The huckster and the hack: UK govt report undermines stars of Cambridge Analytica-Russiagate scandal
Self-styled whistleblower Christopher Wylie and The Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr earned film deals and flashy awards by blaming Brexit and Trump on a sweeping conspiracy between data firm Cambridge Analytica and Russia. A British government investigation shatters their claims to fame.
Two years after the stunning June 2016 passage of the Brexit referendum, affirming the British public’s desire to withdraw from the European Union, and the equally unexpected November 2016 election of Donald Trump to the White House, a scandal erupted that seemed to explain these rogue right-wing victories as the handiwork of an especially devilish data-mining scheme.
In 2018, a hipster techie named Christopher Wylie emerged as a supposed whistleblower from the UK data firm SCL-Cambridge Analytica. Wylie claimed inside knowledge of how his former employer illicitly harvested the personal data of British and American voters through Facebook to conduct micro-targeting operations in favor of Brexit and Trump. Further, and most memorably, he asserted that “known Russian agents” were involved in the right-wing plot.
“Here is what I know,” Wylie tweeted, “when I was at Cambridge Analytica, the company hired known Russian agents, had data researchers in St Petersburg, tested US voter opinion on Putin’s leadership, and hired hackers from Russia – all while [former Trump Chief of Staff Steve] Bannon was in charge.”
As soon as Wylie went public, his accusations against Cambridge Analytica became a central pillar of the Russiagate narrative, bridging Trump-Putin across the Atlantic to Brexit and the rise of Euroscepticism.
Wylie, a self-proclaimed progressive Eurosceptic, has since published a book, “Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America,” and inspired an Oscar-shortlisted Netflix documentary about the supposed scandal called “The Great Hack.” In 2018, Wylie’s supposed revelations earned him a spot on Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. A film based on the rebel techie’s interview with The Guardian is on the way.
Wylie has boastfully described himself as “the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating ‘Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool,’” who enjoys a wild ride “from fashion to fascism to fashion.” (After starting out as a fashion school student, he said he was hired by H&M in 2018.)
The hipster whistleblower was cultivated over the course of 2017 and 2018 by The Guardian’s Russia-obsessed correspondent Carole Cadwalladr. Operating as Wylie’s de facto publicist and churning out a stream of reports based on his spectacular claims, Cadwalladr has won admiring media profiles, an array of journalism awards, and a finalist nomination in the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.
In July 2018, Cadwalladr issued a bold prophesy that stirred liberal audiences across the Atlantic: “From [former FBI director Robert] Mueller’s most recent indictments [of Trump officials], it is clear that the data trail must be coming soon: the chain of evidence that is required to understand how the Russian government’s influence operation targeted American voters.”
She pointed to a forthcoming report by the British Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and its commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, on the role of SCL-Cambridge Analytica in Brexit and 2016 US elections: “And here is the clue and where it is believed Denham comes in – what data it was based on.”
Her self-styled whistleblower source, Wylie, has also praised Denham: “I want to point out this Russia/Facebook/[Cambridge Analytica] investigation is being led by women like Elizabeth Denham, the UK Information Commissioner, and Carole Cadwalladr at the Guardian. When the tech bros looked away, these women paid attention and put in the hours to investigate.”
But the data trail promised by Cadwalladr never arrived. Instead, Denham and the British ICO produced a report that contradicted virtually ever major prediction and assertion that Wylie and Cadwalladr made about SCL-Cambridge Analytica and its role in UK politics. Published this October, the ICO report reinforces a British parliamentary investigation into Brexit that found no evidence of Russian meddling.
With the release of the ICO report, the Cambridge Analytica-Russiagate bombshell that erupted two years ago has been exposed as another dud. Now, there are serious questions about the credibility of the figures who inspired the debunked narrative.
Another Russiagate plot point reaches a revealing denouement
The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) spent over two years investigating Cambridge Analytica (CA) and associated entities, including its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL); the Canada-based Aggregate IQ (AIQ); and the research facility Global Science Research (GSR).
Strategic advisory firms like Cambridge Analytica work with political campaigns, governments, and corporate clients, offering them a variety of services from public relations to black operations. The ICO report, for example, found that Cambridge Analytica purchased large amounts of commercially available data on US citizens. The data was then used to build profiles on American voters so that they could be targeted with election advertising tailored to them.
After examining Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK, and allegations of ties to Russian government influence operations, the ICO found a chaotic, largely ineffectual operation with no connection to the Kremlin. The closure of the investigation marked yet another anti-climactic denouement of a key Russiagate plot point.
