Christopher Wylie

Profile, £20

You’ll remember Christopher Wylie as the pink-haired co-founder of Cambridge Analytica who last year blew the whistle on his old company’s misdeeds. Since then, the news cycle has ground on so relentlessly that the story may only be a sketchy memory, assuming we grasped its significance in the first place. It had something to do with Brexit. No, Facebook. Hang on, wasn’t Trump in there somewhere? Some Russians?

The answer is, all of the above. Mindf*ck is a complex story, about how a gay, liberal Canadian data-nerd devised systems which helped an international alt-right movement secure an extraordinary amount of power and influence. And it merits close attention, as it goes a long way to making sense of the current political landscape.

It started, as these things often do, with the best of intentions. After brief spells with the Canadian Liberal Party and Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems, Wylie took a job with Strategic Communication Laboratories in London, working primarily for the military to combat extremism and radicalisation. This was a thrilling time for him, as he was developing tools to identify and classify groups of people in a brand-new way, enabling SCL to target individuals with very specific propaganda.

So carried away was Wylie with the potential of his ideas that he didn’t much care who paid his wages, and became almost completely desensitised to the real-world effects of SCL’s operations as they adapted military psy-ops techniques to influence elections in Africa and the Caribbean. When he was introduced to Steve Bannon, future co-founder of Cambridge Analytica, the two were able to bond over their shared belief that politics is a product of culture and fashion. Wylie thought Bannon a little weird, but saw no cause for concern.

Cambridge Analytica's effectiveness moved to a whole new level when Facebook granted access to its user data, supplementing the astonishing amount of information they were already gathering. The company was able to target political campaign advertising (and disinformation) with unprecedented precision. Wylie recounts Bannon’s use of Cambridge Analytica to destabilise the US by whipping up paranoia and racism and, in the UK, the company engineering the biggest breach of electoral law in a century by funnelling money for Leave.EU through a Canadian subsidiary. There is as yet no concrete evidence of Cambridge Analytica involvement in Russian interference with the US election, but Wylie establishes enough connections between them, Donald Trump, the backers of Leave.EU and the Russian embassy in London to leave them all with some explaining to do.

When the whole story can be read as a continuous narrative without being derailed by accusations of George Soros conspiracies or crazy cat ladies, Mindf*ck is a devastating indictment of a political culture out of control. His conscience nagging at him for his years of denial, the contrite Wylie chillingly predicts that the information war will only worsen as the real and online worlds become ever more integrated. In terms of psychological warfare and foreign propaganda, the closure of Cambridge Analytica marked only the end of the beginning.