This morning, Christopher Wylie addressed Voices, a forum of some 180 fashion chief executives and leaders organised by the online trade publication Business of Fashion, to discuss the future of the industry, and the uncomfortable link between brands and extremism. Wylie started work as a fashion trend forecaster, before switching roles to help the Liberal Democrats update their voter targeting. He saw the potential for harvesting Facebook data to help build psychological profiles of its users, which could in turn be used to target them with political ads. It was an idea that, in 2013, got him hired at the SCL Group — the parent company of Cambridge Analytica.

Wylie became headline news in March, when he revealed that Cambridge Analytica had been harvesting the data of millions of social network users to create targeted campaigns for, among others, the Trump campaign. He argued that Facebook, among other sites, had failed to protect its users.

Fashion and music, Wylie says, are among the best predictors of political orientation. And as such, they have the potential to help shift the political conversation. The following is an edited and abridged transcript of a conversation he had with Imran Amed, the BoF founder, and the FT to explain how fashion is in the perfect position to make the world a better place.

What have you been doing since the Cambridge Analytica story broke?

It’s been crazy. My life, at the moment, is segmented between working on fashion projects, and then going and testifying with the House Intelligence Committee [in the US]. And dealing with the sheer volume of requests that I’ve had from governments all around the world, who are now looking at both the conduct and actions of Facebook, and more broadly the impact of social media and the evolution of technology, and how that’s going to impact the rights and behaviour of people and societies.

I feel a lot of my role is Google Translate, because over the years, I’ve learnt to be able to speak about something, like a neural network, in a way that doesn’t sound intimidating.

And the legislators around the world, are they concerned that they have been unwittingly manipulated by forces outside their control?

I think a lot of regulators and legislators are now realising that the argument that we should have technical development without any rules or regulations, just for the sake of trying out new things and innovating, can go terribly wrong.

The consequences with technology, and social media and the internet, are quite profound. Because when you have data and algorithms being weaponised and being used against a population, against the citizenry, to undermine their very perception of what’s real, the impact of that is Donald Trump, or Brexit, or the rapid expansion of the alt-right and neo-Nazis in eastern Europe, or the alt-right in South America.

Our products, in my view, are weapons of mass destruction. And that has been facilitated, in many cases knowingly, by companies like Facebook that don’t see their role as protecting the integrity of our democracy and our society, and simply look at it as a platform to make money. We are trading our democracy for ad optimisation. I don’t agree with that trade-off.

Why didn’t we do something earlier? Were we too enthralled with Silicon Valley?

I find looking at the narrative of colonialism really helpful to understand what’s happening on the internet. When you look at Europeans and their first contact with indigenous people, many groups in Central and South America thought these white men on horses with steel and guns were divine messengers from the gods. And they weren’t. They were there to conquer and exploit people. The lionising of tech founders in Silicon Valley is the same. And while the resources used to be rubber, gold, oil, now it’s data.

What’s so problematic is that not only is it about exploiting people to mine resources, but the resource is you, yourself. Your identity has become a product, and when you look at the history of when aspects of people become commodities, you get really problematic results: the slave trades, the sex trades, the organ trades.

The real problem will be 20 years down the road, where AI is fully integrated into every aspect of our lives. And the result could be the creation of an environment that watches, thinks, and seeks to judge, correct, reward and punish on a value system that is completely absent of morality. Because AI is a sociopath.

So what I’m trying to do is help people start to imagine the potential consequences of what’s happening right now.

Imran, you invited Christopher to speak at the Business of Fashion conference Voices this week. What especially did you want him to address?

Amed Having looked at Christopher’s background [as a fashion trend forecaster] and then the work he’d done in exposing some of the deeds at Cambridge Analytica, I wondered what the connection was. Obviously fashion is a big part of culture, and a huge economic force in the world — $2.5tn.

Wylie The first conversation I had with Steve Bannon, we ended up talking about fashion, because he was asking: “How do you create cultural change?”

