Mindf*ck | Christopher Wylie

Summary of: Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America
By: Christopher Wylie


Dive into the disturbing world of data mining and manipulation in ‘Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America’, where author Christopher Wylie takes you on a journey through his experiences working at the notorious data consulting firm. Witness the transformation of political campaigns driven by new data technologies and social media strategies that not only change messaging, but potentially undermine democracy itself. This book summary will explore groundbreaking tactics such as psychometric profiling, using the Big Five personality traits to target specific voters, and revealing how Cambridge Analytica orchestrated disinformation efforts on a global scale.

The Influence of Data Technology in Politics

The effectiveness of political campaigns has significantly improved due to the use of data technology and social media.

Chris Wylie, a Canadian data consultant, witnessed the primitive campaign tools of the British political party, the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Compared to the advanced technology used in the Obama campaign just a few years prior, the Lib Dems’ approach was outdated, inefficient, and ineffective. The crucial aspect in political campaigns is the use of new data technology and social media. Obama’s team utilized the Voter Activation Network (VAN), which provided specific information about voters, from their race, age, magazine subscriptions to airline miles. The data allowed the team to identify the political leanings and issues that might concern voters, enabling them to microtarget their advertising to sway opinions and get people to vote.

While the strategy was successful, it highlighted concerns about the state of democracy. Opposing voters received different messages generated based on their specific interests, leading to a fragmented and personalized political discourse. Although Republicans initially struggled to keep up with the Democrats, data technology in politics only continued to evolve.

The Power of Psychometric Data in Political Campaigns

The traditional method of voter data collection using demographics can be insufficient to predict and target voting behavior. Chris Wylie, one of the Lib Dems’ data consultants, used the five-factor model of personality, or the Big Five, to uncover the traits of Lib Dems voters. The Big Five, which measures behavior based on five traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, has been shown to be a strong predictor of many factors in people’s lives. Through this, Wylie was able to successfully build a targeted database for political campaigns. However, despite its success, the traditional political parties were slow to adapt, and a new client had to embrace the novel approach.

Inside the World of Psychological Warfare

The SCL Group, originally known as Strategic Communications Laboratories, was a company that specialized in collecting and weaponizing data for psychological warfare. Their goal was to gain information asymmetry against their targets and overwhelm them through data manipulation. Through the use of social media and targeted campaigns, they were able to manipulate voters in Africa, narcotics groups in South America, and eventually British and American citizens. Their CEO, Alexander Nix, was a master of manipulation, using tactics such as intentionally making clients sweaty during meetings to gain the upper hand. With the rise of social media, psychological warfare has become a powerful tool for governments and terror groups alike, and the SCL Group was at the forefront of this industry.

SCL Group: The Masters of Psychological Manipulation

The book describes how SCL Group employed their data-gathering and psychological warfare tactics to manipulate their targets globally. It highlights how SCL formed groups by feeding them specific messages, leading to the destabilization of the narcotics operation from the inside. While SCL used its techniques to de-radicalize young males in the Middle East, it also interfered in several developing countries’ elections. The book illustrates how SCL co-opted telecom companies to tap into Trinidad’s citizens’ data, including their internet browsing history, to catalog them. The author’s meeting with “Steve from America” highlights SCL’s work with a much bigger client.

Bannon’s Culture War Campaign

Cambridge Analytica’s role in Steve Bannon’s campaign to win the culture war in America is explored in this book. The author, Christopher Wylie, recalls meeting Bannon before he became a key player in the Trump campaign and realizing that there was more to him than met the eye. SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, believed it could help Bannon weaponize data to sway American voters. SCL started with a proof of concept experiment in Virginia, where they discovered that conservative Virginians were put off by Ken Cuccinelli’s obsession with banning oral sex. Combining their knowledge of Big Five personality testing and Virginians’ stance on the “Crimes Against Nature” law, SCL successfully swayed voters by utilizing their psychometric data to create a consistent and predictable message.

Cambridge Analytica’s Data Collection

After securing funding from a wealthy Republican donor, Cambridge Analytica formed an offshoot company in America. They used census information, data brokers, and Facebook to gather all the data they needed. Cambridge Analytica partnered with a Cambridge professor who designed an app that users took a personality test on in exchange for a small amount of money. Users signed in to the app using their Facebook logins, allowing Cambridge Analytica to access data well beyond the scope of the original personality test. From the 87 million profiles they compiled, the team started identifying users who displayed “sensational and extreme interests” to use in their psychological warfare operation.

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