Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower and a former employee of the firm, told Congress Wednesday that the company ran voter suppression campaigns, which targeted black Americans and other liberal demographic groups. He said that those orders came from Steve Bannon, former chief executive of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and later Chief Strategist in the Trump White House.
"Mr. Bannon sees cultural warfare as the means to create enduring change in American politics. It was for this reason Mr. Bannon engaged SCL (Cambridge Analytica's parent company), a foreign military contractor, to build an arsenal of informational weapons he could deploy on the American population," Wylie told CNN after the hearing, adding that "voter disengagement tactics" were used to "discourage or demobilize certain types of people from voting" — specifically, African-Americans.
Political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was partly funded by right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer; Bannon was the firm's vice president until he joined the Donald Trump campaign, which then hired the firm to help win the 2016 election. In March, Wylie came forward and claimed that Cambridge Analytica improperly harvested personal information from some 50 million Facebook users to try to manipulate voters.
"We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles," Wylie told the Observer. "And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on."
The scandal provoked intense outrage across the technology and political landscapes and put a glaring spotlight on the privacy and surveillance practices and responsibilities of Facebook and other social media giants. Wylie's testimony to Congress marks the first time he's presented evidence on the wide-reaching and allegedly exploitative data breach since his public disclosure.
When Wylie spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.,) asked if one of Bannon's "goals was to suppress voting or discourage certain individuals in the U.S. from voting."
Wylie said, "That was my understanding, yes." He added that discussions about "voter disengagement" and the the targeting of African-Americans, prompted his departure from the firm, according to the Guardian, saying he saw documents referencing this operation.
In one example, "Facebook posts were targeted at some black voters reminding them of Hillary Clinton’s 1990s description of black youths as 'super predators', in the hope it would deter them from voting," the Guardian reported. "Wylie also explained why Cambridge Analytica was testing messages such as 'drain the swamp' and 'build the wall' in 2014, before the Trump campaign existed."
Wylie said, "The company learned that there were segments of the populace that were responsive to these messages that weren’t necessarily reflected in other polling."
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) were among lawmakers on the committee who have used Cambridge Analytica for past campaigns, CNN reported. In the hearing, they pointed to the Barack Obama campaign and its use of Facebook data.
"However, people who downloaded the Obama campaign app were aware they were using a political app," the Guardian said. "By contrast, the data obtained by Cambridge Analytica was obtained via a personality quiz application whose users had no idea their data would be used by a political campaign."
Still, Wylie stressed that this wasn't about partisanship. "Although Cambridge Analytica may have supported particular candidates in U.S. elections, I am not here to point fingers," his written testimony said. "The firm's political leanings are far less relevant than the broader vulnerabilities this scandal has exposed."
The embattled data firm closed down earlier this month, but filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy Thursday. It continues to deny any wrongdoing. The New York Times reported that Cambridge Analytica was under investigation by the FBI and department of Justice.