Cambridge Analytica is part of the system, not an aberration
From Brexit to the Trump presidency, the political upheavals that Cambridge Analytica conspired in continue to convulse the world. The Great Hack – Netflix’s documentary regarding the scandal – reveals some of the nihilism from which the British political consulting firm operated. An effort is made to provide insight into the motivations of its young former employees Brittany Kaiser and Christopher Wylie. Kaiser’s narrative in particular dominates the production – she is presented as equal parts Machiavellian and naive. Her role in Cambridge Analytica curiously overshadows those at the centre of its workings – such as her boss and CEO, Alexander Nix or their investor (and far-right ideologue) Robert Mercer. With both of the former employees now publicly positioning themselves as data activists, it is a critical moment to look back on the scandal, and consider it not as a unique aberration but rather as a malign manifestation of the prevailing techno-capitalist order.
The documentary opens to a pink-wigged Kaiser ritualistically writing the name of her former employer onto a wooden structure that she then ties a whistle around (Netflix did not become a $135 billion company by practising subtlety). She is at Burning Man festival, in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada – a popular retreat for what we could euphemistically call the sheltered class of Silicon Valley techno-utopians, and thus a suitable introduction to Kaiser. No time is wasted in informing the audience that prior to her time at Cambridge Analytica, she worked on Barack Obama’s campaign. Whether this suggests a continuity between the two politics or a broken temporality depends upon the viewer. “I spent my entire career before that working in human rights. Let’s go back to that,” she says, intentionally vague about what “working in human rights” entails, in her opinion.
Kaiser describes the financial pressure her family faced following the 2008 global financial crisis. It is at this time that she met Nix, who offered to “get [her] drunk and steal [her] secrets”. She smiles as she describes him as “rather fun”, even after testifying before a British parliamentary committee. She recalls getting an NRA membership to “get into character” when she began working for conservative governments, despite not believing in guns. “Lithuania, Kenya, Romania, Ghana, Nigeria…” Kaiser lists the countries whose politics her work had a hand in disrupting. No afterthought is recorded. Filmed almost exclusively within private island villas, luxurious hotels and in the backseat of cabs, Kaiser is presented as an affluent, amoral assassin. This may well be true – though the more pertinent question is, whose assassin?
“It is incorrect to call Cambridge Analytica a purely data-science company or algorithm company. It is a full-service propaganda machine,” Christopher Wylie states as he is introduced in the documentary. Unlike Kaiser, he makes the link between the business he admittedly “helped set up” and a far-right insurgency, describing Cambridge Analytica as “the weapon Steve Bannon wanted to build to fight his culture war”.
Whereas Kaiser was employed as a “business development director” for Cambridge Analytica, Wylie is described as a “director of research”. British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr cites one description of him as “the one who brought data and micro-targeting [individualised political messages] to Cambridge Analytica”. Where Kaiser appears motivated by naivety and (manipulative) appeals to her vanity, Wylie appears motivated by curiosity and stealth. Recently interviewed for streetwear blog Highsnobiety, Wylie (now employed by H&M as head of research and insights) said, “It’s interesting because after Cambridge Analytica and all that happened, I got approached by all kinds of companies.” What this should tell us, and what The Great Hack hints at but never quite articulates, is that the scandal is part of the system. Personal data is the fuel of the new economy, tracked and traded in increasingly opaque ways.
As is often the case, more interesting than what is said in The Great Hack is what is unsaid, and who is left out – such as Aleksandr Kogan, the data scientist and research associate at the University of Cambridge who created the This Is Your Digital Life app that harvested users’ data without their consent, as well as that of their friends on the site. What are the links between reified institutions and businesses of exploitation? While Kaiser commands the narrative, Alexander Nix knows better than to explain himself. Politics is a sport, a business, a bet; Eton-educated Nix is trained to win. (With reported assets close to £100 million in shares in offshore petroleum companies, where Wylie and Kaiser represent opportunism and shifting loyalties, Nix represents a lineage.)
Despite the flagrant social disregard exhibited by its business, Cambridge Analytica is not a glitch in an otherwise orderly capitalist system. The attempt to position it as such, by this documentary and surrounding deluge of media (at the height of the scandal, 35,000 articles about it were being published each day), points to an inability to reckon with what this moment truly represents. Its practice is a continuation of the industry standard, not an anomaly – it behaved exactly as political consulting agencies and advertising agencies are expected to behave – for profit and pleasure. Saatchi & Saatchi’s role in 18 years of Tory government in the United Kingdom did not particularly scandalise London society – it was reported as a matter of fact that “to them, the Conservative party was simply another account”. Certainly the account was rewarding, and Charles Saatchi would be celebrated as a gallerist and collector until he assaulted his then-wife in public.
The most distinctive difference between Cambridge Analytica and the firms that came before it is the arsenal available. “Without the loudspeaker, we would never have conquered Germany,” Hitler wrote in the 1938 Manual of German Radio. As Wylie puts it in his recently released autobiography Mindf*ck, “To put it crudely, if we could copy everyone’s data profiles and replicate society in a computer – like the game The Sims but with real people’s data – we could simulate and forecast what would happen in society and the market. This seemed to be [Robert] Mercer’s goal. If we created this artificial society, we thought we would be on the threshold of creating one of the most powerful market intelligence tools in the world.” It would be negligent not to recognise the historical context The Great Hack documents. Capitalism is collapsing – as McKenzie Wark says in her new book, Capital is Dead, “The dominant ruling class of our time owns and controls information.” The evidence is everywhere – Mark Zuckerberg is going so far as to announce his own cryptocurrency –what is missing is an understanding of where this is taking us. In an increasingly intangible world, what is being decided when our data is harvested?
Sanja Grozdanic is a writer living in Berlin and the founder of Krass Journal.
From Brexit to the Trump presidency, the political upheavals that Cambridge Analytica conspired in continue to convulse the world. The Great Hack – Netflix’s documentary regarding the scandal – reveals some of the nihilism from which the British political consulting firm operated. An effort is made to provide insight into the motivations of its young former employees Brittany Kaiser and Christopher Wylie. Kaiser’s narrative in particular dominates the production – she is presented as equal parts Machiavellian and naive. Her role in Cambridge Analytica curiously overshadows those at the centre of its workings – such as her boss and CEO, Alexander Nix or their investor (and far-right ideologue) Robert Mercer. With both of the former employees now publicly positioning themselves as data activists, it is a critical moment to look back on the scandal, and consider it not as a...