Meet the tech evangelist who now fears for our mental health

Belinda Parmar was a passionate advocate of the digital revolution but has started keeping her familys smartphones and laptops locked away to protect her loved ones. Is she right to be so worried?

In Belinda Parmars bedroom there is a wardrobe, and inside that wardrobe there is a safe. Inside that safe is not jewellery or cash or personal documents, but devices: mobile phones, a laptop, an iPod, chargers and remote controls. Seven years ago, Parmar was the high priestess of tech empowerment. Founder of the consultancy Lady Geek, she saw it as her mission both to make tech work better for girls and women and to get more girls and women working for tech. Now she wants to talk about the damage it can cause to our mental health, to family life and to children, including her son Jedd, 11, and daughter Rocca, 10.

Parmar made her living and lived her life through these devices, so what happened to make her lock them up? Why did this tech evangelist lose her faith?

Strong women run in Parmars family. She tells me her mother raised her and her sister alone after separating from their father when Parmar was two (shes now 44 and recently separated herself), while her grandmother, who had four children, ran her own business, a recruitment firm in Mile End, east London. She grew up believing anything was possible, which is why she felt driven to start Lady Geek when she was 35, after a man in a phone shop tried to sell her a pink, sparkly phone. That was the way technology was sold and I thought: This is ridiculous. I was so angry that I went home and started a blog, she says.

The blog was called Lady Geek, and it launched a national conversation about sexism in the tech industry. Parmar left her job in advertising to turn it into a business, advising tech companies how to make their products better for women, and going into schools to encourage girls to go into the industry, for which she was awarded an OBE. For me, tech was a leveller, she says. You didnt need money, you didnt need status; it was an enabler of a more equal and more diverse society. This tiny bubble that most of us lived in had been popped and that was wonderful. That still is wonderful.

But certain aspects of her relationship with technology were not so wonderful. Id wake up and look at Twitter, she says. I had two small children, and the first thing I should have been doing was going to see the kids, but Id be looking at Twitter. She realised she was using social media for validation, to feed her ego. She began to think: If technology is an enabler, why am I just using it for things I dont like about myself?

As her children grew up, she started to be disturbed by her sons apparent compulsion to play video games. Technology takes parents out of control. I cant compete with an amazing monster, that level of dopamine. He doesnt want to eat with us, to be with us, because its not as exciting, she says. She bought a Circle, a device that allows you to manage the whole familys internet access, controlling which devices are online at which times and what they can view. My son hid it, she says. She tried to turn the wifi off, but he stood guarding it, blocking her way. She still does not know where the Circle is. In theory, she says, if youve got compliant children, this would be perfect. Perhaps that is why her combination to the safe, with his devices and hers, is 12 digits long.

Safe
Safe keeping … Parmar locks her devices in for the night. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

She has reason to worry. When a friends 12-year-old son showed signs of being addicted to video games, Parmar at first shrugged it off. Then he refused to go to school because he wanted to play all day, and then he spent eight weeks in a psychiatric institution. Hes 15 now. Nothings changed. He still wont go to school, she says.

Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, has spent 30 years studying technological addictions; he was the first to use that phrase in 1995, to describe excessive person-machine relationships. All behaviour is on a continuum from absolutely no problems at all, he says, through to recreationally enjoying something, to excessively enjoying something, to problematic and then addictive and pathological at the far end. For someone to be genuinely addicted to technology, that technology has to be the single most important thing in their life they do it to the neglect of everything else and very few people fulfil that.

He is prolific (helped, he says, by having given up his mobile phone), publishing more than 100 papers last year alone his most recent was on Instagram addiction. But he has his doubters. There are academics wholl say this is complete nonsense, that if it doesnt involve ingestion of a psychoactive substance it cant possibly be an addiction. To that he retorts: what about gambling? What is good for me is the established bodies are catching up, he says. This year, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to its list of mental health conditions in ICD-11, the International Classification of Diseases.

Griffiths is careful to articulate the difference between believing that technological addictions are real, and believing that they are ubiquitous. Addiction is defined not by the amount of time spent doing the activity, but by the context in which you do it. Parents tend to pathologise behaviour that isnt pathological its the technological generation gap, he says. Every week, concerned parents email him to say their daughter or son is addicted to social media, and when he asks if their children do their homework and chores, take exercise and have a wide network of friends, nearly always the answer is yes. But, they say, the kids are wasting three hours a day online. What were you doing when you were their age? Because I was watching TV for three hours a day when there were only three channels. And then there are the parents who use social media just as much as their kids, and who shouldnt be surprised when kids end up copying exactly what they are doing.

While it may be reassuring that few of us would qualify as addicts by Griffiths definition, the fashion for tech detoxes, and a recent survey that found that 75% of those aged 25 to 34 feel they use their phone too much, suggests many of us remain disturbed by our increasingly entwined relationship with technology. Richard Graham, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who runs the Tech Addiction Service at Londons private Nightingale hospital, tells me: Were psychologically cyborgs now, whether we like it or not. Were integrating these devices into our mental functioning, into our social and emotional lives. He quotes Chief Justice Roberts of the US supreme court: The proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.