Elizabeth Denham methodically discredited the baseless allegations of collusion between the data firm, the Russian government, and the Trump campaign. Further, her report poured cold water on the influence of Cambridge Analytica in Brexit, demonstrating the company’s negligible impact on the vote.
The ICO even concluded that Cambridge Analytica’s widely touted psychographic micro-targeting of voters was mostly hype. Its tactics were neither new nor particularly effective.
“The scale of the investigation I conducted was unprecedented for a data protection authority,” declared the ICO commissioner in her 18-page report. “It highlighted the whole ecosystem of personal data in political campaigns.”
“During my investigation a large amount of material and equipment was reviewed including; 42 laptops and computers, 700 TB of data, 31 servers, over 300,000 documents, and a wide range of material in paper form and from cloud storage devices,” Denham said.
The Guardian reported “40 full-time investigators working on the case, 20 specialist contractors, and they have an interview list that numbers 264 people.”
“The ICO has conducted a reverse engineering exercise to try to identify and confirm as far as possible, how SCL/CA processed the personal data they held… my findings were also informed and corroborated based on accounts obtained from witness interviews and the contents of statements taken during the investigation,” Denham said.
The methodically detailed investigation’s findings were a damning commentary on the Western media that opportunistically painted SCL-Cambridge Analytica as a batcave command center for Putin and the Bannonite far-right.
Reaching for the Russia ruse
In March 2018, failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pointed to Cambridge Analytica’s alleged work with Russia in order to deflect from her loss to Trump in 2016. “You’ve got Cambridge Analytica… and you’ve got the Russians. And the real question is how did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely?” she posed to the UK’s Channel 4 News in an interview for the network’s documentary on the data scandal.
“If they were getting advice from let’s say Cambridge Analytica or someone else, about, ‘ok, here are the 12 voters in this town in Wisconsin…’ that indeed would be very disturbing,” Clinton declared.
Cadwalladr seized on the statement as confirmation of her own reporting.
So, this is pretty extraordinary. Hillary links Kenya, Trump & Brexit. Says all "projects" of Cambridge Analytica https://t.co/Xbv2cNS9SI
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) September 19, 2017
That same month, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic congressional point man on allegations of Trump-Russia collusion, had invited Wylie to testify as a part of “ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.” In the Senate, Richard Blumenthal called to have Cambridge Analytica investigated over its “ties to Russia” and “services for Russians.”
The uproar that ensued from Wylie’s testimony resulted in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg being dragged before Congress to apologize like a whimpering puppy for his role in enabling the British data firm to meddle in elections.
Corporate media leapt on the salacious story, devoting copious air time to the topic. One journalist noted dozens of tweets about Cambridge Analytica written in 2018 by CNN congressional correspondent Manu Raju, the network’s media critic Brian Stelter, and its primetime host Jake Tapper.
Don't know if anyone at CNN is covering debunking of the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower panic. This is what it looked like back in 2018.
— David Harsanyi (@davidharsanyi) October 9, 2020
When Wylie testified behind closed doors to members of the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee and an Oversight and Government Reform panel in April 2018, he stunned the lawmakers with claims that Cambridge Analytica had tested messaging with American voters about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his policies in Eastern Europe.
Wylie claimed that people who worked on the US and UK campaigns had connections to two Russian intelligence outfits, as well as to Russians and Russian companies which were in turn linked to the Kremlin itself. According to the self-styled whistleblower, Cambridge Analytica hired “known Russian agents.” He painted a sprawling, conspiratorial portrait of a hostile foreign information warfare operation that seemed almost custom made for a US media and Democratic Party eager to impeach Trump and wage a new cold war against Putin.
“There was a lot of relationships and a lot of communications with different fairly senior Russian officials,” Wylie told NPR. He has claimed that a Russian gas company with alleged ties to the Kremlin named Lukoil inquired about political, non-commercial online targeting in the United States to the company.
“Wylie also revealed Cambridge Analytica’s links to Russia. Wylie had the documents and tapes to back him up,” NPR reported.
Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) has said it discussed working with “Lukoil Turkey [to] better engage with its loyalty-card customers at gas stations,” but that nothing came from the meeting. Tellingly, Lukoil received not one mention in the short section on Russia in the ICO’s report.
While the ICO report mentioned “possible Russia-located activity” – referring to Russian IP addresses found in some data – the information was ultimately referred to the National Crime Agency, which has not taken any action. “These matters fall outside the remit of the ICO,” the report says.
In July 2018, Wylie claimed this information was also in the FBI’s hands, and that he had “been helping their investigation.” However, the reported DOJ-FBI investigation that ran parallel to the ICO has offered nothing to corroborate his remarkable assertion.
