Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie has claimed that the political consulting firm used Facebook data on people's fashion tastes to encourage them to vote for Donald Trump during the 2016 US election.
The 29-year-old researcher, who exposed his former employer's severe misuse of data during the election earlier this year, alleged the tactic also boosted the profile and ideologies of Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist.
“Fashion data was used to help Bannon build the alt-right,” he said at The Business of Fashion’s annual Voices conference in Oxfordshire on Thursday, claiming that examining Facebook “likes” for American heritage brands, such as Wrangler and LL Bean, helped the company identify people’s political leanings and see who might be most susceptible to pro-Trump messaging.
"They [Cambridge Analytica] looked at actual people," the former fashion trends forecaster added. "How they engaged with certain brands was put into a funnel and helped build the algorithms. When you look at personality traits, music and fashion are the most informative [tools] for predicting someone’s personality."
Mr Wylie said the harvested data revealed that people who had an affinity for all-American labels, such as Hollister, were more likely to posses "openness" as a personality trait and would therefore be more willing to respond to pro-Trump ads.
Meanwhile, those with preferences for European brands, such as Kenzo and Alexander McQueen, tended to be more liberal-minded and so were less likely to be targeted.
Mr Wylie, who was the director of research at Cambridge Analytica during the election, called the strategy a “weapon of mass destruction”, adding that it enabled the firm to exploit “the cultural narratives that the fashion and culture industry put out”.
He also recalled the first conversation he had with Mr Bannon, who used to run the pro-Trump website Breitbart News, which he said was about fashion, “because he was asking: ‘How do you create cultural change?’
“We [Bannon and I, during that time] said, if we indulge in light stereotyping, [if we look] at culture as a distribution of attributions that plays out in the wider world, we can work out where it goes."
Mr Wylie concluded his talk by reiterating how influential fashion brands can be in shaping people’s political beliefs, calling on industry taste makers in the audience to do their bit and use their platforms to drive change.
“We depend on you to not only make our culture but protect our culture,” he said.
“It is up to you if Trump or Brexit become the Crocs or the Chanel of our political age.”
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