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Where Is Cambridge Analytica COO Justin Wheatland Today?

Photo: Netflix
Who Is Julian Wheatland? New Details On Cambridge Analytica COO And Where He Is Today

The 2016 presidential election is the first one that hinged on social media for messaging. From Trump’s tweets to Russian spies buying Facebook ads to viral videos of pro-Hillary flash mob dances, social media presence was crucial to getting the attention of voters and potential voters.

One of the biggest players in the social media game was a company out of England called Cambridge Analytica. Funded by ultra-conservative donors Rebekah and Robert Mercer, the PR firm claimed to be pioneering something called “psychographic” modeling, wherein they used social media data to target campaign ad placement more effectively. The company worked first for Republican primary candidate Ted Cruz before he dropped out. Later, they were hired by the Trump campaign and took a lot of credit for his eventual win. But in the years that followed that victory, investigators learned that the data Cambridge used for their modeling had been acquired by manipulating Facebook users into giving up their own data and that of their friends without telling them that is would be used for political purposes.

In the wake of that discovery, Cambridge Analytica shut down and Facebook has come under enormous scrutiny for its policies regarding user data. Now a new documentary looks at the Cambridge Analytica and the company’s former CFO Julian Wheatland is trying to rehabilitate its image and his own.

Who is Julian Wheatland? Where is he now? Read on for al the details.

1. What did Cambridge Analytica do?

Cambridge Analytica was a PR firm that offered digital services to political campaigns, as Vox explains. A lot of their work was pretty typical of publicity in politics: ad placement on TV and social media, polling, research into different markets and the like. But they claimed to have a new way of micro-targeting audiences that they called “psychographic” modeling where data they extracted from Facebook allowed them to predict what ind of messaging would be most effective with users and place ads and posts based on that information.

A new film delves into the data usage.

2. Steve Bannon's role in the drama

If you dig back into the history of the company, it turns out that it was the brainchild of Steve Bannon, who would later go on to be an adviser to Donald Trump. Bannon convinced the Mercers to fork over about $15 million to fund the project and the Mercers helped get clients by making their donations contingent upon hiring Cambridge Analytica. Bannon served as a vice president of the company. In the 2016 campaign, they worked for Ted Cruz until his campaign flamed out during the primaries. Later, Bannon reached out to Trump and got him to hire Cambridge Analytica and then eventually hire Bannon himself. Bannon was fired by Trump in 2017.  


A post shared by CNN Politics (@cnnpolitics) on Jan 9, 2018 at 1:32pm PST

Bannon was thought to be the masterind behind Trump's win. Trump later fired him.

3. It was basically a fake app

The model that Cambridge Analytica had created wasn’t a problem but the data they were using was. It turned out that they acquired it under false pretenses. Vox reports that the company got its information from the profiles of people who had taken a personality quiz called “thisismydigitallife.” The quiz, like many such apps, came with a disclaimer that the app would access not only user profiles but also the profiles of their friends, allegedly to benefit a psychology research at Cambridge University. What the disclaimer didn’t say, was the the app was actually a front for a Cambridge Analytica data collecting operation and the information would be used for political campaigns. All told, the app gave Cambridge Analytica access to almost 90 million user’s data.

Facebook sold data without oversight.

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4. The fallout Facebook faced

A former Cambridge Analytica employee named Christopher Wylies shared all this information with journalists in 2018, leading to swift and intense scrutiny of both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. The different investigations revealed that the “thisismydigitallifeapp” did in collecting data was completely within Facebook policies and permissions: it has been fine at that time to collect user data that way. However, selling the data to a third party was a violation of Facebook’s terms. Moreover, millions of people who did not contest for their data to be used by political campaigns were outraged to find out what had been happening behind the scenes of social media.  In the end, Facebook began altering its user privacy policies and Cambridge Analytical shut down completely.

Our social media data is for sale.

5. The Great Hack Documentary

Now a new Netflix film is set to tell the whole story of Cambridge Analytica and the way Facebook treats user data as the product that they sell to advertisers. The film, called The Great Hack, features interviews with Julian Wheatland, who was the CFO of Cambridge for a short period in 2018, just before the company declared bankruptcy. He tells Salon that he initially didn’t want to bother with the film but eventually decided to tell his side of the story. “I felt, particularly on behalf of all the employees that were in the company…that they had been tarnished with having been associated with this company, Cambridge Analytica, which had been accused and found guilty without trial of pretty much anything anybody dreamed up,” he said. “I felt for them more than anything, that someone should stand up for them, at least give a more balanced point of view.”

The film is getting a lot of buzz.

6. Damage control

Wheatland is trying to use this as an opportunity to minimize the effects Cambridge Analytica actually had on the campaign. He tells Salon about the actual data they harvested from Facebook, saying: “[Chris Wiley] and Alexander [Nix] organized the licensing of this data, and I've looked back at the contracts and as far as I can tell, they did everything right.” He goes on to say: “The supplier took all warranties and assurances for the data being legally licensed, and being compliant with Facebook's regulations. So, they licensed this data, when it came out they had the data there was a lot of...there was a media story, Carole Cadwalladr I think broke it, and it was a big media story. In truth, the data hadn't been very useful, and so they had stopped using it even before Facebook asked for it to be deleted.”

He also claims that Cambridge Analytica exaggerated their role in the campaign, explaining: “We actually did so much PR work to try and build our position that actually it wasn't our fault, because we thought Trump was going to lose, so we were busy making our excuses with all the major newspapers, and telling them what great work we did, and how it would have been worse if he hadn't had us, and then he won, and we ended up with the credit for him winning. More than we deserved.”

Wheatland distances himself from the scandal.

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7. Moving forward

Wheatland is now a consultant and entrepreneur, according to The Heavy. He says he’s trying to move the conversation on data privacy forward in constructive ways, rather than focusing on the massive ethical lapses of the past. In June he tweeted “#TheGreatHack comes out on July 24… Then you can watch the self-promoters (you know who you are) pile in to claim their 15 minutes of fame… Meanwhile, back in the real world… We need to focus on the real questions about how we manage privacy, data issues and technology. #thegreathack” 

Wheatland says he wants to talk constructively about data privacy.

Facebook continues to face scrutiny for the ways in which it sells user data.

Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. Her work has been seen at Ravishly, Babble, Scary Mommy, The Mid, Redbook online, and The Broad Side. She is the creator of the blog Stay at Home Pundit and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.