IN MARCH OF 2018, data scientist Christopher Wylie accused his former employer, Cambridge Analytica, of improperly harvesting the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million people, for the purpose of sending them targeted political ads. He felt guilty; going public was a mea culpa. ‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool,’ the twenty-eight-year-old told reporter Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer.1
The revelations ‘were not really revelations at all,’ noted the New Yorker. That Cambridge Analytica assembled psychographic profiles of voters using improperly obtained Facebook data — and sold it to such clients as the Donald Trump and Vote Leave campaigns — had been in the news for years. Nevertheless, #deletefacebook trended, alongside its new public face: pink hair, pensive gaze, pierced septum. He ‘looks like he could walk in a Vetements show,’ noted an incredulous GQ. ‘The Millenials’ first great Whistleblower?’ tweeted Cadwalladr.
Most modern whistleblowers dress to deflect attention. ‘Appear respectable and serious without overdoing it,’ advises a 2013 guide for would-be government informants.2 Daniel Ellsberg, the military intelligence contractor whose leak of the Pentagon Papers helped end the Vietnam War, rubbed elbows with flower children at anti-nuclear demonstrations in a suit and tie.3 Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who divulged 9/11 lapses, wore a fifteen-year-old suit to her congressional testimony, ignoring the subsequent flurry of letters from fashion consultants and hairdressers.4 Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s public image — button-down shirt, wire-framed glasses with one nose-pad missing — has been so consistent it’s piqued the suspicions of conspiracy theorists.5 ‘The funny thing is most of my life, even today, I never wore glasses,’ Snowden said recently of media portrayals. ‘They have trapped me in time over the course of my existence as the way I looked when I came forward.’6
Whistleblowers, in other words, are insulated from trends. According to political psychologist C. Frederick Alford, although their actions lead to progress, they have a streak of moral conservatism: ‘It takes someone who believes in the system far more than the system ever believes in itself.’7
Wylie, on the other hand, wore all of the following in the days and weeks after he went public: a Raf Simons-esque jacket with photo collage patches. A neon-orange sweatshirt by Polish streetwear brand MISBHV. A T-shirt by a New York streetwear brand, Pleasures, printed with a photo of a baby smoking a cigarette. A camouflage coach jacket from the pop star the Weeknd’s merch collection, XO (according to some fans, the letters reference a kiss; according to others, the club drug ecstasy). In his portrait for the New York Times, Wylie stands in front of a wall of graffiti. A self-described gay Canadian vegan who dropped out of high-school and taught himself to code, this is not all that surprising. But as a whistleblower, he’s an outsider among outsiders. Rather than cultivating quiet normalcy, Wylie’s outfits gesture at the avant-garde as loudly as any fashion editorial. But what are the gestures saying?
What clothes say about their wearers was, in fact, the research query that brought Wylie to Cambridge Analytica in the first place. In 2013, while working towards a PHD in trend forecasting, he was hired by its future parent company. Cambridge Analytica went on to use a quiz app to cull information from Facebook profiles that would help predict political beliefs, similarly to how fashion forecasters might predict purchases. ‘Fashion trends are a useful proxy for [politics],’ Wylie told the Observer. ‘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 [Steve Bannon] was looking for.’ After Wylie left in 2014, he started his own company, Eunoia Technologies, which developed ‘algorithms to predict fashion personality and trend adoption in individual consumers.’8 Its ‘Psychographic Segments’ included ‘Young Punky Creatives’ and ‘Hyper Branded Exhibitionists’; per a Buzzfeed report, the start-up pitched microtargeting to everyone from fashion labels to former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.9
In the weeks after Wylie went public, Facebook lost $80 billion in market value.10 Public figures including Elon Musk deleted their accounts, and dozens of publications published how-to guides to doing the same. If this whistleblower’s revelations ‘were not really revelations,’ why are they striking a nerve? Part of it is Facebook’s handling of the crisis: Cambridge Analytica obtained its data under the guise of academic research; the platform knew about the misuse, but did little to rectify it. Adding fuel to the flames is the figure of Wylie himself. In the days after he went public, a quote by John Waters circulated on Twitter: ‘When I was young there were beatniks. Hippies. Punks. Gangsters,’ the filmmaker said in 2012. ‘Now you’re a hacktvist. But there’s no look to that lifestyle! I’m mad about that. If your kid comes out of the bedroom and says he just shut down the government, it seems to me he should at least have an outfit for that.’11
Wylie had an outfit. His whistle was directed not at a government, but its nebulous digital equivalent; no one wants to be viewed as a data set, much less a ‘Hyper Branded Exhibitionist’ or ‘Young Punky Creative.’ The thing is, Wylie is also complicit. ‘Pink hair is cancelled. Septum piercings obviously cancelled… “Whistleblowing” extremely old already exposed news, cancelled,’ tweeted Ashland Mines, the DJ Total Freedom. Does it take someone steeped in the intricacies of personal branding to jam up the algorithms that govern it? Or is Wylie’s persona all too crisp, a meme more than a movement’s spark? Perhaps the Millennial Whistleblower’s politics are like his fashion, a collection of things that only look radical.
The thing is, the trendiness of political opinions is exactly Wylie’s point. Trump is like Uggs and Uggs are like Trump; sudden, infectious, arbitrary. Most people are comfortable with the idea that what they wear is not a reflection of a deeper self so much as of passing conventions. Clothing is a dance between self-distinction and social acceptability, a tendency to flock with and against our peers. More unsettling is the notion that our political beliefs could be the same. On social media platforms, their similarity is exacerbated, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The values most dear to us are displayed alongside haul videos and cupcake close-ups, as clicks and shares. Our politics are accessories to personal brands.
At the time of this article’s publication, Christopher Wylie was no longer on Facebook, although not by choice. Soon after he went public, the company disabled his account. ‘Downside to @facebook also banning me on @instagram is missing out on my daily dose of well curated food pics and thirst traps,’ he tweeted, somewhere between sarcasm and sincerity.
Our own forecast is glitching; the meanings coded into the Whistleblower’s clothes remain opaque. But whistleblowers are, Millennial or otherwise, truth-tellers. Perhaps this one’s revelation is that behind our curated identities, there may sometimes be no meaning at all.
Alice Hines is a writer in New York and Vestoj’s online editor.
From Cadwalladr’s profile of Wylie, published on March 18, 2018. See: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/
faceook-nix-bannon-trump. The two first interviews with Wylie as an on-the-record source were published on March 17, 2018, by the New York Times and the Guardian. ↩