While Graham feels the addiction model has its uses, he also draws on other ways of thinking about what is going on when we cant look away from a screen. He tells me about the student who decided to wind down one evening by playing a game of League of Legends, which would take about 40 minutes; the next time he looked at the clock, it was 5.30am. To explore this, Graham turned to flow psychology, a way of understanding the process of getting into the zone around a piece of work, which can be positive but can also make you lose track of space and time. This is not escapism: A lot of gamers are thinking strategically, in a very deep way. He is also interested in the idea of hyperfocus, which some people with ADHD experience, as not so much a problem of not being able to concentrate, but of not being able to shift concentration.

He was influenced, too, by the work of Sherry Turkle, a social psychologist who has been researching the relationship between people and technology for three decades. Some of the participants in her studies, he says, were so attached to their consoles that they even found winning upsetting because it disrupts the connection with the machine. Theres a sense that they keep going because they dont want that connection to be lost. A psychoanalyst might compare this to the unconscious desire to be back in the womb, in a state of absolute connection.

For young people on the brink of or enduring the horrors of adolescence, like Belindas son, Graham feels there could be something else going on: an identity crisis, trying to find a place in the world of near-adults. For these young people, games and social media arent just fun theyre business. Whether they monetise their YouTube channel or not, this is a way to succeed, to harness digital capital and turn it into self-esteem. Griffiths suggests that screens might even be one of the reasons for the drop in youth crime over the past 25 years: More youth are spending more time in front of technology, so they havent got time to go out and commit acquisitive crime. Being very engrossing isnt necessarily bad.

These experts agree that abstinence is not the way forward: instead, we need to build what they call digital resilience, and learn to use technology in a measured, controlled way. If someone goes diving and is deeply immersed in the ocean, Graham says, you cant just bring them up quickly without significant effect. So rather than talking about digital detox, we need to think about digital decompression.

He recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics family media plan, which tells you how much sleep you need, and schedules a period of no-screen time an hour before bed, as well as clean periods in your day and clean zones in your home. I think it can really help if everyone does it together. But adults can be more slippery than young people. Theyll say: I need my phone for work, for my alarm. Unfortunately, with adolescents, anything like that smacks of hypocrisy and is incredibly damaging.

Young people can be responsive when adults change their own behaviour, he says. I had quite a nice discussion with a young man and his mother. She told me she only has a Kindle, and I replied that the later models will disrupt your sleep as much as anything else. This absolutely thrilled the adolescent, who was much more willing to change his behaviour because Id caught his mum out. And she was up for changing, too.

Parmar realises she has to set an example. I love technology, but my own behaviour has changed because Im more self-aware, she says. Hence her devices being in the safe, along with her sons. But looking around her sunlit bedroom, I see a laptop on the desk, a tablet next to her pillow. So your bedroom isnt screen-free, then, I say. She looks reflective, perhaps a little sheepish, and acknowledges that she likes to watch things on her tablet once the kids have gone to bed. Shes still figuring things out, still coming to terms with the tough decisions we all need to make if we want to be more in control of our relationship with technology.

These are the conversations Parmar wants us to have, which is why she is launching a campaign and website, TheTruthAboutTech.com (no relation to a similarly named American campaign), that will offer practical tips and a space for people to share their stories. This is my new mission. And I tell you what: dealing with my son every day, it reminds me, this is personal. This is really personal.

She also wants to hold to account the tech giants who are profiting from our over-engagement. She raises her voice: I want to say, youve got to be more responsible. You can still make billions, but you should be thinking about how can you bring all the human values we want as a society into your products. She is furious with Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, who last year said the companys main competitor was not Amazon Video or YouTube, but sleep. That is disgraceful. He should be saying: My No 1 mission is to unite families in their living room around great content.

These companies, she says, are the most powerful brands in the world, more powerful than governments. Imagine if a government had said that. Theyre digital dictators, and part of this campaign is getting them to stand up and be accountable. And what does that mean? It means rethinking Snapchats streaks, which track how long users have been in daily communication, keeping them checking in for fear of losing out; it means rethinking YouTubes Up next queue, which automatically plays video after video; it means addiction ratings on video games. And thats barely scratching the surface.

How does she feel about her previous work, spreading the benefits of tech with no mention of its dangers? I think I was naive, she says. I didnt know enough. I feel good about the fact that I got more women into technology, but if I did it again, I would do it in a way that is more realistic, balancing the good and the bad.

I cant stop thinking about that safe. After all, a safe is built to protect our most precious possessions or to lock up our most dangerous weapons. It feels extraordinary that something so everyday, so anodyne as a mobile phone could have such unnerving value, such threatening power. With their influence and wealth, why would the tech giants change from digital dictators to enlightened despots?

