MANILA, Philippines – Rappler CEO Maria Ressa recently interviewed Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie on the sidelines of the Antidote Festival in Sydney, Australia.
During the interview, Wylie said the Philippines and other countries in the global south were perfect places for Cambridge Analytica to experiment with tactics and technology.
Maria Ressa: When the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, the most number of compromised Facebook accounts was in the US, but the second most…
Christopher Wylie: …was in the Philippines.
Maria Ressa: What role did the Philippines play for you, for your company?
Christopher Wylie: Yeah, the company that I worked for even before Cambridge Analytica came into existence was a company called the SCL Group (Strategic Communications Laboratory). And SCL Group, even before I joined, had a relatively long history working in Filipino politics. And even whilst I was working at Cambridge Analytica, staff from the company would go and visit the Philippines.
The way the company often worked and the reason why it would go into countries in the global south, developing countries is…this sort of old world colonial administrations might have gone, but there are still a lot of vested interests – whether those are commercial interests or whether those are governmental interests in the West to influence or in some cases undermine elections, promote certain politicians over others.
And the way SCL – and later Cambridge Analytica – would make money is they would go into countries with relatively underdeveloped regulatory infrastructure or questionable rule of law where it was easy to get away with things and create propaganda and support politicians who would be willing later to pay back favors.
One of the things that I very much learned working for the company is that even if big Western powers left officially, that kind of influence didn't. It just became more discreet. And so SCL was the company that specialized in doing that.
It did work in the Philippines.
When you look at countries in the developing world or the global south, there are certain countries that stand out with a much higher rate of internet penetration and social media use.
So the Philippines is one of those countries where you've got a lot of people online and a lot of people using social media. So when you've got that kind of setup, it's an ideal target.
Maria Ressa: Target as in a place to experiment?
Christopher Wylie: Yes. So a lot of the time when the company was looking to experiment with techniques, experiment with AI, experiment with ways of...whether it's manipulating voter opinion or disseminating propaganda, what have you, it's more difficult to do that in countries like the US or Britain or Europe where there is robust regulatory action, there's robust law enforcement, there's also like well developed and fair-ish media.
In countries in the global south where you don't necessarily have a fair and balanced media setup, where corruption is rife (endemic), it creates an ideal petri dish type situation where you can experiment on tactics and techniques that you wouldn't be able to as easily in the West. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't matter, you won't get caught. If it does work, then you can then figure out how to port that into other countries.
The company worked in a lot of places in Southeast Asia and in Africa as well as the Caribbean to play with ideas and to try to develop technologies before it would then port it onto the West.
Maria Ressa: Is it fair to say that the trial and error, the petri dish in the Philippines, paved the way for Brexit and Donald Trump?
Christopher Wylie: Okay, so if you look at the Philippines, right? I mean, recently, Filipino politics kinda looks a lot like the United States. You've got a president who was Trump before Trump was Trump, and you have relationships with people close to him with SCL and Cambridge Analytica. And you had a lot of data being collected – the second largest amount of data after the United States being collected in the Philippines.
Also if you look at how SCL and Cambridge Analytica operated in a lot of countries – and they even said this in some of the undercover statements that were done in the UK – you know one of the things they talk about is that they use...they don't go into a country as Cambridge Analytica. They don't go into a country as SCL Group because it's too obvious. So you use local partners (proxies). You use proxies. You set up – and they're on camera admitting this.
They go into countries, set up bullshit companies that are just fronts and they send in staff. And you know, it makes it very difficult for regulators or opposition parties to actually identify what's happening. And as they also have admitted, once an election is done, they just get out.
So they're in. They're out. They've got their guy in, and then you know they can come back and ask for favors.
Maria Ressa: The company in the Philippines they worked with that was affiliated is a company called Istratehiya, which is connected to a Duterte supporter. Is that familiar to you?
Christopher Wylie: I didn't work in the Philippines. So I don't want to… (no, I don't want you to speculate) …to speculate. But what I will say was that I am aware that there was a Philippines office. I believe it was on the website. And I am pretty sure that that was the office that was being used.
Maria Ressa: Okay, Alexander Nix came to the Philippines at the end of 2015 before the campaigns began, and there was a photo of him… (yeah, he met with people there) ...the staff of Duterte.
Christopher Wylie: Yeah! What do you think he was doing there?
Maria Ressa: Did he work for the Duterte campaign?
Christopher Wylie: I can't say for sure without looking into it more because I wasn't one of the people that worked on Southeast Asia. They split up – there were so many regions that the company operated in. But I do know that at that time, the company did do work in the Philippines.
And I do know that it was for a – what they would describe as an alt-right candidate who used to be a mayor in the city so… (wow) ...but I can't confirm exactly...
Maria Ressa: In the global south, emerging democracies…. What's the impact of the things that SCL…
Christopher Wylie: My real concern is – it's not just SCL and Cambridge Analytica. It was the canary in the coal mine. It wasn't the coal mine. It was the canary. And so when you look at where, what Facebook does in the global south, or what a lot of tech companies do in the global south: they go in and they go, 'Right, there is not yet a developed technical infrastructure. If we get there first, we can control the information of that country. We can exploit that country for data. We can exploit that country for information and for media.' And more broadly, if you all of a sudden become the primary news source for people in an entire nation, you are the most powerful player in that nation.
And when you look at Facebook and its Free Basics program are automatically installing it on phones; when you look at the impact that had in Myanmar, where Facebook got used as a propaganda and hate network to target Muslims, where tens of thousands of people were killed; when even after they were warned by the United Nations that ethnic cleansing was happening and their platform was playing a role in it. They did nothing because they don't care.
And that's the problem.
It's the classic problem that colonialism always has. You have powerful white people from the West going into a country that is less powerful or less rich, going in and exploiting resources. And when there's a problem, it just gets out. Or doesn’t do anything about it.
And the real problem that I have with the way Silicon Valley is operating is that it's not giving due consideration to the rights and well-being of people who are not in the West. And you know when you look at Myanmar or Sri Lanka, lots of places where you have tech platforms amplifying a lot of endemic social issues that result in people getting hurt, I worry that a lot of developing countries are not giving enough attention to what could happen if you let these big, sparkly tech companies from the West come in with all of their money.
I can understand why it would be tempting, right? If you're a government and you're looking for economic development, technical development of your tech sector, you want to become like a modern country like everybody else, it's really tempting to say, 'All right, Google, all right Facebook, all right, Amazon, all right whoever' to come in and essentially take over a national infrastructure which should be solely responsible to the citizens of that country.
Like the story that always repeats itself: colonialism never died, it just moved online. – Rappler.com