|Robert Mercer, 2014 photograph courtesy of UK Guardian|
Mercer's fortune derives from his skill as a computational expert in financial data. He is a very deep-pocketed ideological investor in right-wing candidates and causes. Specifically this story -- how Donald Trump was elected president -- involves a relatively small investment in a British company, Cambridge Analytica, that used deep mining of social media data to identify and then to galvanize Trump supporters.
The name, Cambridge Analytica, says nothing about the work its mathematicians and computer scientists do: apply artificial intelligence to massive data collected, in the case of the recent election, through Facebook.
Tracking likely voters through social media is such a new art -- without any regulation or law -- is so new, leading Democrats including the principals of the Hillary Clinton campaign, had zero knowledge of its potential impact. Trump, who doesn't even use a personal computer, was the least likely of Republican candidates to benefit from Robert Mercer's expertise.
Jeb Bush, the mainstream candidate in the GOP presidential primary, burned through $150 million of donor money in television and radio. Clinton's campaign team spent hundreds of millions in the same traditional media to sway voters.
Four months after the election, it is clear from the Guardian reports that the Democrats still have no idea what happened. Cambridge Analytica was operating at another level entirely, on behalf of Trump. And it didn't cost that much money to tap into social media data; only a fraction of the cost of advertising on television or radio.
At the time, the Democratic National Committee expressed shock and amazement that it was hacked by Russian intel operatives. But computer security is an arithmetic exercise compared to the advanced calculus of data mining social networks like Facebook, building psychological profiles of likely Trump supporters, then tailoring individual messages meant to galvanize Trump supporters.
It was $10m of Mercer’s money that enabled Bannon to fund Breitbart – a rightwing news site, set up with the express intention of being a Huffington Post for the right. It has launched the careers of Milo Yiannopoulos and his like, regularly hosts antisemitic and Islamophobic views, and is currently being boycotted by more than 1,000 brands after an activist campaign. It has been phenomenally successful: the 29th most popular site in America with 2bn page views a year. It’s bigger than its inspiration, the Huffington Post, bigger, even, than PornHub. It’s the biggest political site on Facebook. The biggest on Twitter.On one level, it is possible to see on Facebook what is going on today: Trump supporter web pages proliferate. If you have a Facebook identity and "like" or "follow" one page, your Facebook feed soon fills with many other feeds and comments you never signed up for. Moreover, if you "track" by clicking through on commenter names, you can quickly assess that many if not most of them are fake. Made up. Created by anyone, anywhere, and possibly paid to do so.
Prominent rightwing journalist Andrew Breitbart, who founded the site but died in 2012, told Bannon that they had “to take back the culture”. And, arguably, they have, though American culture is only the start of it. In 2014, Bannon launched Breitbart London, telling the New York Times it was specifically timed ahead of the UK’s forthcoming election. It was, he said, the latest front “in our current cultural and political war”. France and Germany are next.
A determined plutocrat and a brilliant media strategist can, and have, found a way to mould journalism to their own ends
But there was another reason why I recognised Robert Mercer’s name: because of his connection to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group. It specialises in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as “psyops” – psychological operations. (Mass propaganda that works by acting on people’s emotions.)
Cambridge Analytica worked for the Trump campaign and, so I’d read, the Leave campaign. When Mercer supported Cruz, Cambridge Analytica worked with Cruz. When Robert Mercer started supporting Trump, Cambridge Analytica came too. And where Mercer’s money is, Steve Bannon is usually close by: it was reported that until recently he had a seat on the board.
Facebook pages for Trump truly are a Potemkin Village, and even the villagers on Facebook in the comments section don't conceal that they are from Eastern Europe, Canada, or elsewhere. These are like chum in the water to gather the names and identities of real American voters.
Using another metaphor, Trump supporter Facebook pages are cocaine paste; a step in the process through which Cambridge Analytica extracts fine, white crystalline powder; each flake, a Trump voter.
Of course the Democratic apparatus also has access to vast data on voters. Tens of millions of dollars are spent refining data to guide Democratic candidates, advertisement, and campaigns. Democrats have nothing like Cambridge Analytica; data mining weaponized to do psychological profile of hundreds of millions of people who use Facebook and other social networks.
How are Democrats responding, now that the UK Guardian is pulling the curtain from the Mercer investment in Cambridge Analytica? If I were a betting man, I'd bet the DNC are still trying to figure out what happened in the 2016 election.
In this case, though, you can't hire gumshoe detectives. The forensics on the 2016 election and social media manipulation will require spies coming in from the cold.
The right-wing adores George Soros as a target, but Soros for all his billionaires and acumen as an investor, has not invested in the application of massive computing power derived from finance into the realm of social media on behalf of ideology. Mercer did, and the progressive, analog, values thinkers on the Left still have no idea what hit them.
There is a reason Donald Trump is in the White House: the UK Guardian on Cambridge Analytica has started to reveal how it happened.