Bannon thinks of what he’s doing as a cultural war. And when you look at weapons, weapons have two fundamental aspects. You’ve got a payload and you’ve got a targeting system. The payload in cultural warfare are narratives, and the targeting systems are algorithms. And that war is fought, at the moment, mostly in the domain of cyberspace.

Fashion and politics are almost the same industry, in many regards, because it’s about identity, and it’s cyclical, and people get really emotive about it. In psychology they call it an affective response, where you have a gut response. Fashion affects you.

Christopher Wiley, the whistleblower in the Cambridge Analytica scandal © Gabby Laurent

When you look at history, every major movement, the first thing they do is create an aesthetic. Think about the Nazis. Or the Maoists in China. Any kind of revolution has an aesthetic, and that’s because one of the fundamental human universals that everybody in every culture throughout time has done is wear clothes.

One of the things that I realised very early on, first intuitively and then it was borne out in data, was that because people have an emotionally intimate relationship with their clothes, this must produce what, in data science, you call a signal. In data science you’ve got a distinction between what’s called a signal and what’s called noise. Noise is lots of technical information, but it’s not useful. A signal is.

What emerged quite quickly was that people were engaging with fashion brands and music, and these two things produced a very strong signal in predicting the constellation of attributes that make someone who they are. So, that’s personality traits, facets of identity, political orientation, sexual orientation. You could predict all of these things if you just knew either what kind of fashion brands they like, or what kind of music they listen to.

And that makes a lot of sense, when you think about it, because when you wear something, you are making a choice. Sometimes it’s a more conscious choice than not. Because you’ll get a lot of people who say, “I don’t think about what I wear.”

That’s the classic FT reader response. “I don’t care about fashion; I would never be so vapid as to follow a brand.”

But do you wear a kimono?

Exactly.

So, you’re making choices. I tell you, those old dudes who say, “I don’t care about fashion”, they’re not going out in drag. Everyone cares about fashion.

Is it fashion, though, or is it clothes?

It’s one and the same. Clothing is the vehicle, and fashion is the meaning in that vehicle. You look at somebody like Jeremy Corbyn, he looks dishevelled.

He’s got the ultimate socialist wardrobe.

So, what you’ve just said is precisely what Cambridge Analytica realised. And you have to understand the way Cambridge Analytica came to understand the role of fashion was not through an interest, in itself, in fashion.

Fashion just gave good signals.

And the signals that it would spit out were things like: if somebody engages with the [LVMH-owned] Kenzo, they’re guaranteed to be the strongest Democrat you’ll ever meet.

Let’s have a breakdown of the brands. Left and right, where are they?

[Our data] is 90 per cent US-focused. If you’re looking at more conservative people, it’s the Gap, for example, or LL Bean. Often, the brands that are more conservative in a fashion sense, that are toned-down, are the ones that conservatives will flock to. European brands tended to lean more left than right. The more avant-garde you get from a brand and designer perspective, the more progressive you get, in terms of a population. It is very hard to imagine Donald Trump in Kenzo.

Would imagining Donald Trump in a brand serve as a fairly good indicator?

He’s a bad example, because he doesn’t dress himself and he always looks exactly the same. But if you think about somebody like Paul Ryan, for example, the congressman, when he’s not wearing a suit, what would he wear? What would a conservative voter wear? Things like Wrangler jeans, or Levi’s. Although one is more conservative than the other: Wrangler is more conservative.

Paul Ryan (far left) on the presidential campaign trail for the 2012 election with Mitt and Ann Romney © Reuters

They’re also massive American brands.

Think about the narrative of American brands for an American voter. When you look at adverts for jeans, whether it’s Levis, or Wrangler, or other jeans, oftentimes, the ads are these idealised versions of American masculinity . . . Think about the words we use to describe that. Independence. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The male protector. The woman in the background. That imagery is conveying a very conservative message. “Do it for yourself. Don’t get help. Be more independent.” Likewise, when you look at men in a sharp suit, where it’s about striving for success, which is a very conservative narrative.

One of the things that Cambridge Analytica did when they were talking to different clients, is they would take fashion adverts and they would take out the actual fashion brands, and they would slap on “Democrat” or “Republican” to show people that there were cultural signals all over the place. And you could take an advert for jeans with the cowboy walking through the field, and you could slap on a Republican logo, and it looks like a Republican narrative. Because it is.

