When people think of tech billionaires, the names Zuckerberg, Gates and Jobs spring to mind. Robert Mercer is not a household name by any standards.
Yet he is a man who has been seeking to shape the world to his ideology.
By using his formidable wealth to back right wing movements – particularly in opposition of the mainstream media.
He has had a hand in two of the most shocking political events in recent times. Trump’s victory in the US election, and the Brexit vote to leave the EU.
- How a quiet computer scientist became the alt-right’s chief backer.
- Cambridge Analytica swinging elections for Mercer.
- Right set sights on more victories.
Mercer made his name at IBM. He is said, by the Association for Computational Linguistics, to have been behind revolutionary breakthroughs in language processing. These innovations have been integral to today’s AI.
He then made a career pivot, becoming joint CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that uses algorithms to model and trade on the markets. One of Renaissance Technology’s funds, Medallion, is the most successful in the world having generated $55 billion so far. Mercer has in recent times directed his wealth in a very specific way – to fund Republican or right wing movements and to fight what he perceives is ‘left-wing bias’ in the media.
One such endeavour is the $10 million he has pumped into the Media Research Center. The company which calls itself “America’s media watchdog” has an “unwavering commitment to neutralising left-wing bias in the news, media and popular culture”.
Mercer’s most famous project in pursuit of “media equality” is Breitbart news, of which he is co-owner. It was Mercer’s donation of $10 million that enabled Steve Bannon and Andrew Breitbart to start the site that has become the symbol of alt-right news. Indeed, Mercer played a role in the appointment of Bannon and Kellyanne Conway into senior roles in the Trump campaign.
“Psyops” and Cambridge Analytica
Breitbart has become the standard bearer for conservative media, and it has been a huge success. It is the 29th most popular site in America with 2 billion page-views a year. It has superseded the popularity of its inspiration, the Huffington Post, and recently became the most popular political site on Facebook.
Yet the jewel in the crown of Mercer’s attack on the left is not Breitbart, but a little known data-analytics company named Cambridge Analytica. Its specialties are “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”. These techniques have been sharpened over 25 years in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. The military refer to this as “psyops” – psychological operations.
Cambridge Analytica claims that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters. It is then able to use this data to understand people’s deepest emotions and then target them accordingly. Trackers from sites like Breitbart can be used by companies like Cambridge Analytica to follow people around the web and then, via Facebook, target them with ads. Mercer has a rumoured $10 million stake in the company.
A US Election, Brexit, what next?
Mercer was initially backing Ted Cruz in the election last year, but quickly changed to Trump when it was clear he would win the nomination. Trump’s campaign paid Cambridge Analytica $4.8 million to sway voters in swing states. Recently it has emerged that the company was put to work for the Leave campaign – free of charge – at Mercer’s request.
While the company initially denied working in the UK whatsoever, Leave.eu communications director Andy Wigmore, has admitted that the company assisted his campaign. “They were happy to help. Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers,” Mr Wigmore said. “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.”
The founder of the Leave.eu campaign was unequivocal in what had swung the result in their favour: “AI won it for leave” said Arron Banks.
The potential ability to sway hugely important elections is disturbing in the extreme, and in tandem with his clear influence on the new White House (due to his relations with Bannon and Conway), Mercer can arguably be said to be affecting White House strategy.
Bannon was interviewed by the New York Times in 2014, discussing the success of Breitbart and the alt-right. It was, he said, the latest front “in our current cultural and political war”. Mercer’s next targets? France, Germany and Brazil.
(Photo Credit: Flickr.)