Appearing before the Senate Judiciary committee today as part of the ongoing investigation of Cambridge Analytica and various forms of meddling in the 2016 elections, former employee and whistleblower Christopher Wylie said that the company and its then-VP Steve Bannon were pursuing voter suppression tactics aimed at black Americans.
Although Wylie insisted that he himself did not take part in these programs, he testified to their existence.
“One of the things that provoked me to leave was discussions about ‘voter disengagement’ and the idea of targeting African Americans,” he said. “I didn’t participate on any voter suppression programs, so I can’t comment on the specifics of those programs.”
“I can comment on their existence, and I can comment more generally on my understanding of what they were doing,” he explained under questioning from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).
“If it suited the client’s objective, the firm [SCL, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company] was eager to capitalize on discontent and to stoke ethnic tensions,” read Wylie’s written testimony.
“Steve Bannon believes that politics is downstream from culture. They were seeking out companies to build an arsenal of weapons to fight a culture war,” he explained at another point in the session. He suggested questions on the nature of those weapons, and the specifics of any potential race-based voter suppression tactics, to be directed to Bannon.
That such a system might work, however, he did address.
“How specifically, then, did they target African American voters,” Sen. Harris had asked, “understanding as you do that the African American population is not a monolith? How did they then decipher and determine who was African American so they would target them in their intent to suppress the vote?”
“Racial characteristics can be modeled and I’m not sure about the studies that my colleague here was referencing but we were able to get an AUC score, which is a way of measuring accuracy for race that was .89 I believe,” Wylie answered.
AUC, he then explained, stands for “Area under the receiving operations characteristic. It’s a way of measuring precision, which [the .89 figure] means it’s very high.”
In other words, black voters could be identified based on their social media presence and other factors, despite the fact that the black community is, obviously, far from homogeneous.
It’s not particularly surprising that Bannon, who has aligned himself repeatedly with alt-right and white nationalist figures and movements, would be contemplating ways to decrease the number of people of color voting. But it is new that it was being pursued relatively openly under the Cambridge Analytica banner.
Sen. Harris and others requested any “evidence of the conduct you’ve described” Wylie may have.
Wylie also testified that Facebook, when it asked Cambridge Analytica to certify that it had deleted the data it was using in violation of the company’s rules, “did not require a notary or any sort of legal procedure. So I signed the certification and sent it back and they accepted it.”