Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media

With links to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage, the rightwing American computer scientist is at the heart of a multimillion-dollar propaganda network

Just over a week ago, Donald Trump gathered members of the worlds press before him and told them they were liars. The press, honestly, is out of control, he said. The public doesnt 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 wasnt 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!

Trump had spoken, and his audience had heard him. Then I did what Ive been doing for two and a half months now. I Googled mainstream media is And there it was. Googles autocomplete suggestions: mainstream media is dead, dying, fake news, fake, finished. Is it dead, I wonder? Has FAKE news won? Are we now the FAKE news? Is the mainstream media we, us, I dying?

I click Googles first suggested link. It leads to a website called and an article: The Mainstream media are dead. Theyre dead, I learn, because they we, I cannot be trusted. How had it, an obscure site Id never heard of, dominated Googles search algorithm on the topic? In the About us tab, I learn CNSnews is owned by the Media Research Center, which a click later I learn is Americas media watchdog, an organisation that claims an unwavering commitment to neutralising leftwing bias in the news, media and popular culture.

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 Trumps 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.

Its money hes made as a result of his career as a brilliant but reclusive computer scientist. He started his career at IBM, where he made what the Association for Computational Linguistics called revolutionary breakthroughs in language processing a science that went on to be key in developing todays AI and later became joint CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money by using algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets.

One of its funds, Medallion, which manages only its employees money, is the most successful in the world generating $55bn so far. And since 2010, Mercer has donated $45m to different political campaigns all Republican and another $50m to non-profits all rightwing, ultra-conservative. This is a billionaire who is, as billionaires are wont, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs.

Donald Trumps presidential campaigned received $13.5m from Robert Mercer. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

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 mans plaything the disruption of the mainstream media. In this he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, Trumps 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.

It was $10m of Mercers 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. Its bigger than its inspiration, the Huffington Post, bigger, even, than PornHub. Its the biggest political site on Facebook. The biggest on Twitter.

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 UKs forthcoming election. It was, he said, the latest front in our current cultural and political war. France and Germany are next.

But there was another reason why I recognised Robert Mercers 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 peoples emotions.)

Cambridge Analytica worked for the Trump campaign and, so Id 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 Mercers money is, Steve Bannon is usually close by: it was reported that until recently he had a seat on the board.

Last December, I wrote about Cambridge Analytica in a piece about how Googles search results on certain subjects were being dominated by rightwing and extremist sites. Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, who had mapped the news ecosystem and found millions of links between rightwing sites strangling the mainstream media, told me that trackers from sites like Breitbart could also be used by companies like Cambridge Analytica to follow people around the web and then, via Facebook, target them with ads.

On its website, Cambridge Analytica makes the astonishing boast that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters its USP is to use this data to understand peoples deepest emotions and then target them accordingly. The system, according to Albright, amounted to a propaganda machine.

A few weeks later, the Observer received a letter. Cambridge Analytica was not employed by the Leave campaign, it said. Cambridge Analytica is a US company based in the US. It hasnt worked in British politics.

Which is how, earlier this week, I ended up in a Pret a Manger near Westminster with Andy Wigmore, Leave.EUs affable communications director, looking at snapshots of Donald Trump on his phone. It was Wigmore who orchestrated Nigel Farages trip to Trump Tower the PR coup that saw him become the first foreign politician to meet the president elect.

Wigmore scrolls through the snaps on his phone. Thats the one I took, he says pointing at the now globally famous photo of Farage and Trump in front of his golden elevator door giving the thumbs-up sign. Wigmore was one of the bad boys of Brexit a term coined by Arron Banks, the Bristol-based businessman who was Leave.EUs co-founder.

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 peoples Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analyticas and SCLs employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EUs 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.

Steve Bannon, Donald Trumps chief strategist, is an associate of Robert Mercer. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

It sounds creepy, I say.

It is creepy! Its really creepy! Its why Im not on Facebook! I tried it on myself to see what information it had on me and I was like, Oh my God! Whats scary is that my kids had put things on Instagram and it picked that up. It knew where my kids went to school.

They hadnt employed Cambridge Analytica, he said. No money changed hands. They were happy to help.


Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And Robert Mercer introduced them to us. He said, Heres this company we think may be useful to you. What they were trying to do in the US and what we were trying to do had massive parallels. We shared a lot of information. Why wouldnt you? Behind Trumps campaign and Cambridge Analytica, he said, were the same people. Its the same family.

There were already a lot of questions swirling around Cambridge Analytica, and Andy Wigmore has opened up a whole lot more. Such as: are you supposed to declare services-in-kind as some sort of donation? The Electoral Commission says yes, if it was more than 7,500. And was it declared? The Electoral Commission says no. Does that mean a foreign billionaire had possibly influenced the referendum without that influence being apparent? Its certainly a question worth asking.