Parmar believes commercial pressures will compel them two influential Apple shareholders are already threatening to sue the company for not limiting screen time. Graham proposes a darker alternative: We could edge towards the equivalent of a parasite that drains its host so much that it kills itself, along with the host. He doesnt mean that these technology companies and their products will actually kill us, of course. But if its this relentless, the so-called attention economy will fall down, because well all be too exhausted.

Build your digital resilience

Four tips from addiction expert Richard Graham.

1 Be united as a family. Use the American Academy of Pediatrics family media plan but remember: The whole family needs to buy into this.

2 Plan activities outside the home. Go to the cinema, for example. Its a shared experience, and theres a narrative to stoke the imagination.

3 Vary your digital diet. People get stuck in very simple diets of media consumption, using the same platforms, games and messaging apps. Using different platforms is important its about moving between them and having a sense of ease of being able to do something, then stop and move on.

4 Live healthily. Sleep enough, eat well, drink enough water and do some physical activity every day.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/mar/15/meet-the-tech-evangelist-who-now-fears-for-our-mental-health

I made Steve Bannons psychological warfare tool: meet the data war whistleblower

Christopher Wylie goes on the record to discuss his role in hijacking the profiles of millions of Facebook users in order to target the US electorate

The first time I met Christopher Wylie, he didnt yet have pink hair. That comes later. As does his mission to rewind time. To put the genie back in the bottle.

By the time I met him in person, Id already been talking to him on a daily basis for hours at a time. On the phone, he was clever, funny, bitchy, profound, intellectually ravenous, compelling. A master storyteller. A politicker. A data science nerd.

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Cambridge Analytica whistleblower: ‘We spent $1m harvesting millions of Facebook profiles’ video

Two months later, when he arrived in London from Canada, he was all those things in the flesh. And yet the flesh was impossibly young. He was 27 then (hes 28 now), a fact that has always seemed glaringly at odds with what he has done. He may have played a pivotal role in the momentous political upheavals of 2016. At the very least, he played a consequential role. At 24, he came up with an idea that led to the foundation of a company called Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britains EU membership referendum, and later became a key figure in digital operations during Donald Trumps election campaign.

Or, as Wylie describes it, he was the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating Steve Bannons psychological warfare mindfuck tool.

In 2014, Steve Bannon then executive chairman of the alt-right news network Breitbart was Wylies boss. And Robert Mercer, the secretive US hedge-fund billionaire and Republican donor, was Cambridge Analyticas investor. And the idea they bought into was to bring big data and social media to an established military methodology information operations then turn it on the US electorate.

It was Wylie who came up with that idea and oversaw its realisation. And it was Wylie who, last spring, became my source. In May 2017, I wrote an article headlined The great British Brexit robbery, which set out a skein of threads that linked Brexit to Trump to Russia. Wylie was one of a handful of individuals who provided the evidence behind it. I found him, via another Cambridge Analytica ex-employee, lying low in Canada: guilty, brooding, indignant, confused. I havent talked about this to anyone, he said at the time. And then he couldnt stop talking.

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By that time, Steve Bannon had become Trumps chief strategist. Cambridge Analyticas parent company, SCL, had won contracts with the US State Department and was pitching to the Pentagon, and Wylie was genuinely freaked out. Its insane, he told me one night. The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? Its like Nixon on steroids.

He ended up showing me a tranche of documents that laid out the secret workings behind Cambridge Analytica. And in the months following publication of my article in May,it was revealed that the company had reached out to WikiLeaks to help distribute Hillary Clintons stolen emails in 2016. And then we watched as it became a subject of special counsel Robert Muellers investigation into possible Russian collusion in the US election.

The Observer also received the first of three letters from Cambridge Analytica threatening to sue Guardian News and Media for defamation. We are still only just starting to understand the maelstrom of forces that came together to create the conditions for what Mueller confirmed last month was information warfare. But Wylie offers a unique, worms-eye view of the events of 2016. Of how Facebook was hijacked, repurposed to become a theatre of war: how it became a launchpad for what seems to be an extraordinary attack on the USs democratic process.

Wylie oversaw what may have been the first critical breach. Aged 24, while studying for a PhD in fashion trend forecasting, he came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles. And then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup.

We broke Facebook, he says.

And he did it on behalf of his new boss, Steve Bannon.

Is it fair to say you hacked Facebook? I ask him one night.

He hesitates. Ill point out that I assumed it was entirely legal and above board.

Last month, Facebooks UK director of policy, Simon Milner, told British MPs on a select committee inquiry into fake news, chaired by Conservative MP Damian Collins, that Cambridge Analytica did not have Facebook data. The official Hansard extract reads:

Christian Matheson (MP for Chester): Have you ever passed any user information over to Cambridge Analytica or any of its associated companies?

Simon Milner: No.

Matheson: But they do hold a large chunk of Facebooks user data, dont they?

Milner: No. They may have lots of data, but it will not be Facebook user data. It may be data about people who are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data that we have provided.