The ICO’s Russiagate section concluded as follows: “We did not find any additional evidence of Russian involvement in our analysis of material contained in the SCL / CA servers we obtained.”
In other words, virtually everything Wylie told US Congress and the media about Cambridge Analytica’s role as a secret Russian weapon – the entire basis of his fame – has been discredited by the ICO report he helped to spur.
Blustery claims of influence exposed as hot air
UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s report also surgically dismantled many of the most sensational claims about Cambridge Analytica advanced by Christopher Wylie’s promoters in the media, like Cadwalladr.
In one of the report’s most revealing sections, its authors found:
The methods that SCL were using were, in the main, well recognised processes using commonly available technology. It was these third-party libraries which formed the majority of SCL’s data science activities which were observed by the ICO… We understand this procedure is well established within the wider data science community, and in our view does not show any proprietary technology, or processes, within SCL’s work.
However, it is important to stress that the output was only a prediction… the real-world accuracy of these predictions – when used on new individuals whose data had not been used in the generating of the models – was likely much lower.
As in so many previously misreported Russiagate stories, the subjects of the controversy may have been a victim of their own self-promotional bluster. In a press release following Trump’s victory in 2016, for example, Cambridge Analytica claimed it was “instrumental in identifying supporters, persuading undecided voters, and driving turnout,” and bragged that it had “informed key decisions on campaigning communications, and resource allocation.”
“We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communications played such an integral part in President-elect Donald Trump’s extraordinary win,” CEO Alexander Nix boasted at the time.
The ICO report, on the other hand, noted “evidence that [SCL’s] own staff were concerned about some of the public statements the leadership of the company were making about their impact and influence.”
“SCL’s own marketing material claimed they had ‘Over 5,000 data points per individual on 230 million adult Americans.’ However, based on what we found it appears that this may have been an exaggeration,” the report stated.
The investigation not only exposed SCL-Cambridge Analytica’s claims of driving tectonic shifts in global politics as hot air; it also found the company’s data protection was almost comically sloppy, “with little thought for effective security measures.”
Widespread data manipulation tactics painted as uniquely evil Republican mind-weapons
Yet as recently as September of this year, media outlets like Channel 4 have continued to milk the scandal, using Cambridge Analytica data to fuel its investigative exposés on the 2016 election. Like reporting over the previous years, the coverage was premised on the dubious notion that Cambridge Analytica’s impact was meaningful.
When the scandal broke, few journalists penned anything counter to the prevailing narratives on Cambridge Analytica. Among the very few skeptics at the time was Yasha Levine, author of “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet.” In March 2018, Levine panned media coverage of the firm’s activities.
“This story is being covered and framed in a misleading way,” Levine wrote. “So far, much of the mainstream coverage, driven by the Times and Guardian reports, looks at Cambridge Analytica in isolation—almost entirely outside of any historical or political context.”
“Everyone” working in contemporary data-driven politics employs the tactics employed by Cambridge Analytica, Levine explained to The Grayzone.
“The Koch brothers have their own firm that sucks in data from Facebook and a million other sources to micro-target voters,” he said. “The Democratic Party has its own software that does exactly the same thing. Facebook has a whole team that works with campaigns to utilize data and profile voters. It’s a huge business with billions slushing around. Everyone promises huge results, way overselling their capability. If you knew even a little bit about the way political campaigns use data, it was clear that the whole thing was a sham the moment this scandal hit.”
While Wylie has claimed that SCL conducted “counter-extremism” information operations in the Middle East on behalf of the British government, and suggested that Bannon sought to deploy these tools to foment extremism in the US, the reality is that the technology was hardly limited to the 2016 election, or to one party.
This May, for example, Fox News reported that technology that received initial funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was deploying AI-driven information warfare tools originally meant to fight ISIS propaganda in order to target pro-Trump voters.
An award-winning narrative collapses
According to Elizabeth Denham’s ICO report, SCL-Cambridge Analytica’s targeted advertising was “likely the final purpose of the data gathering.” However, it “has not been possible to determine from the digital evidence reviewed” whether the firm’s online tactics influenced any political campaign.
In March 2018, Christopher Wylie testified to the UK parliament that Cambridge Analytica had shared surreptitiously obtained Facebook data with AggregateIQ (AIQ), a firm that was contracted by several pro-Brexit campaigns including Vote Leave. Wylie claimed AIQ was the Canadian front for SCL. However, the ICO report referred to AIQ merely as “a company associated with SCL/CA.”
