At this point, it'd be shocking if news broke that someone or something didn't nefariously influence the 2016 election. But new revelations from Business of Fashion's Voices conference in Oxfordshire hit close to home: whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who wore Yeezy sneakers to break the news on Wednesday, revealed that Cambridge Analytica, the data firm of which he was previously the director of research, weaponised fashion brands to help elect now-President Donald Trump.
The firm used Facebook likes for labels such as Wrangler and L.L. Bean to build algorithms to spread pro-Trump messaging during Trump's controversial presidential campaign.
Wylie, who insists his "day job" is in fashion, was featured on a lineup that included former Lanvin creative director Alber Elbaz and fellow A-list designer Stella McCartney as speakers at BoF's annual gathering of fashion thinkers and influencers. During his 45-minute lecture, Wylie explained how loyalty to certain fashion brands can signal susceptibility to populist political messaging and how fashion was one of his and former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon's primary tactics to sway public opinion. "We were about to destroy the world together. I became Icarus and put on wax wings and flew into the sun," Wylie said of his and Bannon's pact to harvest insights from social media.
In consultation with psychologists, Wylie helped build a research-based graphic brand matrix that showed correlations between fashion brands and five psychological traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — that were used by Cambridge Analytica to target political messaging. For example, if someone's fashion-related Facebook habits (such as liking pages of brands) showed preference for American brands, that means they were low on openness, thus leaning more conservatively and being more likely to fall prey to pro-Trump rhetoric. If you liked European brands, like anything from Topshop to Kenzo or Balenciaga, you'd reflect the opposite. Thus, the division so talked about it in the media today manifests.
It's what Wylie referred to as a "weapon of mass destruction," an algorithm he was a central player in creating; the Oxfordshire conference marked the first time Wylie revealed the previously undisclosed information to the public. Wylie first joined SCL Group, a private British behavioural research group (and the precursor to Cambridge Analytica) when it developed cultural weapons to fight extremism and other ideological threats in the military; he then became its research director. "The difference between Facebook and the NSA is simple but profound," Wylie told the audience of delegates and c-suite executives. "The NSA's targets are extremists, foreign spies… on Facebook you are the target."
To a standing ovation, Wylie concluded his talk with a polarising — and slightly ominous — remark. "We need cultural defence and we all make and define these cultural narratives. We depend on you to not only make our culture but protect our culture. It is up to you if Trump or Brexit become the Crocs or the Chanel of our political age."