Alexander
Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica CEO. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Two weeks later, on 27 February, as part of the same parliamentary inquiry, Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton Deane, asked Cambridge Analyticas CEO, Alexander Nix: Does any of the data come from Facebook? Nix replied: We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data.

And through it all, Wylie and I, plus a handful of editors and a small, international group of academics and researchers, have known that at least in 2014 that certainly wasnt the case, because Wylie has the paper trail. In our first phone call, he told me he had the receipts, invoices, emails, legal letters records that showed how, between June and August 2014, the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users had been harvested. Most damning of all, he had a letter from Facebooks own lawyers admitting that Cambridge Analytica had acquired the data illegitimately.

Going public involves an enormous amount of risk. Wylie is breaking a non-disclosure agreement and risks being sued. He is breaking the confidence of Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer.

Its taken a rollercoaster of a year to help get Wylie to a place where its possible for him to finally come forward. A year in which Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of investigations on both sides of the Atlantic Robert Muellers in the US, and separate inquiries by the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioners Office in the UK, both triggered in February 2017, after the Observers first article in this investigation.

It has been a year, too, in which Wylie has been trying his best to rewind to undo events that he set in motion. Earlier this month, he submitted a dossier of evidence to the Information Commissioners Office and the National Crime Agencys cybercrime unit. He is now in a position to go on the record: the data nerd who came in from the cold.

There are many points where this story could begin. One is in 2012, when Wylie was 21 and working for the Liberal Democrats in the UK, then in government as junior coalition partners. His career trajectory has been, like most aspects of his life so far, extraordinary, preposterous, implausible.

Profile

Cambridge Analytica: the key players

Alexander Nix, CEO

An Old Etonian with a degree from Manchester University, Nix, 42, worked as a financial analyst in Mexico and the UK before joining SCL, a strategic communications firm, in 2003. From 2007 he took over the companys elections division, and claims to have worked on 260 campaigns globally. He set up Cambridge Analytica to work in America, with investment from RobertMercer.

Aleksandr Kogan, data miner

Aleksandr Kogan was born in Moldova and lived in Moscow until the age of seven, then moved with his family to the US, where he became a naturalised citizen. He studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and got his PhD at the University of Hong Kong before joining Cambridge as a lecturer in psychology and expert in social media psychometrics. He set up Global Science Research (GSR) to carry out CAs data research. While at Cambridge he accepted a position at St Petersburg State University, and also took Russian government grants for research. He changed his name to Spectre when he married, but later reverted to Kogan.

Steve Bannon, former board member

A former investment banker turned alt-right media svengali, Steve Bannon was boss at website Breitbart when he met Christopher Wylie and Nix and advised Robert Mercer to invest in political data research by setting up CA. In August 2016 he became Donald Trumps campaign CEO. Bannon encouraged the reality TV star to embrace the populist, economic nationalist agenda that would carry him into the White House. That earned Bannon the post of chief strategist to the president and for a while he was arguably the second most powerful man in America. By August 2017 his relationship with Trump had soured and he was out.

Robert Mercer, investor

Robert Mercer, 71, is a computer scientist and hedge fund billionaire, who used his fortune to become one of the most influential men in US politics as a top Republican donor. An AI expert, he made a fortune with quantitative trading pioneers Renaissance Technologies, then built a $60m war chest to back conservative causes by using an offshore investment vehicle to avoid US tax.

Rebekah Mercer, investor

Rebekah Mercer has a maths degree from Stanford, and worked as a trader, but her influence comes primarily from her fathers billions. The fortysomething, the second of Mercers three daughters, heads up the family foundation which channels money to rightwing groups. The conservative megadonors backed Breitbart, Bannon and, most influentially, poured millions into Trumps presidential campaign.

Wylie grew up in British Columbia and as a teenager he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. He left school at 16 without a single qualification. Yet at 17, he was working in the office of the leader of the Canadian opposition; at 18, he went to learn all things data from Obamas national director of targeting, which he then introduced to Canada for the Liberal party. At 19, he taught himself to code, and in 2010, age 20, he came to London to study law at the London School of Economics.

Politics is like the mob, though, he says. You never really leave. I got a call from the Lib Dems. They wanted to upgrade their databases and voter targeting. So, I combined working for them with studying for my degree.

Politics is also where he feels most comfortable. He hated school, but as an intern in the Canadian parliament he discovered a world where he could talk to adults and they would listen. He was the kid who did the internet stuff and within a year he was working for the leader of the opposition.

Hes one of the brightest people you will ever meet, a senior politician whos known Wylie since he was 20 told me. Sometimes thats a blessing and sometimes a curse.

Meanwhile, at Cambridge Universitys Psychometrics Centre, two psychologists, Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell, were experimenting with a way of studying personality by quantifying it.