The ICO report concluded that SCL had only a negligible impact on Brexit: “From my review of the materials recovered by the investigation I have found no further evidence to change my earlier view that SCL/CA were not involved in the EU referendum campaign in the UK – beyond some initial enquiries made by SCL/CA in relation to [the UK Independence Party] data in the early stages of the referendum process,” Denham wrote. “This strand of work does not appear to have then been taken forward by SCL/CA.”
The ICO report went on to state that the data harvested by SCL from Facebook could not have been used by anyone in the course of Brexit campaigns:
It was suggested that some of the data was utilised for political campaigning associated with the Brexit Referendum. However, our view on review of the evidence is that the data from GSR could not have been used in the Brexit Referendum as the data shared with SCL/Cambridge Analytica by Dr. Kogan related to US registered voters.
In one revealing finding laid out in the report, GSR “shared subsets of the data harvested by the App” with Eunoia Technologies Inc, among other companies.
Unmentioned in the report was that Eunoia Technologies was founded by none other than Christopher Wylie after he left Cambridge Analytica in 2014.
To be sure, there were real connections between the Donald Trump operation and Cambridge Analytica. Trump’s then-campaign manager, Steve Bannon, was a vice president at Cambridge Analytica before he joined the Trump campaign. Top Trump moneyman Robert Mercer had funded the firm, along with Bannon’s assorted media projects and the Trump campaign. Anti-Trump forces exploited these ties to try to frame Cambridge Analytica as a non-existent bridge between Trump Inc. and “the Russians.”
There is also no doubt that there was illicit data that was likely misused in the course of political campaigns by Cambridge Analytica. But Western media once again crossed the line from mundane fact into Russiagate fiction by alleging that the Kremlin exploited data non-consensually harvested by Cambridge Analytica to micro-target US and UK citizens with political messaging meant to sway the presidential election and the Brexit referendum.
These conspiracy theories were amplified and seemingly legitimized by Wylie, who was touted as an experienced company insider who came forward out of a commitment to democratic values. But was he truly who he said he was, or was he another opportunist seeking to exploit the paranoid atmosphere of Russiagate for fame and fortune?
A Wylie web of deceptions and suspect associates
Throughout the Cambridge Analytica pseudo-scandal, a series of conflicting narratives raised questions that were conveniently overlooked by US and UK media. Was AIQ, the Canadian firm, truly part and parcel of SCL? Was Christopher Wylie a co-founder, a contractor, or a mere intern? Questions about the provenance of the data Wylie blew the whistle on have not been posed.
While Wylie focused on the most seemingly explosive connections, such as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s meetings with Cambridge Analytica prior to Trump’s announcement that he was running for president, he omitted crucial pieces of evidence that undermined the conspiracy theories the media feasted on.
For example, Wylie neglected to mention that his own company, Eunoia, met with Lewandowski at about the same time in an attempt to retain the soon-to-be campaign as a client, offering them services similar to Cambridge Analytica’s.
Reporting from Buzzfeed indicated that Eunoia pitched the Trump campaign – a Cambridge Analytica client – on micro-targeting services. Wylie told the website that he deleted the illicit data in 2015. According to BuzzFeed, Wylie “bragged to associates about meetings he had with potential corporate clients, including Walmart, Monsanto, the American Petroleum Institute, Burberry, DKNY, Ford, and Virgin.”
That was before Wylie “blew the whistle.”
According to the former campaign director for Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, who today serves as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, “Wylie tried to sell me the same crap he accuses Cambridge Analytica of doing.”
While Wylie claimed that after leaving Cambridge Analytica he was subjected to lawsuits from the company in order to make it impossible for him to ever “work in any kind of political thing again or data thing again,” and to keep quiet about the data, Buzzfeed’s reporting and Cummings’ account of his apparent attempts to poach Vote Leave and the Trump campaign from his former employer corroborates accusations against him in a report commissioned by Cambridge Analytica.
Wylie claims he was appalled at the direction of the company following Bannon’s takeover, however, he has been credited with personally developing the illicit data harvesting tactic, and likely exploited it while at Cambridge Analytica before leaving the company to start his own firm – which also had access to the data. He then allegedly attempted to court the very same right-wing clients with essentially the same services. It was only after the failure of his private company that Wylie began sounding the alarm.
It is not clear exactly when Wylie experienced a change of heart. Cadwalladr says she first approached him on LinkedIn in 2017. Years earlier, in 2013, Wylie was discussing plans to found Eunoia Technologies and build it into “the NSA’s wet dream.”
Buzzfeed noted that Wylie approached SCL colleagues about joining his Palantir-like data firm. Promotional materials later produced by Eunoia pitched the targeting of voters for political clients, just as SCL did.
Wylie has also claimed to be a founder of Cambridge Analytica. “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,” he boasted to NPR.
