OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — Controversial British political marketing firm Cambridge Analytica weaponised fashion brands to help elect Donald Trump president of the United States, revealed Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower who earlier this year lifted the lid on the company’s misuse of data belonging to 87 million Facebook users, adding to public distrust of the world’s largest social network.
Speaking at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, Wylie presented publicly, for the first time, evidence that Cambridge Analytica — a vendor to the Trump and Brexit campaigns — used preferences for fashion labels expressed on social media platforms including Facebook as a primary input to building the algorithms that targeted people with pro-Trump messaging during the run up to the 2016 US presidential election, repurposing technology originally designed for cyber warfare to influence politics.
Affinity for certain fashion labels is a strong signal of susceptibility to populist political messaging, explained Wylie. He revealed a matrix illustrating correlations between several fashion brands — including Nike, Armani and Louis Vuitton — and five psychological and personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism) that were used by Cambridge Analytica to target political messaging. Those who liked American heritage brands Wrangler and LL Bean were low on openness, more conventional and more likely to respond to messaging supporting the election of Trump, for example. A preference for European designer label Kenzo, on the other hand, reflected the opposite.
The approach was a new “weapon of mass destruction,” said Wylie, who first joined SCL Group, the precursor to Cambridge Analytica, when it was a military contractor for the Pentagon, the UK’s Ministry of Defence and NATO, developing cultural weapons to fight extremism and other ideological threats, and became its research director.
Wylie, a data mastermind who worked for Trump campaign strategist Steve Bannon, a client of Cambridge Analytica, said the weapons the firm developed, like traditional munitions, were composed of payloads (narratives) and targeting systems (algorithms) but the battleground was virtual, and they were being deployed against ordinary citizens, not military assets.
“We were about to destroy the world together. I became Icarus and put on wax wings and flew into the sun,” said Wylie, recalling the unholy pact he forged with Bannon. “The difference between Facebook and the NSA is simple but profound,” he added. “The NSA’s targets are extremists, foreign spies… on Facebook you are the target.”
Careful study of fashion informed a significant amount of research at Cambridge Analytica, said Wylie, who recounted how consulting psychologists encouraged researchers at the firm to ask more questions on aesthetic and stylistic preferences for clothing as they were found to be strong signifiers of traits that were used as a primary means to identify people who were susceptible to joining the populist right. “Fashion data was used to help Bannon build the alt right,” said Wylie.
The link between fashion, psychology and politics makes sense. Fashion isn’t simply the business of selling clothing. It’s the business of selling identity. It’s about providing tools to help people answer fundamental human questions like: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How do I fit into the social hierarchy?’ Ultimately, it’s about differentiation (self-expression) and flocking (social expression); it’s about being an individual while also participating in tribes and common trends.
In short, fashion is rooted in the cultural substrate from which political preference flows, especially at a time when political strategists and other operators have shifted the crux of the debate towards identity politics, birthing the so-called culture wars.
Andrew Breitbart — the late populist who founded Breitbart News, a platform once run by Bannon that was instrumental in electing Donald Trump — is best remembered for these words: “Politics is downstream from culture.” Wylie’s revelations suggest that it’s also downstream from fashion, which sits at the very heart of cultural identity and affiliation.
Wylie noted that many populist political groups throughout history quickly established uniforms or looks to cement their rise, citing China’s Maoists and the Nazi Party in Germany. More recently, the alt right white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville adopted the white polo shirt, long affiliated with skinheads, as a uniform, something that Cambridge Analytica studied.
But if fashion preferences can be mined to influence political thinking, can fashion brands use their own messaging to reprogram the cultural signals they send and drive political change?
Wylie suggested that fashion brands could play a powerful role in shaping and not just signalling political leanings, charging companies with a responsibility to act. This means a label such as Wrangler — whose brand identity is rooted in the masculine, self-reliant mythology of the American frontier — could hack its own marketing to steer politics in another direction.
“We need cultural defence and we all make and define these cultural narratives,” said Wylie, to a standing ovation. “We depend on you to not only make our culture but protect our culture. It is up to you if Trump or Brexit become the Crocs or the Chanel of our political age.”
The underlying danger is the unchecked power of technology companies mining our personal data, said Wylie. “Silicon Valley sees the internet as terra nova,” he explained, likening tech giants such as Facebook to conquerors. “These companies are not our saviours, they are seeking to colonise us,” he said. “Facebook is the new East India company of the internet.”
Personalised targeting is creating a large-scale surveillance machine and re-segregating society under the guise of community, he continued. “We are creating informational ghettos, we are cognitively segregating our society. We have the slave trade and the sex trade…. We are now at precipice of creating the data trade.”