Starting in 2007,Stillwell, while a student, had devised various apps for Facebook, one of which, a personality quiz called myPersonality, had gone viral. Users were scored on big five personality traits Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism and in exchange, 40% of them consented to give him access to their Facebook profiles. Suddenly, there was a way of measuring personality traits across the population and correlating scores against Facebook likes across millions of people.

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Examples, above and below, of the visual messages trialled by GSRs online profiling test. Respondents were asked: How important should this message be to all Americans?

The research was original, groundbreaking and had obvious possibilities. They had a lot of approaches from the security services, a member of the centre told me. There was one called You Are What You Like and it was demonstrated to the intelligence services. And it showed these odd patterns; that, for example, people who liked I hate Israel on Facebook also tended to like Nike shoes and KitKats.

There are agencies that fund research on behalf of the intelligence services. And they were all over this research. That one was nicknamed Operation KitKat.

The defence and military establishment were the first to see the potential of the research. Boeing, a major US defence contractor, funded Kosinskis PhD and Darpa, the US governments secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is cited in at least two academic papers supporting Kosinskis work.

But when, in 2013, the first major paper was published, others saw this potential too, including Wylie. He had finished his degree and had started his PhD in fashion forecasting, and was thinking about the Lib Dems. It is fair to say that he didnt have a clue what he was walking into.

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I wanted to know why the Lib Dems sucked at winning elections when they used to run the country up to the end of the 19th century, Wylie explains. And I began looking at consumer and demographic data to see what united Lib Dem voters, because apart from bits of Wales and the Shetlands its weird, disparate regions. And what I found is there were no strong correlations. There was no signal in the data.

And then I came across a paper about how personality traits could be a precursor to political behaviour, and it suddenly made sense. Liberalism is correlated with high openness and low conscientiousness, and when you think of Lib Dems theyre absent-minded professors and hippies. Theyre the early adopters theyre highly open to new ideas. And it just clicked all of a sudden.

Here was a way for the party to identify potential new voters. The only problem was that the Lib Dems werent interested.

I did this presentation at which I told them they would lose half their 57 seats, and they were like: Why are you so pessimistic? They actually lost all but eight of their seats, FYI.

Another Lib Dem connection introduced Wylie to a company called SCL Group, one of whose subsidiaries, SCL Elections, would go on to create Cambridge Analytica (an incorporated venture between SCL Elections and Robert Mercer, funded by the latter). For all intents and purposes, SCL/Cambridge Analytica are one and the same.

Alexander Nix, then CEO of SCL Elections, made Wylie an offer he couldnt resist. He said: Well give you total freedom. Experiment. Come and test out all your crazy ideas.

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Another example of the visual messages trialled by GSRs online profiling test.

In the history of bad ideas, this turned out to be one of the worst. The job was research director across the SCL group, a private contractor that has both defence and elections operations. Its defence arm was a contractor to the UKs Ministry of Defence and the USs Department of Defense, among others. Its expertise was in psychological operations or psyops changing peoples minds not through persuasion but through informational dominance, a set of techniques that includes rumour, disinformation and fake news.

SCL Elections had used a similar suite of tools in more than 200 elections around the world, mostly in undeveloped democracies that Wylie would come to realise were unequipped to defend themselves.

Wylie holds a British Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa a UK work visa given to just 200 people a year. He was working inside government (with the Lib Dems) as a political strategist with advanced data science skills. But no one, least of all him, could have predicted what came next. When he turned up at SCLs offices in Mayfair, he had no clue that he was walking into the middle of a nexus of defence and intelligence projects, private contractors and cutting-edge cyberweaponry.

The thing I think about all the time is, what if Id taken a job at Deloitte instead? They offered me one. I just think if Id taken literally any other job, Cambridge Analytica wouldnt exist. You have no idea how much I brood on this.

A few months later, in autumn 2013, Wylie met Steve Bannon. At the time, he was editor-in-chief of Breitbart, which he had brought to Britain to support his friend Nigel Farage in his mission to take Britain out of the European Union.

What was he like?

Smart, says Wylie. Interesting. Really interested in ideas. Hes the only straight man Ive ever talked to about intersectional feminist theory. He saw its relevance straightaway to the oppressions that conservative, young white men feel.

Wylie meeting Bannon was the moment petrol was poured on a flickering flame. Wylie lives for ideas. He speaks 19 to the dozen for hours at a time. He had a theory to prove. And at the time, this was a purely intellectual problem. Politics was like fashion, he told Bannon.

[Bannon] got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking Ugh. Totally ugly to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.

But Wylie wasnt just talking about fashion. He had recently been exposed to a new discipline: information operations, which ranks alongside land, sea, air and space in the US militarys doctrine of the five-dimensional battle space. His brief ranged across the SCL Group the British government has paid SCL to conduct counter-extremism operations in the Middle East, and the US Department of Defense has contracted it to work in Afghanistan.

I tell him that another former employee described the firm as MI6 for hire, and Id never quite understood it.

