Friday, March 03, 2017

Robert Mercer, the most influential (and scary) man you've never heard of

I found an interesting article in The Guardian recently about a guy called Robert Mercer, whom I had never even heard of before, but who apparently is pulling lots of strings in our nasty, modern, populist/nationalist world.
Mercer is, or at least was, a brilliant reclusive American computer scientist, who has put in time with IBM where he worked in computer language processing and early artificial intelligence, before turning to hedge fund algorithms with Renaissance Technologies, which is where he made his billions. He now uses some of that fortune - about $95 million since 2010 - to donate to various Republican political campaigns and a variety of iffy alt-right ultra-conservative not-for-profits.
To give a few examples:
  • He was Donald Trump's single biggest donor in the last US election campaign (to the tune of $13.5 million), although he started out supporting Ted Cruz until he pulled out.
  • He funds the influential (and infamous) climate change denial thinktank The Heartland Institute.
  • He is a major funder of the Media Research Center (which claims to be "America's media watchdog", and has as its mission an "unwavering commitment to neutralizing left-wing bias in the news, media and popular culture"), as well as its offshoot (which has been instrumental in Donald Trump's vilification of the mainstream media, and which is scarily effective at getting its message to the top of Google's search results).
  • He has provided about $10 million in funding for Steve Bannon's ultra-right wing news outlet, which is now the 29th most popular website in America, as well as the biggest political site on both Facebook and Twitter, and which regularly hosts anti-Semitic and Islamophobic rants like those of the recently disgraced Milo Yiannopoulos.
  • Another $2 million went to let Steve Bannon (again) co-found the official-sounding Government Accountability Institute, which uses about $1.3 billion's worth of super-computers to trawl the "dark web" - yes, there is such a thing - and do the kind of expensive investigative journalism that mainstream media can no longer afford, in order to create self-serving articles for that very same mainstream media, and "weaponize" the alt-right narrative (Mercer's own daughter went on the board).
So, the ever-magnanimous and philanthropic Mercer has a big finger in many of the pies spreading alt-right lies and deceit throughout the Internet and the rest of American popular culture. But perhaps his most egregious and far-reaching influence comes from his involvement with a company called Cambridge Analytics. He has a $10 million stake in this British data analytics company, an off-shoot of the equally shadowy SCL Group, which specializes in "election management strategies" and "messaging and information operations". What this actually means in practice is mass propaganda that works by acting on people's emotions, the kind of "psyops" - or the even scarier labels "bio-psycho-social profiling" and "cognitive warfare" - perfected by the US military in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Cambridge Analytics worked on Donald Trump's election campaign, and on the Brexit Leave campaign (the latter apparently on a kind of quid pro quo basis to get around disclosure rules - Nigel Farage, like Donald Trump, just happens to be a good friend of Robert Mercer). And look how they both turned out. It boasts that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters (almost the entire voting population). It uses these, along with trackers from websites like Breitbart, to follow people around the web and target them with advertising on Facebook and other sites. It is one of the reasons why Google's search results on certain subjects is so dominated by right-wing and extremist sites, which are all but strangling the mainstream media sites. If you want a demonstration of just how effective the whole fake news thing actually is, another Guardian article (by the same journalist, as it happens) will scare the bejeezus out of you.
Exactly how Cambridge Analytics is able to do all this is not fully known, but some experts say that with knowledge of 150 Facebook "likes" a computer model can predict an individual's personality better than his or her spouse, and with 300 it knows you better than yourself. And what do you think those ubiquitous Facebook personality tests are really for? These models can predict and essentially control human behaviour. And they are not doing it for the greater good of mankind; they are doing it for the alt-right ideals of their paymasters.
How does this manifest itself? The Oxford Internet Institute has estimated that, in the run-up to the EU Brexit vote, fully one-third of the related traffic on Twitter was generated by automated "bots" - and all for the Leave campaign. Before the 2016 US election, bot-generated tweets were five-to-one in favour of Trump, and many of them were apparently sourced in Russia (in fact, many of these data manipulation techniques were originally developed in Russia). Literally hundreds of websites were set up in a very short time, blasting out just a few pro-Trump links and articles, making Trump look like a consensus.
It's all really quite brilliant. And there, at the heart of it all, is Steve Bannon (media guru) and Robert Mercer (big data and Internet algorithm guru - oh, and the money).

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