In the last month or so, articles in first the Swiss and the US press have asked exactly what Cambridge Analytica is doing with US voters data. In a statement to the Observer, the Information Commissioners Office said: Any business collecting and using personal data in the UK must do so fairly and lawfully. We will be contacting Cambridge Analytica and asking questions to find out how the company is operating in the UK and whether the law is being followed.

Cambridge Analytica said last Friday they are in touch with the ICO and are completely compliant with UK and EU data laws. It did not answer other questions the Observer put to it this week about how it built its psychometric model, which owes its origins to original research carried out by scientists at Cambridge Universitys Psychometric Centre, research based on a personality quiz on Facebook that went viral. More than 6 million people ended up doing it, producing an astonishing treasure trove of data.

These Facebook profiles especially peoples likes could be correlated across millions of others to produce uncannily accurate results. Michal Kosinski, the centres lead scientist, found that with knowledge of 150 likes, their model could predict someones personality better than their spouse. With 300, it understood you better than yourself. Computers see us in a more robust way than we see ourselves, says Kosinski.

But there are strict ethical regulations regarding what you can do with this data. Did SCL Group have access to the universitys model or data, I ask Professor Jonathan Rust, the centres director? Certainly not from us, he says. We have very strict rules around this.

A scientist, Aleksandr Kogan, from the centre was contracted to build a model for SCL, and says he collected his own data. Professor Rust says he doesnt know where Kogans data came from. The evidence was contrary. I reported it. An independent adjudicator was appointed by the university. But then Kogan said hed signed a non-disclosure agreement with SCL and he couldnt continue [answering questions].

Kogan disputes this and says SCL satisfied the universitys inquiries. But perhaps more than anyone, Professor Rust understands how the kind of information people freely give up to social media sites could be used.

Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage is a friend of the Mercers. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. Its what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. Its how you brainwash someone. Its incredibly dangerous.

Its no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. I find it incredibly scary. I really do. Because nobody has really followed through on the possible consequences of all this. People dont know its happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs.

Mercer invested in Cambridge Analytica, the Washington Post reported, driven in part by an assessment that the right was lacking sophisticated technology capabilities. But in many ways, its what Cambridge Analyticas parent company does that raises even more questions.

Emma Briant, a propaganda specialist at the University of Sheffield, wrote about SCL Group in her 2015 book, Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change. Cambridge Analytica has the technological tools to effect behavioural and psychological change, she said, but its SCL that strategises it. It has specialised, at the highest level for Nato, the MoD, the US state department and others in changing the behaviour of large groups. It models mass populations and then it changes their beliefs.

SCL was founded by someone called Nigel Oakes, who worked for Saatchi & Saatchi on Margaret Thatchers image, says Briant, and the company had been making money out of the propaganda side of the war on terrorism over a long period of time. There are different arms of SCL but its all about reach and the ability to shape the discourse. They are trying to amplify particular political narratives. And they are selective in who they go for: they are not doing this for the left.

In the course of the US election, Cambridge Analytica amassed a database, as it claims on its website, of almost the entire US voting population 220 million people and the Washington Post reported last week that SCL was increasing staffing at its Washington office and competing for lucrative new contracts with Trumps administration. It seems significant that a company involved in engineering a political outcome profits from what follows. Particularly if its the manipulation, and then resolution, of fear, says Briant.

Its the database, and what may happen to it, that particularly exercises Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Swiss mathematician and data activist who has been investigating Cambridge Analytica and SCL for more than a year. How is it going to be used? he says. Is it going to be used to try and manipulate people around domestic policies? Or to ferment conflict between different communities? It is potentially very scary. People just dont understand the power of this data and how it can be used against them.

There are two things, potentially, going on simultaneously: the manipulation of information on a mass level, and the manipulation of information at a very individual level. Both based on the latest understandings in science about how people work, and enabled by technological platforms built to bring us together.

Are we living in a new era of propaganda, I ask Emma Briant? One we cant see, and that is working on us in ways we cant understand? Where we can only react, emotionally, to its messages? Definitely. The way that surveillance through technology is so pervasive, the collection and use of our data is so much more sophisticated. Its totally covert. And people dont realise what is going on.

Public mood and politics goes through cycles. You dont have to subscribe to any conspiracy theory, Briant says, to see that a mass change in public sentiment is happening. Or that some of the tools in action are straight out of the militarys or SCLs playbook.

But then theres increasing evidence that our public arenas the social media sites where we post our holiday snaps or make comments about the news are a new battlefield where international geopolitics is playing out in real time. Its a new age of propaganda. But whose? This week, Russia announced the formation of a new branch of the military: information warfare troops.

