The fashion tastes of Facebook users played an unexpectedly important role in Cambridge Analytica’s work to help get US president Donald Trump elected, a whistleblower on the data mining and political consulting firm revealed today.
Christopher Wylie, the former research director at the firm, who previously revealed its massive misuse of Facebook data, led the creation of the algorithms Cambridge Analytica used when run by Steve Bannon, the Trump advisor and campaign official.
“Fashion data was used to build AI models to help Steve Bannon build his insurgency and build the alt-right,” Wylie said at Business of Fashion’s Voices conference in Oxfordshire in the UK today (Nov. 29).
While serving as the editor of Breitbart News Network, Bannon co-founded Cambridge Analytica in 2013 as the US arm of SCL Group, a British consulting firm that worked with military institutions and governments to carry out “behavioral change” programs.
The firm developed algorithms based on data such as Facebook likes, articles people shared, and cookies from their computers, Wylie said. Cambridge Analytica also used information gleaned from online surveys. Wylie described how these algorithms exploited people’s anxieties to influence their political feelings, and were part of what the firm used to build a “weapon of mass destruction” on the battlefield of cultural warfare—which is where fashion tastes came in. He explained how the correlations between the fashion brands people liked and their personality traits were a vital piece of the psychological profiles Cambridge Analytica created of people that allowed it to predict their political leanings and susceptibilities.
“What makes clothing so potent is that people incorporate the fashion that they’re wearing into their identity,” Wylie told a group of journalists in a briefing. “It becomes part of you and how you show yourself to the world.”
A person who liked Abercrombie & Fitch, for instance, was typically more open than someone who liked the jeans brand Wrangler, and a person who liked L.L. Bean tended to be fairly conventional. These traits generally corresponded to certain personality types, and those personality types tended to align with particular political leanings. Those were used to assess Facebook users’ susceptibility to targeting by populist right-wing movements.
Wylie was also instrumental in first flagging fashion’s importance to the firm. After working in politics, in Canada and then in Britain with the Liberal Democrats, and getting a law degree, Wylie decided to pursue a PhD in fashion forecasting. It was during this period that he got an introduction to Bannon, with whom he talked about his belief that culture could be quantified as a “distribution of attributes that plays out in the wider world.” He recalled to The Guardian:
[Bannon] got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking “Ugh. Totally ugly” to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.
Though Wylie left Cambridge Analytica in 2014, by then he had played an integral part in creating what he described to the Guardian as “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.”
“The link between fashion, psychology and politics makes sense,” wrote Vikram Alexei Kansara in Business of Fashion. “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 his revelation at Voices, an annual gathering of top fashion and cultural leaders, Wylie called for the fashion industry to take action, and not to allow its brands to be weaponized. It can do so, he said, by changing its messaging to show a range of ethnicities, body types, and more—which has the potential to cut off some of the anxieties and echo chambers that Cambridge Analytica exploited with its algorithms.
“We are in a cultural war,” Wylie said. “You guys have created the battlefield.”
Speaking to the fashion brands represented at the conference, he said, 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.”