In explosive testimony this week, a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower described how Steve Bannon turned the data firm into a 'full service propaganda machine' for the Trump campaign.
Former Trump campaign CEO and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon directed Cambridge Analytica — the scandal-plagued data firm hired by the Trump campaign — to research voter suppression tactics to discourage Democrats from voting in the 2016 presidential election, according to whistleblower Christopher Wylie.
Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, told Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this week that Bannon ordered the data firm to explore methods for "discouraging particular types of voters who are more prone to voting for Democratic or liberal candidates."
"There is one document which I have that specifically says — in bold terms — voter disengagement as an objective in the United States," Wylie said, according to testimony released Wednesday.
Asked if he had ever heard Bannon specifically talk about voter disenfranchisement or voter disengagement, Wylie replied "Yes."
During the closed-door hearing, Wylie also told lawmakers that as early as 2014, Bannon directed Cambridge Analytica employees to test messages and images related to Russia, Vladimir Putin, and Russian expansion in Eastern Europe to see how they resonated with an American audience.
Putin was the only foreign leader used in the testing, Wylie said.
"It was the only foreign issue or foreign leader, I should say, being tested at the time I was there," he told committee members. "I can’t explain why it was that they picked Vladimir Putin to talk about in focus groups or to do message testing or to do models on, and why that would be useful to Steve Bannon."
Wylie also described how Bannon ordered the data firm to test messages such as "drain the swamp" and "build the wall" — slogans that would later be featured prominently during Trump's presidential campaign.
"These are things that Steve Bannon was interested in, so he asserted a lot of influence on what it was the company should be testing and focusing on. They were not things that prior to Steve Bannon’s involvement we would have looked at, because our focus wasn’t the United States before he was involved," Wylie explained.
Bannon served as vice president of Cambridge Analytica from June 2014 until he joined the Trump campaign in August 2016.
The Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to take over its digital operations in June 2016 and went on to pay the company at least $6 million for its services.
After Trump won the election, Cambridge Analytica touted its work as integral to Trump’s victory — as did Jared Kushner, who credited the data firm for playing a key role in helping Trump win the electoral college.
According to Wylie, Bannon sought out the company — which is an offshoot of a government and military contractor called SCL Group — to help him build the tools to wage a "culture war" on American citizens using military strategies.
Bannon's priority, Wylie told lawmakers, was to win that culture war by any means necessary. He said Bannon "made it quite clear" that he didn't care if the campaign ads created and promoted by Cambridge Analytica contained misinformation or outright falsehoods — all that mattered was that people believed it was true.
"Cambridge Analytica was set up to be essentially a full service propaganda machine," Wylie said, describing how the data firm used Facebook data harvested from an estimated 87 million unwitting users to build a psychological profile of the entire U.S. population.
Using that data, the company then mapped out who was most susceptible to certain messaging, and then spread that messaging using "digital means" to reach the target population.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) described Wylie's testimony as "very disturbing," saying it shows that the Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica engaged in "a coordinated effort to mislead and to use propaganda in a way to influence an American presidential election."
After the hearing, Wylie said he hoped his testimony would help spark a congressional investigation into the matter.
One would think that all Americans would be deeply concerned to hear that a presidential campaign partnered with foreign actors to undertake a covert (and potentially illegal) operation aimed at manipulating voters, poisoning public discourse, and ultimately undermining democracy.
But apparently Republicans just aren't all that interested in things like protecting the integrity of the democratic process or defending America's system of free and fair elections.
Despite being invited to attend the hearing with Wylie, not a single Republican showed up. Instead, they chose to focus their energy on a Thursday hearing featuring Trump propagandists Diamond and Silk, who captured Republicans' hearts with a wholly baseless allegation about social media companies engaging in a secret plot to silence conservative voices online.
Of course, there may be another reason that Republicans would want to avoid digging too deeply into Cambridge Analytica's practices. Over the past four years, at least 18 Republican candidates and groups have hired the shady data firm — and with Cambridge Analytica actively seeking Republican clients for the 2018 midterms, that list may still grow.
Furthermore, even if Republican candidates choose to distance themselves from the scandal-plagued company, they can't distance themselves from its actions. After all, the tactics used by Cambridge Analytica — including voter suppression, dissemination of "fake news," and xenophobic fear-mongering — have been part of the Republican Party's playbook for years.