Its like dirty MI6 because youre not constrained. Theres no having to go to a judge to apply for permission. Its normal for a market research company to amass data on domestic populations. And if youre working in some country and theres an auxiliary benefit to a current client with aligned interests, well thats just a bonus.

When I ask how Bannon even found SCL, Wylie tells me what sounds like a tall tale, though its one he can back up with an email about how Mark Block, a veteran Republican strategist, happened to sit next to a cyberwarfare expert for the US air force on a plane. And the cyberwarfare guy is like, Oh, you should meet SCL. They do cyberwarfare for elections.

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Steve Bannon: He loved the gays, says Wylie. He saw us as early adopters. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

It was Bannon who took this idea to the Mercers: Robert Mercer the co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, who used his billions to pursue a rightwing agenda, donating to Republican causes and supporting Republican candidates and his daughter Rebekah.

Nix and Wylie flew to New York to meet the Mercers in Rebekahs Manhattan apartment.

She loved me. She was like, Oh we need more of your type on our side!

Your type?

The gays. She loved the gays. So did Steve [Bannon]. He saw us as early adopters. He figured, if you can get the gays on board, everyone else will follow. Its why he was so into the whole Milo [Yiannopoulos] thing.

Robert Mercer was a pioneer in AI and machine translation. He helped invent algorithmic trading which replaced hedge fund managers with computer programs and he listened to Wylies pitch. It was for a new kind of political message-targeting based on an influential and groundbreaking 2014 paper researched at Cambridges Psychometrics Centre, called: Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans.

In politics, the money man is usually the dumbest person in the room. Whereas its the opposite way around with Mercer, says Wylie. He said very little, but he really listened. He wanted to understand the science. And he wanted proof that it worked.

And to do that, Wylie needed data.

How Cambridge Analytica acquired the data has been the subject of internal reviews at Cambridge University, of many news articles and much speculation and rumour.

When Nix was interviewed by MPs last month, Damian Collins asked him:

Does any of your data come from Global Science Research company?

Nix: GSR?

Collins: Yes.

Nix: We had a relationship with GSR. They did some research for us back in 2014. That research proved to be fruitless and so the answer is no.

Collins: They have not supplied you with data or information?

Nix: No.

Collins: Your datasets are not based on information you have received from them?

Nix: No.

Collins: At all?

Nix: At all.

The problem with Nixs response to Collins is that Wylie has a copy of an executed contract, dated 4 June 2014, which confirms that SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, entered into a commercial arrangement with a company called Global Science Research (GSR), owned by Cambridge-based academic Aleksandr Kogan, specifically premised on the harvesting and processing of Facebook data, so that it could be matched to personality traits and voter rolls.

He has receipts showing that Cambridge Analytica spent $7m to amass this data, about $1m of it with GSR. He has the bank records and wire transfers. Emails reveal Wylie first negotiated with Michal Kosinski, one of the co-authors of the original myPersonality research paper, to use the myPersonality database. But when negotiations broke down, another psychologist, Aleksandr Kogan, offered a solution that many of his colleagues considered unethical. He offered to replicate Kosinski and Stilwells research and cut them out of the deal. For Wylie it seemed a perfect solution. Kosinski was asking for $500,000 for the IP but Kogan said he could replicate it and just harvest his own set of data. (Kosinski says the fee was to fund further research.)

Dr
An unethical solution? Dr Aleksandr Kogan Photograph: alex kogan

Kogan then set up GSR to do the work, and proposed to Wylie they use the data to set up an interdisciplinary institute working across the social sciences. What happened to that idea, I ask Wylie. It never happened. I dont know why. Thats one of the things that upsets me the most.

It was Bannons interest in culture as war that ignited Wylies intellectual concept. But it was Robert Mercers millions that created a firestorm. Kogan was able to throw money at the hard problem of acquiring personal data: he advertised for people who were willing to be paid to take a personality quiz on Amazons Mechanical Turk and Qualtrics. At the end of which Kogans app, called thisismydigitallife, gave him permission to access their Facebook profiles. And not just theirs, but their friends too. On average, each seeder the people who had taken the personality test, around 320,000 in total unwittingly gave access to at least 160 other peoples profiles, none of whom would have known or had reason to suspect.

What the email correspondence between Cambridge Analytica employees and Kogan shows is that Kogan had collected millions of profiles in a matter of weeks. But neither Wylie nor anyone else at Cambridge Analytica had checked that it was legal. It certainly wasnt authorised. Kogan did have permission to pull Facebook data, but for academic purposes only. Whats more, under British data protection laws, its illegal for personal data to be sold to a third party without consent.

Facebook could see it was happening, says Wylie. Their security protocols were triggered because Kogans apps were pulling this enormous amount of data, but apparently Kogan told them it was for academic use. So they were like, Fine.

Kogan maintains that everything he did was legal and he had a close working relationship with Facebook, which had granted him permission for his apps.

Cambridge Analytica had its data. This was the foundation of everything it did next how it extracted psychological insights from the seeders and then built an algorithm to profile millions more.

