Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie says he was among a group of Liberal staffers who tried to warn the Obama administration about election interference in the final months of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Wylie was in Canada at the time, working for the Liberal Party’s caucus research bureau, after leaving his job in Britain with Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm at the heart of a massive data harvesting scandal.
He told The Current’s guest host Kathleen Petty that the decision to meet with members of President Barack Obama’s White House on a California university campus in August 2016 “wasn’t a decision of the Canadian government’s” but was driven by concerns he had shared with Liberal colleagues about his former employer.
“I did go down with some of my colleagues to the United States and had discreet conversations,” said Wylie, who was born in Victoria.
“It was [attended by] people who knew about what was happening in the election and felt like a friendly, you know, passing on of information might be warranted.”
Wylie details the meeting in his new book Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and The Plot to Break America, released Wednesday.
The Liberal Party denies that such a conversation took place. CBC has not independently verified Wylie’s claims.
In 2018, Wylie became the primary whistleblower against Cambridge Analytica, which had harvested the data of millions of Facebook users to build voter profiles intended to sway the results of the U.S. presidential campaign and Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum.
Wylie told The Current that he saw the company use the harvested data to target people with disinformation to sway their political beliefs. He also alleges the company had links to Russia and sent psychologists to St. Petersburg to give briefings “about how to target American voters.”
Watch Christopher Wylie explain how the data was used to sway people:
Wylie said that, two years before he went public, he shared his concerns with colleagues in the Liberal caucus research bureau (LRB) in Ottawa. He had signed a $100,000 contract with the party to help it find ways to better understand and use voter data.
“When I was working with [the Liberals], you know, I did talk about all these things that had happened, and they were obviously concerned about it,” he told Petty on The Current.
In his book, he writes that he found out in June 2015 that Cambridge Analytica was working on Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign. He also writes that accusations of Russian interference began “bubbling up” after thousands of Democratic emails were leaked in July 2016.
Wylie writes that, based on what he’d seen in London, he had a “hunch” that Cambridge Analytica could be “knowingly or unknowingly working with the Russians to sway the election.”
In his book, Wylie describes how he approached “someone in the Trudeau government — I’ll call him ‘Alan,'” with his concerns. Wylie said that while he and “Alan” agreed they should pass on the information to U.S. officials, they didn’t want to do so publicly for fear of being accused of interfering with another country’s election.
Wylie said they decided instead to arrange an unofficial meeting with “White House staffers” during a conference on data and democracy in Berkeley, Calif.
They were “crowded around a picnic table near the UC Berkeley campus, talking about Cambridge Analytica and Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election — all while weed-smoking, backpack-wearing students strolled past,” he writes.
The Current asked the Liberal Party for a comment on the meeting Wylie described. Liberal spokesperson Eleanore Catenaro acknowledged that two party officials did attend the conference with Wylie — the LRB’s Director of Research and Insights Alexandre Sevigny and Brett Thalmann, who was managing director of the bureau at the time.
But Catenaro said that while they did speak together on a public panel, “election interference was not a discussion point for them on the panel, or otherwise, on their trip.”
Thalmann left the research bureau to become director of administration and special projects in the Prime Minister’s Office at the end of 2016.
Wiley writes that he told Obama officials at the meeting that he believed there were individuals working on Trump’s campaign who had ties to foreign intelligence services, and that they had built up a massive social media database that was being deployed on American voters.
“The reaction that I got was just, sort of, shoulder shrugs,” Wylie told The Current, adding that U.S. officials at the meeting told him that Trump was “not going to win, so there’s nothing really to worry about.”
He added that they felt it was “more dangerous to be seen as pushing the dial a little bit too much, or somehow interfering in the election.”
“I got told that enough times that I thought, ‘OK, well maybe I’m overreacting and, you know, OK, they have a point,'” he said. “It’s kind of crazy to think that Donald Trump would be elected.”
Wylie said that, after Trump was elected in November 2016, he began to receive calls from Canadian officials asking for a briefing on his old Cambridge Analytica boss — the new president’s close adviser, Steve Bannon.
Company started out very differently, says Wylie
Wylie told The Current that when he first started working for Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) — Cambridge Analytica’s parent firm — the work was about “how to use data online to identify people who would be more vulnerable to extremist ideologies, or being targeted by extremist organizations.”
That changed, he said, following a major investment by U.S. billionaire Robert Mercer.
Wylie said Mercer funded the creation of Cambridge Analytica, focused its operations on the U.S. and put conservative strategist Bannon in charge.
Rather than trying to mitigate the problem of extremism and radicalization, he wanted — in my view — to promote it.– Christopher Wylie on Steve Bannon
Wylie was involved in getting Cambridge Analytica off the ground. He said it became clear Bannon was interested in the same type of people — those “more prone to extremist ideation” — that SCL had been seeking out.
“It’s just that rather than trying to mitigate the problem of extremism and radicalization, he wanted — in my view — to promote it in the United States, for the alt-right,” he told Petty.
Wylie left the company in 2014.
“I really didn’t like how I felt like my work had been completely inverted,” he told The Current. “Something that I was working on, you know, to protect our democracies was being used to, you know, attack and undermine our democracies.”
No one has a plan to fight this: Wylie
Wylie said that, after Trump won, it was “personally devastating” to watch Bannon’s appointment as the administration’s chief strategist and “to see people that I had seen in the office now holding the levers of power, knowing that these people, at least in my view, are extremists.”
In hindsight, he said he thinks he should have pushed his warning more — but at the time he trusted that the Obama administration would know what to do.
“The thing that I realized in my journey as a whistleblower … is that the reaction that I got from a lot of law enforcement and regulatory agencies was confusion and bafflement,” he said.
Cambridge Analytica dissolved in 2018, but Wylie warns that the people who ran it are still working in the sector — and the methods they used are still viable.
“We have not effectively found a way to regulate, whether it’s social media or the internet, and really put safety measures in place. What happens if China becomes the next Cambridge Analytica?” he asked.
“When it comes to this sort of new age of hostile foreign interference and the weaponization of information and propaganda online, there is no plan.”
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.