Book Review: Mindf*ck by Christopher Wylie

Mindf*ck by Christopher Wylie
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: October 8, 2019
Source: Borrowed

For the first time, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower tells the inside story of the data mining and psychological manipulation behind the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum, connecting Facebook, WikiLeaks, Russian intelligence, and international hackers.

Mindf*ck goes deep inside Cambridge Analytica’s “American operations,” which were driven by Steve Bannon’s vision to remake America and fueled by mysterious billionaire Robert Mercer’s money, as it weaponized and wielded the massive store of data it had harvested on individuals in–excess of 87 million–to disunite the United States and set Americans against each other through psychological manipulation. Bannon had long sensed that deep within America’s soul lurked an explosive tension. Cambridge Analytica had the data to prove it, and in 2016 Bannon had a presidential campaign to use as his proving ground.

Christopher Wylie might have seemed an unlikely figure to be at the center of such an operation. Canadian and liberal in his politics, he was only twenty-four when he got a job with a London firm that worked with the U.K. Ministry of Defense and was charged putatively with helping to build a team of data scientists to create new tools to identify and combat radical extremism online. In short order, those same military tools were turned to political purposes, and Cambridge Analytica was born.

Wylie’s decision to become a whistleblower prompted the largest data crime investigation in history. His story is both exposé and dire warning about a sudden problem born of very new and powerful capabilities. It has not only exposed the profound vulnerabilities and profound carelessness in the enormous companies that drive the attention economy, it has also exposed the profound vulnerabilities of democracy itself. What happened in 2016 was just a trial run. Ruthless actors are coming for your data, and they want to control what you think.

Okay, so I kind of just picked this book up on a whim — something about that bright green cover and the big “Mindf*ck” got me — but wow, this was fascinating! I remember the controversy over Cambridge Analytica, but I never followed it all that closely. We all know Facebook knows way too much about us, right? We all know that ads are targeted to our specific interests now. I never really cared that much. I also never really understood the extent of what happened until I read this book.

If Cambridge Analytica aimed to do one thing with all of the data it collected from Facebook, it was develop a deeper understanding of people. If they could form connections between different aspects of peoples’ lives, they could target political messages in just the right way to influence people’s opinions. For example, take a woman who loves yoga and eating organic and is also incredibly homophobic. What kind of messages will work on her? Reading this was like looking at a detective’s wall with string connecting all of the different bullet points about people.

Cambridge Analytica really came up with some cool, interesting stuff. I can see why Wylie was involved, even if their clientele didn’t quite mesh with his personal political beliefs and their methodology was sketchy at best. This is a company that could tell you anything about anybody, and its employees really had the freedom to research anything they wanted.

Take a look at this study, which I don’t want to believe, but unfortunately, I do:

In one experiment, CA would show people on online panels pictures of simple bar graphs about uncontroversial things (e.g., the usage rates of mobile phones or sales of a car type) and the majority would be able to read the graph correctly. However, unbeknownst to the respondents, the data behind these graphs had actually been derived from politically controversial topics, such as income inequality, climate change, or deaths from gun violence. When the labels of the same graphs were later switched to their actual controversial topic, respondents who were made angry by identity threats were more likely to misread the relabeled graphs that they had previously understood. What CA observed was that when respondents were angry, their need for complete and rational explanations was also significantly reduced. In particular, anger put people in a frame of mind in which they were more indiscriminately punitive, particularly to out-groups. They would also underestimate the risk of negative outcomes. This led CA to discover that even if a hypothetical trade war with China or Mexico meant the loss of American jobs and profits, people primed with anger would tolerate that domestic economic damage if it meant they could use a trade war to punish immigrant groups and urban liberals.

Reading this book made me wonder what kinds of things Cambridge Analytica would say about me, and what’s been targeted to me. (Though, given my completely opposite political leanings, I kind of doubt Bannon, the rest of the Republican party, and the Russian interference wasted their money on me during the 2016 election.)

This book is incredibly well-written and incredibly interesting. I’ve hardly even scratched the surface in this review because I honestly don’t know where to begin, but if you have any interest at all in social media, data analysis, targeted advertising, current events, the current political situation in the United States, Brexit, ethics, or just interesting nonfiction, read this book.

Have you read Mindf*ck? Have you read any good tech or current events books lately?
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