However, the report Cambridge Analytica commissioned in the aftermath of Wylie’s emergence as a supposed whistleblower claimed he was little more than an intern on a student visa who only worked two days per week.
That record stands in stark contrast to the claim by The Guardian’s Cadwalladr that Wylie was the man who “came up with an idea that led to the foundation of a company called Cambridge Analytica.”
Coupled with the damning conclusions of the UK ICO report, the conflicting accounts of Wylie’s background seem to shatter his credibility, along with that of the Western press that accepted his spectacular claims at face value.
So was his most enthusiastic promoter, Cadwalladr, acting purely as a journalist, or as a partisan advancing an ulterior Cold War agenda?
At around the same time Cadwalladr was spinning out the now-discredited Cambridge Analytica story, she was listed by a covert, UK Foreign Commonwealth Office-funded, anti-Russian propaganda operation, the Integrity Initiative, as part of a UK-based cluster of journalists that operated under its watch. In fact, Cadwalladr participated in a November 2018 Integrity Initiative conference with other members of the cluster called “Tackling Tools of Malign Influence.”
Cadwalladr also appears to have enjoyed some form of relationship with the dubious former British spy and author of the discredited Steele Dossier, Christopher Steele. Beyond repeatedly hyping Steele and his dossier, the Guardian writer appears to have meet with the British spook. In fact, Steele spoke about “imminent and urgent threats to democracy” at a screening of “The Great Hack,” the documentary about Cadwalladr and Wylie. His comments, however, were off the record.
Christopher Steele, ex-head of MI6 Russia desk & author of so-called ‘Steele dossier’, has made very few public pronouncements. If he talks – as he does below – we really should listen. Lack of action against election interference = ‘scary’ https://t.co/JN1mjuwklk
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) January 5, 2020
On Twitter, the Guardian writer has spun out unfounded conspiracies, declaring that “Trump = Brexit = Russia.” She has also decried being “mocked as a crackpot conspiracy theorist for pursuing Cambridge Analytica. Let’s hope I’m as [sic] wrong about Brexit’s centrality in Trump-Russia axis.”
America. Yours wasn’t the only election gamed. Same players. Same companies. Same data. Same Facebook. Same Russians. https://t.co/LGNcdHrAo2
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) July 9, 2018
Wylie, for his part, enjoyed a speaking gig alongside Cadwalladr and Bill Browder, the vulture capitalist fugitive from Russian justice whose distortion-laden tale of persecution by the Kremlin inspired the US government’s Magnitsky Act and helped fuel the anti-Russian politics that now dominate Washington.
Russia is attacking our democracy. Facebook did nothing to stop them. Brexit is the product of crime. And I suck at dress codes. pic.twitter.com/jHmeQPCHkU
— Christopher Wylie 🏳️🌈 (@chrisinsilico) November 28, 2018
Since the UK’s ICO report demolished the claims that were central to Wylie’s hipster-whistleblower persona, and which provided the basis for Cadwalladr’s award-winning reporting, one has gone off the radar while the other has gone into apparent damage control mode.
Wylie and Cadwalladr ignore, dismiss a report they had eagerly anticipated
On Twitter, Christopher Wylie has chosen to ignore the damning ICO report that he once predicted would validate his explosive allegations.
Carole Cadwalladr, for her part, has pumped out a series of Tweets attacking outlets that claimed the ICO report undermined her award-winning reporting. In apparent hopes of shielding her reputation from scrutiny, she linked to a commentary by The Guardian Observer’s editorial board which bizarrely insisted “this newspaper’s exposé of the exploitation of private data has been vindicated [by the ICO report].”
The column highlighted certain aspects of the report that seemed to corroborate the paper’s reporting. However, it dismissed the meat of the investigation, declaring that “it stretches credulity to present [the ICO investigation] as a full investigation into potential Russian influence on Brexit.” Like Cadwalladr, it attacked other publications for misreporting the story.
“The ICO report confirmed massive mishandling of private data and its exploitation for political campaigning. The Observer is proud of its role in the exposure of these abuses,” the article proclaimed.
The editorial is correct about one thing, at least: the ICO investigation has resulted in a number of penalties. Cambridge Analytica was fined before it shuttered; Facebook was fined for allowing applications to harvest data from friends of users; Vote Leave and other campaigns and companies were also hit with fines for data crimes relating to the Brexit campaign – including pro-Remain entities.
But the high-tech huckstering hipster Wylie and his media muse Cadwalladr have faced no consequences for the hyperbolic bluster and now-debunked hype about foreign infiltration they spun out to win fame, film deals, and flashy journalistic awards. No matter the evidence, the Russiagate show must go on.