The Guardian recently had a chilling account of the tools available to today’s purveyors of what we used to call the “big lie,” and the people using those tools. As the reporter began,
Just over a week ago, Donald Trump gathered members of the world’s press before him and told them they were liars. “The press, honestly, is out of control,” he said. “The public doesn’t believe you any more.” CNN was described as “very fake news… story after story is bad”. The BBC was “another beauty”.
That night I did two things. First, I typed “Trump” in the search box of Twitter. My feed was reporting that he was crazy, a lunatic, a raving madman. But that wasn’t how it was playing out elsewhere. The results produced a stream of “Go Donald!!!!”, and “You show ’em!!!” There were star-spangled banner emojis and thumbs-up emojis and clips of Trump laying into the “FAKE news MSM liars!”
The reporter then consulted Google, typing in only “mainstream media is.” The first several “autofills” were negative: “dead” “fake” “biased” and the like. SEO (search engine optimization) at work. (Search engine optimization is a technique that catches Google’s attention, and ensures that a site’s URL will be prominent among search results.)
The reporter clicked on the first of the sites that Google returned; it was an obscure website named CNSnews.com.
Another couple of clicks and I discover that it receives a large bulk of its funding – more than $10m in the past decade – from a single source, the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. If you follow US politics you may recognise the name. Robert Mercer is the money behind Donald Trump. But then, I will come to learn, Robert Mercer is the money behind an awful lot of things. He was Trump’s single biggest donor. Mercer started backing Ted Cruz, but when he fell out of the presidential race he threw his money – $13.5m of it – behind the Trump campaign.
Since just 2010, it turns out that Mercer has donated $45 million dollars to Republican political campaigns, and another $50 million to an assortment of rightwing, ultra-conservative nonprofits. As the reporter noted, he is a billionaire who, “as billionaires are wont, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs.”
And he evidently possesses both the money and the technological skills to reshape a good portion of it.
Robert Mercer very rarely speaks in public and never to journalists, so to gauge his beliefs you have to look at where he channels his money: a series of yachts, all called Sea Owl; a $2.9m model train set; climate change denial (he funds a climate change denial thinktank, the Heartland Institute); and what is maybe the ultimate rich man’s plaything – the disruption of the mainstream media. In this he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. The money he gives to the Media Research Center, with its mission of correcting “liberal bias” is just one of his media plays. There are other bigger, and even more deliberate strategies, and shining brightly, the star at the centre of the Mercer media galaxy, is Breitbart.
Mercer’s money funded Breitbart; the express intent was to “take back the culture.” (I shudder to think just how far back.)
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.)
I encourage you to click through and read the entire Guardian article. It goes a long way toward explaining what I have found inexplicable: popular beliefs and attitudes that legitimize the antics of a man whose increasingly obvious mental illness has allowed him to be used as the tool of ideologues like Mercer and Bannon.
According to Andy Wigmore, a key figure who worked for the Brexit “Leave” campaign,
Cambridge Analytica had worked for them, he said. It had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analytica’s and SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EU’s launch event.
Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”
There has always been propaganda. There hasn’t always been the Internet or Facebook. We’re about to find out just how malleable and gullible we are.