The news keeps pouring in about the illegal data operations of the firm Cambridge Analytica, which used a Facebook personality quiz app called “thisisyourdigitallife” to mine the data of millions of users, most of whom never actually used the app. The mined data went on to be used by Republican campaigns in 2016.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that a large part of the effort to mine data on American voters was overseen by Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart executive chairman and Trump strategist who recently utterly failed to lead a radical right-wing insurgency in the Republican party.
Bannon used Cambridge to test phrases like “drain the swamp” used in the campaign of Donald Trump and the phrase “deep state,” which became the name of the all-consuming right-wing conspiracy theory over the past year. These phrases were tested by Bannon and Cambridge more than three years before they entered the popular political discussion.
Steve Bannon oversaw Cambridge Analytica’s early efforts to collect troves of Facebook data as part of an ambitious program to build detailed profiles of millions of American voters, a former employee of the data-science firm tells WaPo. https://t.co/uUv4Cr6WMk
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) March 21, 2018
Cambridge was part of Bannon’s effort to build a right-wing populist machine on the right. But a former research director and founding force of Cambridge Analytica, Chris Wylie, made the depth of this connection apparent Tuesday in an interview with the Post. Wylie said that Bannon approved the $1 million operation to acquire Facebook profiles and other data in 2014.
Wylie’s account was one of several connected to Cambridge Analytica that Facebook suspended for its failure to comply with destroying the ill-gotten user data.
“Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically,” Wylie said to Bannon according to his recollection of a conversation given in an interview with The Guardian. “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.”
To that end, Wylie helped Bannon create thisisyourdigitallife which would absorb not just the Facebook data of the app’s users but the data of the people associated with the app’s users, who had not explicitly given Cambridge Analytica permission.
And Bannon got deeply involved in the daily operations of the scheme, even calling the shots over Cambridge’s currently-suspended CEO Alexander Nix.
“We had to get Bannon to approve everything at this point. Bannon was Alexander Nix’s boss,” Wylie told the Post. “Nix didn’t have the authority to spend that much money without approval.”
Wylie also said that the only foreign policy subject tested was Vladimir Putin, which brings the Cambridge scandal into the Russia investigation in what is rapidly becoming the Trump presidency’s version of “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
The gravity of the legal and ethical questions about Cambridge’s actions might overshadow the practical consideration: did it even work? It’s unclear if there was much actually gained from the firestorm-generating and dubious data mining operation, with Trump digital director Brad Parscale saying the data wasn’t actually useful.
Which makes it like a lot of Steve Bannon’s body of work actually — morally bankrupt and wildly ineffectual.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.