Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica, and Why It All Matters

Over the past several months, a series of three articles by a journalist named Carole Cadwalladr have appeared in the Guardian. These articles detail the connections between the US billionaire Robert Mercer (now notorious as the money behind Trump), the data firm Cambridge Analytica (which he owns), and a vast, extraordinary campaign of psychological profiling and manipulation, conducted over the internet, and intended to alter beliefs and voting behaviour on a massive scale. The articles touch on a remarkable range of problems and questions, from the probability of large-scale intervention in the Brexit referendum and 2016 American election by a small nexus of reactionary individuals centred around Mercer, to the landscape of international cyberwarfare and how cutting-edge technology is evidently being used to sway elections in unprecedented and frightening ways.

If the picture presented in these articles is accurate, then the democratic world owes Ms Cadwalladr a debt for drawing attention to it. She is not, of course, the only journalist writing on this matter, but her investigation has been in the vanguard. Unfortunately, in my own judgement, her articles themselves are written in a way that makes her revelations unnecessarily confusing and difficult to grasp. This is because she essentially writes narrative pieces about her own investigation, so that the reader follows her through a trail of clues and connections, discovering the underlying pattern in the process. What this means is that the information is presented in the order that she uncovered it, not in any kind of systematic or organised manner. The articles veer unpredictably from topic to topic, with little signposting to indicate where it’s all going or what is the relative significance of the many different facts and insights that she presents. I found that I needed to do a lot of re-reading and cross-referencing before I could form a clear sense of what were the crucial points I should take away. In the process, I took a lot of notes.

I have now organised those notes into a synopsis of Ms Cadwalladr’s research. I am publishing that synopsis here for the benefit of anybody else who may be seeking a succinct breakdown of her findings. Everything in the summary below is derived from the second and third of her three sequential pieces for the Guardian (the first was only tangentially connected to Mercer, focusing instead on how right-wing sites have come to dominate Google search results by playing the algorithm game). Needless to say, credit for everything presented here must go entirely to Carole Cadwalladr. I also have not attempted to verify any of this information myself. This synopsis is purely an attempt to present an abstract of what I have read, structured in such a way as to bring the key points to the foreground in a way that makes sense to me – and hopefully also to others.

The basic information: Cambridge Analytica is a company specialising in the use of data to influence elections – a form of psychological warfare, or “psyops”. It is owned by the American billionaire Robert Mercer, who bankrolled the Trump campaign. It works exclusively for the political Right.

Robert Mercer’s broader mission: Mercer systematically and very intelligently directs his money to advance right-wing causes across much of the world. Since 2010 he has donated $45 million to various Republican campaigns, including $13.5 million to the Trump campaign, and $50 million to various right-wing thinktanks and lobbying groups. He has also funded and co-ordinated the construction of a kind of alternative media ecosystem, a network of extremist right-wing news sites designed to co-opt and replace the mainstream online media. This alternative media system propagates fake history, “alternative facts,” and right-wing propaganda. Much of it is under the direction of Mercer’s close associate Steve Bannon.

Mercer’s personal history: Mercer is a brilliant computer scientist who was a pioneer in early artificial intelligence. Working for IBM, he made what the Association for Computational Linguistics calls “revolutionary” breaththroughs in language processing. He then became CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, which uses AI to trade on the financial markets (though how it does this is a closely guarded secret) and owns the most profitable fund in the world, Medallion. Associates have described Mercer as a conservative and a libertarian.

Mercer’s media empire: The network subsidised by Mercer constitutes an entire online media infrastructure designed to drown out, and supersede, established sources of news. The command centre in the heart of this system is Breitbart, which was set up with $10 million of Mercer’s money and is now the 29th most popular site in America, with two billion views per year. One of the other main nodes in the network is the Media Research Centre, which has received more than $10 million from Mercer in the past decade. Mercer also funds the Government Accountability Institute, which invests in the kind of expensive long-term investigative journalism that most mainstream media outlets can no longer afford to subsidise. The GAI is directed towards producing well-researched stories that advance the conservative agenda.

Operations of Cambridge Analytica: The company harvests massive amounts of data on individuals, enough to develop extraordinarily accurate and detailed profiles, and then uses those profiles to target them with content designed to manipulate and alter their deepest emotions. It is an immensely sophisticated propaganda engine. According to Tamsin Shaw of New York University, “The capacity for this science to be used to manipulate emotions is very well established. This is military-funded technology that has been harnessed by a global plutocracy and is being used to sway elections in ways that people can’t even see, don’t even realise is happening to them.”

