebook data-harvesting scandal, came out of the shadows on Tuesday night to discuss his role in an exposé that knocked $60 billion ($220b dirham) off of Facebook's market value this week and led to the suspension of Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix.

Speaking at London’s Frontline Club, Mr Wylie, 28, gave an insider’s view of the psychological warfare tools and tactics used first by military and latterly political strategists to manipulate society.

With his bright-pink shock of hair and nose ring, the young Canadian makes an unlikely practitioner of dark political arts. He had worked on political campaigns since the age of 18 including for former US president Barack Obama. He was working for the Liberal Democrats in 2013 when a political connection introduced him to a company called SCL Group, whose subsidiary SCL Elections later created Cambridge Analytica.

Wylie said Alexander Nix, then CEO of SCL Elections, made him a job offer after the firm’s research director was found dead in a hotel room in Kenya.

At that stage, 80 per cent of Nix’s clients were military-related entities or political campaigns in developing countries. With an explosion of data on mobile internet platforms, Mr Nix wanted his new hire to develop ideas on how political voters could be swayed by using data gathered from social media profiles.

Mr Nix introduced Mr Wylie to Steve Bannon, later to become Donald Trump’s campaign manager, as the company sought investment from Robert Mercer, a backer of Brietbart News. So keen was the firm to impress Mr Bannon it opened a satellite office near the University of Cambridge after Mr Bannon expressed an interest in visiting the city.

"We created this fake office in Cambridge and brought a bunch of people to set up this office beside the university to make it look like 'This is our Cambridge site. Our potemkin Cambridge office," Mr Wylie said.

"And later, when the Mercers bought in and they appointed Steve to set up the company, he decided he should call it Cambridge Analytica... as a tip of the hat to our deep links to the University of Cambridge. And so a false reality was infused into the name Cambridge Analytica."

Companies House records show that SCL USA was registered in January 2015 and the company's name was changed to Cambridge Analytica (UK) in April 2016.

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Billionaire investor Mercer was the polar opposite of Mr Bannon - quiet, clever and with a PhD in computer science. Mr Wylie called the three men – with three big personalities – “the perfect storm”: the militant vision of Steve Bannon; the billionaire who understood algorithms; and Alexander Nix, the "razzle-dazzle Etonian who was there for the ride, going to the fancy dinners".

Mr Mercer invested $10 million (36m dirhams) to relaunch Mr Nix's operations under the Cambridge Analytica brand. When it detached from its military-focused parent Strategic Communications Laboratories, Mr Wylie said Cambridge Analytica was effectively “a concept" vehicle.

Mr Wylie soon tired of his new clients, which included a group of far-right Evangelical Christians and quit in 2014.

Facebook, which denies it has responsibility for any alleged data breach, has demanded the right to conduct a forensic audit on the computer systems of Mr Wylie, Cambridge Analytica and Dr Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge psychologist who harvested the data of up to 50 million people through a quiz app.

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