There's nothing we do quite so well as to "lose the plot." We lose our ability to understand or cope with things that are then flushed down the memory hole. We do that a lot on things that are challenging or frightening such as climate change. Someone releases a credible report that, over 30 years, we have caused the loss of half the planet's wild life. A few days later it's down the memory hole, forgotten and then erased.
It's the same story when it comes to technological threats. Remember Cambridge Analytica, Aggregate IQ, shady billionaire Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, the election of Donald Trump, Brexit? It's all largely forgotten now, in some cases swept under the carpet, safely down the memory hole.
So it's timely, a year on from the Cambridge Analytica scandal that the journalist who broke the story, Carole Cadwalladr, got together with the boy wonder from Victoria, B.C., Chris Wylie to rehash what happened and how little it achieved.
Wylie is perplexed how the Tory government in Britain simply ignored the whole thing.
“I was asked by a journalist to sum up the story in a minute,” he says, “and I was like: ‘No’. It goes from Trump to Brexit to Russian espionage to military operations in Afghanistan to hacking the president of Nigeria. Where do you even begin?”
He’s referring to the fact that Cambridge Analytica was part of a much bigger company, SCL, which had worked as a defence contractor for governments and militaries around the world, then branched into elections in developing countries, and, only in its final iteration, entered western politics. That’s one of the things, he says, that “frustrates me about how dominant the Facebook angle of the story was, when there’s so much fucked-up shit that Cambridge Analytica were doing in different parts of the world. But if you go to a developing country and do grossly unethical things, that’s not ‘newsworthy’.”
...If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny to Wylie that one of the biggest takeaways of the story – which was generating 34,000 news stories a day at its height and cost one of the biggest companies on Earth billions – is how it failed. The Brexit angle of the Cambridge Analytica Files, the explosive revelations of a second whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, fell inexplicably flat. Sanni revealed in the Observer how Vote Leave deliberately broke the law in the way it funnelled money to the data firm AggregateIQ, an associate company of Cambridge Analytica. It’s believed to be the biggest breach of electoral law in a century, but it was given minimal coverage by the BBC and all but ignored by Britain’s political class. The law-breaking was confirmed by the electoral commission in July, and it has now been referred to the police.
“The thing is that there was such a huge weight of evidence which has now all been proven,” says Wylie. “Vote Leave broke the law. I can say that out loud now. Vote Leave broke the law. But nothing happened. It’s insane to me that people get more upset by doping in the Olympics, when the consequence of this is an irreversible change to the constitutional settlement of the country.”
Perhaps what the scandal has really revealed is a situation that is too embarrassing, too disastrous to acknowledge. We know that Facebook has been used to undermine elections all across the world, including our own. But we’re in this strange historical moment where we’ve realised it, but we don’t have the power, currently, to do anything about it.It is to me, utterly mind-boggling, to hear Theresa May say she's only giving effect to the will of the British public in pursuing Brexit when she knows, everyone knows, the whole Leave campaign was corrupt. Yet in all the hours of debates over Brexit in Westminster I've followed I have not heard a single mention of it. It's as though none of it ever happened.