History of the company: Prior to being bought by Mercer, Cambridge Analytica was known as SCL Elections. It is part of SCL Group, which works in a number of ways to manipulate and reshape public perception for the benefit of right-wing political groups. The company developed and refined its “election management strategies” working in Asian and African nations with less strict electoral laws than much of the West. It also appears to be historically linked with the British military-industrial complex (Steve Tatham, former head of psyops for British forces in Afghanistan, is now SCL Group’s “Director of Defence Operations”).

The company’s technology: Cambridge Analytica’s psychometric model is based on original research conducted at Cambridge University’s Psychometric Centre, utilising a Facebook personality quiz that was taken by over six million people. With only 150 likes, according to Michal Kosinski, the Centre’s lead scientist, this model can predict somebody’s personality better than their spouse; with 300, better than the person themselves. The Centre’s director, Jonathan Rust, says that with this technology, “Behaviour can be predicted and controlled.” The Centre denies giving Cambride Analytica access to this model or data, but one of their scientists, Aleksandr Kogan, was contracted by the company to build their own model. The company cross-referenced the data he harvested with multiple other commercially available data sets, creating profiles of individuals that were designed, in the words of a former employee, “to capture every single aspect of every voter’s information environment”. The profiling technology can also be applied in other ways: in Trinidad and Tobago in 2013, before the firm was acquired by Mercer, Cambridge Analytica was commissioned by the government to capture citizens’ data, including browsing history and phone conversations, and use it to build a police database that would score every citizen on their likelihood of committing a crime.

The Canadian connection: AggregateIQ, a web analytics company based in Canada, appears to be linked with Cambridge Analytica (the CA website until recently listed AggregateIQ’s address and telephone number as the contact details for its overseas office, “SCL Canada”). A former CA employee says AggregateIQ functioned as CA’s “back office,” building their software and housing their database. The man connecting the two companies, who brought AggregateIQ into Cambridge Analytica’s orbit, is a Canadian named Chris Wylie.

Cambridge Analytica and Brexit: There are a number of connections suggesting that Mercer deliberately influenced the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Mercer directed Cambridge Analytica to provide services to the Leave.EU campaign free of charge. Huge amounts of work were done for the campaign without being declared as a donation in kind. An investigation into Cambridge Analytica by the Electoral Commission is ongoing (as is another, by the Information Commissioner’s office, on the possible illegal use of data). AggregateIQ also worked for several different Leave campaigns, possibly violating electoral regulations that forbid co-ordination between different campaigns. Vote Leave, the official campaign, had two former CA consultants in its core team, including its chief technology officer Thomas Borwick.

Cambridge Analytica and Trump: During the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica targeted vast numbers of individuals in order to change their votes by manipulating their online environments. It claimed to have amassed a database of almost the entire US voting population, and worked to change minds on a massive scale in order to sway those voters for Donald Trump. Steve Bannon, who at the time was vice-president of Cambridge Analytica, was brought on board Trump’s campaign when Mercer began funding Trump (Mercer had previously supported Ted Cruz). Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s Communications Director, reports that in a meeting with the Trump team he attended at the start of the Leave campaign, Jared Kushner and Jason Miller “said the holy grail was artificial intelligence.” Since Trump’s victory, Cambridge Analytica has been awarded contracts in the State Department and the Pentagon, and is said to be in talks for “military and homeland security work”.

The larger context: Mercer’s and Bannon’s apparently successful attempts to manipulate perception and voting behaviour en masse need to seen in the context of an emerging geopolitical landscape in which populations’ voting behaviour is a key cyber-battleground. The manipulation of beliefs through the internet is already a major industry. Mercer’s ultra-conservative psyops campaign is only one part of the landscape, but the most powerful actors in this battle all seem to be working, like him, for the Right. This is reflected in, among other things, the strategic deployment of bots designed to re-direct the online conversation and to change people’s beliefs and attitudes. The armies of bots that made up one third of Twitter traffic before the Brexit referendum were all working for Leave. In America, these bots were five to one for Trump.

The Silicon Valley connection: The IT billionaire Peter Thiel may be engaged in similar work to Robert Mercer. Thiel, who co-founded eBay and PayPal and was Silicon Valley’s first vocal supporter of Trump, owns the notorious data mining company Palantir. Palantir has contracts with government agencies around the world, including the NSA and GCHQ. Palantir and Cambridge Analytica held meetings in 2013, but both now refuse to comment on whether there is any association or partnership between them. However, the Trump campaign has stated that Thiel helped it with data. It is possible to view Thiel as another ideologically motivated American billionaire using advanced IT to try to sway elections.

The Russian connection: Multiple sources have disclosed that Cambridge Analytica has been in contact with, and has worked for, various Russian state-owned companies and other Russian entities. The precise connections between the company (and, thus, Mercer) and Russia remain unclear.

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