For more than a year, the reporting around what Cambridge Analytica did or didnt do for Trump has revolved around the question of psychographics, but Wylie points out: Everything was built on the back of that data. The models, the algorithm. Everything. Why wouldnt you use it in your biggest campaign ever?

In December 2015, the Guardians Harry Davies published the first report about Cambridge Analytica acquiring Facebook data and using it to support Ted Cruz in his campaign to be the US Republican candidate. But it wasnt until many months later that Facebook took action. And then, all they did was write a letter. In August 2016, shortly before the US election, and two years after the breach took place, Facebooks lawyers wrote to Wylie, who left Cambridge Analytica in 2014, and told him the data had been illicitly obtained and that GSR was not authorised to share or sell it. They said it must be deleted immediately.

Christopher
Christopher Wylie: Its like Nixon on steroids

I already had. But literally all I had to do was tick a box and sign it and send it back, and that was it, says Wylie. Facebook made zero effort to get the data back.

There were multiple copies of it. It had been emailed in unencrypted files.

Cambridge Analytica rejected all allegations the Observer put to them.

Dr Kogan who later changed his name to Dr Spectre, but has subsequently changed it back to Dr Kogan is still a faculty member at Cambridge University, a senior research associate. But what his fellow academics didnt know until Kogan revealed it in emails to the Observer (although Cambridge University says that Kogan told the head of the psychology department), is that he is also an associate professor at St Petersburg University. Further research revealed that hes received grants from the Russian government to research Stress, health and psychological wellbeing in social networks. The opportunity came about on a trip to the city to visit friends and family, he said.

There are other dramatic documents in Wylies stash, including a pitch made by Cambridge Analytica to Lukoil, Russias second biggest oil producer. In an email dated 17 July 2014, about the US presidential primaries, Nix wrote to Wylie: We have been asked to write a memo to Lukoil (the Russian oil and gas company) to explain to them how our services are going to apply to the petroleum business. Nix said that they understand behavioural microtargeting in the context of elections but that they were failing to make the connection between voters and their consumers. The work, he said, would be shared with the CEO of the business, a former Soviet oil minister and associate of Putin, Vagit Alekperov.

It didnt make any sense to me, says Wylie. I didnt understand either the email or the pitch presentation we did. Why would a Russian oil company want to target information on American voters?

Muellers investigation traces the first stages of the Russian operation to disrupt the 2016 US election back to 2014, when the Russian state made what appears to be its first concerted efforts to harness the power of Americas social media platforms, including Facebook. And it was in late summer of the same year that Cambridge Analytica presented the Russian oil company with an outline of its datasets, capabilities and methodology. The presentation had little to do with consumers. Instead, documents show it focused on election disruption techniques. The first slide illustrates how a rumour campaign spread fear in the 2007 Nigerian election in which the company worked by spreading the idea that the election would be rigged. The final slide, branded with Lukoils logo and that of SCL Group and SCL Elections, headlines its deliverables: psychographic messaging.

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/data-war-whistleblower-christopher-wylie-faceook-nix-bannon-trump

Stop children bingeing on social media during holidays, parents urged

Childrens commissioner says too much time is spent online as she launches five a day campaign

The childrens commissioner has warned parents that they must intervene to stop their children overusing social media and consuming time online like junk food.

As web use reaches record highs among children, Anne Longfield has attacked the new methods social media giants are using to draw them into spending more time staring at tablets and smartphones. In an interview with the Observer, she said that parents should step up and be proactive in stopping their children from bingeing on the internet during the summer holidays.

Launching a campaign to help parents to regulate their childrens internet use, she said time online should be balanced in the same way that parents regulate their childrens diets. Its something that every parent will talk about especially during school holidays that children are in danger of seeing social media like sweeties, and their online time like junk food, she said.

None of us as parents would want our children to eat junk food all the time double cheeseburger, chips, every day, every meal. For those same reasons we shouldnt want our children to do the same with their online time.

When phones, social media and games make us feel worried, stressed and out of control, it means we havent got the balance right. With your diet, you know that, because you dont feel that good. Its the same with social media.

Her warning comes after a report said that children in all age groups are spending ever-longer periods online. The internet overtook television as the top media pastime for British children last year, according to the media regulator Ofcom. Children aged five to 15 are spending 15 hours a week online.

Last year the time three- and four-year-olds spent online increased from six hours 48 minutes to eight hours 18 minutes a week, while 12- to 15-year-olds now spend more than 20 hours online.

Facebook
Facebook Photograph: Thomas White/Reuters

Longfield said children should be helped to understand that sites encourage them to click on another game or video based on what they had just played. She had been pressuring Facebook to make it easier for children to report things they are worried about or switch off certain features.

She also criticised a feature on Snapchat, known as the Snapstreak, that she said encouraged children to increase their internet use. A streak is created when friends share photos over three consecutive days, but it is destroyed if a day is missed. Longfield compared the feature to a chain letter.