What would a Democratic poster would look like?

Kenzo was the one that was most extreme, so it’s easier to talk about. At the time, Kenzo had all of these adverts where it was people sitting on fish with wings on them, weird-ass shit.

When you look at the narratives in politics, there’s a personality trait that’s highly related to liberalism — openness. And when you’re more open, it means that things that you’ve never thought about or experienced are enticing and interesting, not threatening. So, when you look at political narratives on more progressive parties, it’s about: imagine the future, imagine what it would be like. Conservatism is about protecting what you’ve got.

An SS14 advertisement for the fashion label Kenzo. According to Wylie, a person who engages with the brand is 'guaranteed to be the strongest Democrat you’ll ever meet'

Look at how Isis recruits people in the west, they have recruitment videos that look like Pimp My Ride, essentially. They’ll say, “living the jihadi lifestyle”. And there’s bling, and they’re wearing Rolexes, Gucci, all of this, and it’s great to be a terrorist. Look at how cool we are. That is signalling. A lot of extremist groups have nothing to do with actual Islamic values and the tenets of the Koran. It has to do with a lifestyle. And that’s what they get to capture people. So, essentially, these brands are influential on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. What is cool and what is not.

So, what are the lessons to be learnt for brands?

The alt-right didn’t emerge from nowhere. There’s a cultural foundation that existed beforehand that was almost like the petri dish and the growing medium for the alt-right. But the thing that I find interesting, but also frustrating, about a lot of cultural leaders, whether they’re in music, fashion, film, or whatever, is that they scream bloody murder about what’s happening but don’t realise that they are the ones that are creating that culture to start with.

And the thing that really frustrates me is when you’ve got people separating citizens and customers as if they’re different people. They are the same people. And there are brands that are popular among people who are starting to engage more and more with the alt-right. Where they are perfectly positioned to begin a conversation with their customers about what’s happening in society.

And they should take more responsibility for it?

Yes. And it’s very subtle: so, put the woman in the foreground, rather than the background.

The alt-right bubbled up because there were groups of men, mostly, who felt that what used to be acceptable for a man to do, where they could go into a bar and slap a woman’s ass because they had seen adverts that reinforced certain attributes, were feeling threatened.

And for people who are already feeling frustrated with their lives, and then are being targeted by companies such as Breitbart or Cambridge Analytica, and toxified, and then they see an advert for jeans, and it’s some cowboy with a hot woman in the background, these start to cultivate a certain perception and reinforce certain values and characteristics, which may, ultimately, be problematic for the cohesiveness of our society.

If we are talking about defending our culture, people who make culture have to be part of that conversation and those projects. Our national defence agencies can only do so much, because they walk a fine line coming from cultural defence to some kind of weird Orwellian project. I would argue that it’s people who make culture itself who are best positioned to attack cultural narratives that are problematic.

Amed And the irony is that if you talk to the executives of most big international fashion businesses, whether they’re American or European, and you look at their politics, and the way they’re getting more involved with activism, those brands are unwittingly being used in narratives that help to propagate the thinking, behaviour, and coding of people that goes against what they actually believe in.

And so the goal of this talk is to open people’s eyes, and say: “You are the people creating culture. You have the ability to influence and shape these narratives in a way that, actually, if we are in a culture war, and if these are weapons of mass destruction, then we have those weapons at our disposal.”

Wylie I wonder what would happen if you got very conservative people, or alt-right people, wearing new kinds of clothing, and whether they would start becoming more open. Clothes affect how you feel. When you’re at work versus when you’re out on a date. One makes you feel professional, the other makes you feel sexy. There are these feelings. I wonder if we can look at ways of using clothing to make people . . .

Engender feelings of love?

Yes.

You want us all in kimonos?

Why not?

Follow @FTStyle on Twitter and @financialtimesfashion on Instagram to find out about our latest stories first. Subscribe to FT Life on YouTube for the latest FT Weekend videos

Get alerts on Style when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article