Sam Woolley of the Oxford Internet Institutes computational propaganda institute tells me that one third of all traffic on Twitter before the EU referendum was automated bots accounts that are programmed to look like people, to act like people, and to change the conversation, to make topics trend. And they were all for Leave. Before the US election, they were five-to-one in favour of Trump many of them Russian. Last week they have been in action in the Stoke byelection Russian bots, organised by who? attacking Paul Nuttall.

Politics is war, said Steve Bannon last year in the Wall Street Journal. And increasingly this looks to be true.

Theres nothing accidental about Trumps behaviour, Andy Wigmore tells me. That press conference. It was absolutely brilliant. I could see exactly what he was doing. Theres feedback going on constantly. Thats what you can do with artificial intelligence. You can measure ever reaction to every word. He has a word room, where you fix key words. We did it. So with immigration, there are actually key words within that subject matter which people are concerned about. So when you are going to make a speech, its all about how can you use these trending words.

Wigmore met with Trumps team right at the start of the Leave campaign. And they said the holy grail was artificial intelligence.

Who did?

Jared Kushner and Jason Miller.

Later, when Trump picked up Mercer and Cambridge Analytica, the game changed again. Its all about the emotions. This is the big difference with what we did. They call it bio-psycho-social profiling. It takes your physical, mental and lifestyle attributes and works out how people work, how they react emotionally.

Bio-psycho-social profiling, I read later, is one offensive in what is called cognitive warfare. Though there are many others: recoding the mass consciousness to turn patriotism into collaborationism, explains a Nato briefing document on countering Russian disinformation written by an SCL employee. Time-sensitive professional use of media to propagate narratives, says one US state department white paper. Of particular importance to psyop personnel may be publicly and commercially available data from social media platforms.

Yet another details the power of a cognitive casualty a moral shock that has a disabling effect on empathy and higher processes such as moral reasoning and critical thinking. Something like immigration, perhaps. Or fake news. Or as it has now become: FAKE news!!!!

How do you change the way a nation thinks? You could start by creating a mainstream media to replace the existing one with a site such as Breitbart. You could set up other websites that displace mainstream sources of news and information with your own definitions of concepts like liberal media bias, like And you could give the rump mainstream media, papers like the failing New York Times! what it wants: stories. Because the third prong of Mercer and Bannons media empire is the Government Accountability Institute.

Bannon co-founded it with $2m of Mercers money. Mercers daughter, Rebekah, was appointed to the board. Then they invested in expensive, long-term investigative journalism. The modern economics of the newsroom dont support big investigative reporting staffs, Bannon told Forbes magazine. You wouldnt get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. Were working as a support function.

Welcome to the future of journalism in the age of platform capitalism. News organisations have to do a better job of creating new financial models. But in the gaps in between, a determined plutocrat and a brilliant media strategist can, and have, found a way to mould journalism to their own ends.

In 2015, Steve Bannon described to Forbes how the GAI operated, employing a data scientist to trawl the dark web (in the article he boasts of having access to $1.3bn worth of supercomputers) to dig up the kind of source material Google cant find. One result has been a New York Times bestseller, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, written by GAIs president, Peter Schweizer and later turned into a film produced by Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon.

This, Bannon explained, is how you weaponise the narrative you want. With hard researched facts. With those, you can launch it straight on to the front page of the New York Times, as the story of Hillary Clintons cash did. Like Hillarys emails it turned the news agenda, and, most crucially, it diverted the attention of the news cycle. Another classic psyops approach. Strategic drowning of other messages.

This is a strategic, long-term and really quite brilliant play. In the 1990s, Bannon explained, conservative media couldnt take Bill Clinton down becausethey wound up talking to themselves in an echo chamber.

As, it turns out, the liberal media is now. We are scattered, separate, squabbling among ourselves and being picked off like targets in a shooting gallery. Increasingly, theres a sense that we are talking to ourselves. And whether its Mercers millions or other factors, Jonathan Albrights map of the news and information ecosystem shows how rightwing sites are dominating sites like YouTube and Google, bound tightly together by millions of links.

Is there a central intelligence to that, I ask Albright? There has to be. There has to be some type of coordination. You can see from looking at the map, from the architecture of the system, that this is not accidental. Its clearly being led by money and politics.

Theres been a lot of talk in the echo chamber about Bannon in the last few months, but its Mercer who provided the money to remake parts of the media landscape. And while Bannon understands the media, Mercer understands big data. He understands the structure of the internet. He knows how algorithms work.

Robert Mercer did not respond to a request for comment for this piece. NickPatterson, a British cryptographer, who worked at Renaissance Technologies in the 80s and is now a computational geneticist at MIT, described to me how he was the one who talent-spotted Mercer. There was an elite group working at IBM in the 1980s doing speech research, speech recognition, and when I joined Renaissance I judged that the mathematics we were trying to apply to financial markets were very similar.

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