You find children saying to parents that they have 30 people that they have to do every day and if they dont, they drop the streak, and everyone will see, she said. And then does that mean they dont like me any more? Its almost like chain letters. There are children who say they cant not be online, and I think thats really worrying.

I want Facebook and all the other social media companies to be as proactive as they can about creating a good place and a safe place for kids to be. At the same time I want them to stop using the algorithms and the targeting that get kids addicted all those things that we know can be very stressful and very destructive. However, it doesnt mean that parents themselves can step aside and wait for that to happen.

Longfield said it was not helpful to recommend an absolute time limit on how long children should be online. Instead, she is announcing a digital five-a-day campaign, designed to advise parents and children on a healthy online diet. Rather than switching off the wifi, parents should help children to use their internet time to learn new skills, interact positively with friends and be creative.

Were not saying its parents fault, or that they should tell their children what to do, because ultimately this is part of life. All of those kids will have grown up with that being the normality. But we do think there is a role here for parents to step up, to stop waiting for others to come up with the solution, be that government or [social media] companies. We want [children] to feel informed, confident and empowered, and have the confidence to say, no, Im not going to do that. That same confidence we want for children, we want for parents, too.

She said Facebook and other social media giants are not coming forward at quite the speed I would like them to on making it easier to protect children.

There is so much more they could do, she said. These are clever, clever people, who know their industry well, their tech abilities well. They can do things if they want that I dont even know exist, and there are some very good examples of them using their expertise, for example by spotting people who have suicidal tendencies. But they are not doing [enough] yet.

Snapchat and Facebook declined to comment.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/aug/05/children-bingeing-social-media-anne-longfield-childrens-commissioner

Popular social media sites ‘harm young people’s mental health’

Poll of 14- to 24-year-olds shows Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter increased feelings of inadequacy and anxiety

Four of the five most popular forms of social media harm young peoples mental health, with Instagram the most damaging, according to research by two health organisations.

Instagram has the most negative impact on young peoples mental wellbeing, a survey of almost 1,500 14- to 24-year-olds found, and the health groups accused it of deepening young peoples feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.

The survey, published on Friday, concluded that Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter are also harmful. Among the five only YouTube was judged to have a positive impact.

The four platforms have a negative effect because they can exacerbate childrens and young peoples body image worries, and worsen bullying, sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness, the participants said.

The findings follow growing concern among politicians, health bodies, doctors, charities and parents about young people suffering harm as a result of sexting, cyberbullying and social media reinforcing feelings of self-loathing and even the risk of them committing suicide.

Its interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing. Both platforms are very image-focused and it appears that they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people, said Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, which undertook the survey with the Young Health Movement.

She demanded tough measures to make social media less of a wild west when it comes to young peoples mental health and wellbeing. Social media firms should bring in a pop-up image to warn young people that they have been using it a lot, while Instagram and similar platforms should alert users when photographs of people have been digitally manipulated, Cramer said.

The 1,479 young people surveyed were asked to rate the impact of the five forms of social media on 14 different criteria of health and wellbeing, including their effect on sleep, anxiety, depression, loneliness, self-identity, bullying, body image and the fear of missing out.

Instagram emerged with the most negative score. It rated badly for seven of the 14 measures, particularly its impact on sleep, body image and fear of missing out and also for bullying and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. However, young people cited its upsides too, including self-expression, self-identity and emotional support.

YouTube scored very badly for its impact on sleep but positively in nine of the 14 categories, notably awareness and understanding of other peoples health experience, self-expression, loneliness, depression and emotional support.

However, the leader of the UKs psychiatrists said the findings were too simplistic and unfairly blamed social media for the complex reasons why the mental health of so many young people is suffering.

Prof Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: I am sure that social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives.. We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media good and bad to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message.

Young Minds, the charity which Theresa May visited last week on a campaign stop, backed the call for Instagram and other platforms to take further steps to protect young users.

Tom Madders, its director of campaigns and communications, said: Prompting young people about heavy usage and signposting to support they may need, on a platform that they identify with, could help many young people.

However, he also urged caution in how content accessed by young people on social media is perceived. Its also important to recognise that simply protecting young people from particular content types can never be the whole solution. We need to support young people so they understand the risks of how they behave online, and are empowered to make sense of and know how to respond to harmful content that slips through filters.

Parents and mental health experts fear that platforms such as Instagram can make young users feel worried and inadequate by facilitating hostile comments about their appearance or reminding them that they have not been invited to, for example, a party many of their peers are attending.

May, who has made childrens mental health one of her priorities, highlighted social medias damaging effects in her shared society speech in January, saying: We know that the use of social media brings additional concerns and challenges. In 2014, just over one in 10 young people said that they had experienced cyberbullying by phone or over the internet.

In February, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, warned social media and technology firms that they could face sanctions, including through legislation, unless they did more to tackle sexting, cyberbullying and the trolling of young users.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/may/19/popular-social-media-sites-harm-young-peoples-mental-health