Progressives have a master villain to rival the wingnut obsession with George Soros. And Robert Mercer’s web seems real…. (More)

“I feel like I’ve fallen down a wormhole”

The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr is on a quest that began with a Google search:

Here’s what you don’t want to do late on a Sunday night. You do not want to type seven letters into Google. That’s all I did. I typed: “a-r-e”. And then “j-e-w-s”. Since 2008, Google has attempted to predict what question you might be asking and offers you a choice. And this is what it did. It offered me a choice of potential questions it thought I might want to ask: “are jews a race?”, “are jews white?”, “are jews christians?”, and finally, “are jews evil?”

Are Jews evil? It’s not a question I’ve ever thought of asking. I hadn’t gone looking for it. But there it was. I press enter. A page of results appears. This was Google’s question. And this was Google’s answer: Jews are evil. Because there, on my screen, was the proof: an entire page of results, nine out of 10 of which “confirm” this. The top result, from a site called Listovative, has the headline: “Top 10 Major Reasons Why People Hate Jews.” I click on it: “Jews today have taken over marketing, militia, medicinal, technological, media, industrial, cinema challenges etc and continue to face the worlds [sic] envy through unexplained success stories given their inglorious past and vermin like repression all over Europe.”
[…]
I feel like I’ve fallen down a wormhole, entered some parallel universe where black is white, and good is bad. Though later, I think that perhaps what I’ve actually done is scraped the topsoil off the surface of 2016 and found one of the underground springs that has been quietly nurturing it. It’s been there all the time, of course. Just a few keystrokes away … on our laptops, our tablets, our phones. This isn’t a secret Nazi cell lurking in the shadows. It’s hiding in plain sight.

To understand what led Cadwalladr to depict Robert Mercer as the right-wing’s master villain, you need to follow her quest step-by-step. In that first story, she details how a late night search turned into a probing report the secret algorithms that Google uses to suggest searches and rank results, and how right-wing groups have learned to game that algorithm to push fringe ideas – that Jews and women are evil, that Hitler was a hero, that Islam must be eradicated – into mainstream culture. You need to read the full article to get a full sense of what Cadwalladr found.

“mainstream media is…”

A similar Google search led Cadwalladr to Mercer:

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!”

Trump had spoken, and his audience had heard him. Then I did what I’ve been doing for two and a half months now. I Googled “mainstream media is…” And there it was. Google’s 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 Google’s first suggested link. It leads to a website called CNSnews.com and an article: “The Mainstream media are dead.” They’re dead, I learn, because they – we, I – “cannot be trusted”. How had it, an obscure site I’d never heard of, dominated Google’s 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 “America’s 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 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.

Again she found the same tactics – sophisticated trolls, backed by armies of bots, driving stories and memes into featured status on search engines and making them trend on social media – to create an illusion of consensus or at least widespread acceptance. Mercer’s goal was to delegitimize conventional media and replace them with right-wing propaganda. Again, you need to read the entire article to get a full taste of what she found.

“That’s what it is. Psyops.”

That reporting led Cadwalladr to a third story, about how Mercer-funded companies including Cambridge Analytica have taken politics:

London in 2013 was still basking in the afterglow of the Olympics. Britain had not yet Brexited. The world had not yet turned.

“That was before we became this dark, dystopian data company that gave the world Trump,” a former Cambridge Analytica employee who I’ll call Paul tells me. “It was back when we were still just a psychological warfare firm.”

Was that really what you called it, I ask him. Psychological warfare? “Totally. That’s what it is. Psyops. Psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. It’s what they mean by winning ‘hearts and minds’. We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.”

Why would anyone want to intern with a psychological warfare firm, I ask him. And he looks at me like I am mad. “It was like working for MI6. Only it’s MI6 for hire. It was very posh, very English, run by an old Etonian and you got to do some really cool things. Fly all over the world. You were working with the president of Kenya or Ghana or wherever. It’s not like election campaigns in the west. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit.”

In 2016, Cambridge Analytica and related firms brought that “crazy shit” to the Brexit and Trump campaigns. She reported on how the firms compiled and used comprehensive voter databases to microtarget ads – often disguised as social media comments or links to fake news sites – based on complex psychological evaluations of individuals’ personal data.

To put it in a nutshell, because squirrels like things in nutshells, the firms figured out what keywords and phrases would be not only click-bait but also emotion-building-turnout-bait, for specific voters. They also figured out how to make those memes ubiquitous in voters’ search results and social media feeds, and drown out competing stories. And much of that messaging, in the Brexit and perhaps in the God-King’s campaigns, may have subverted British and U.S. campaign finance laws. Yet again, you need to read her entire article to follow the whole story.

“Numbers do not lie. I’m going to follow the data.”

After each story, the various Brexit-Leave campaigns, Cambridge Analytica, and the other data firms denied any relationships with each other or with Mercer. But Cadwalladr kept digging:

On 18 November 2015, the British press gathered in a hall in Westminster to witness the official launch of Leave.EU. Nigel Farage, the campaign’s figurehead, was banished to the back of the room and instead an American political strategist, Gerry Gunster, took centre stage and explained its strategy. “The one thing that I know is data,” he said. “Numbers do not lie. I’m going to follow the data.”

Eighteen months on, it’s this same insight – to follow the data – that is the key to unlocking what really happened behind the scenes of the Leave campaign. On the surface, the two main campaigns, Leave.EU and Vote Leave, hated one other. Their leading lights, Farage and Boris Johnson, were sworn enemies for the duration of the referendum. The two campaigns bitterly refused even to share a platform.

But the Observer has seen a confidential document that provides clear evidence of a link between the two campaigns. More precisely, evidence of a close working relationship between the two data analytics firms employed by the campaigns – AggregateIQ, which Vote Leave hired, and Cambridge Analytica, retained by Leave.EU.

Specifically, a source gave Cadwalladr a copy of an intellectual property contract between the two firms:

This ordinary-looking document is at the heart of a web of relationships that link Mercer with the referendum to take Britain out of the EU. What impact did Mercer have on Brexit? Did the campaigns know of the link? Did they deliberately conceal it? Or could they, too, have been in the dark?

Because, legally, these two companies – AggregateIQ in Canada and Cambridge Analytica, an American company based in London, have nothing to connect them publicly. But this intellectual property license shown to the Observer tells a different story. This created a binding “exclusive” “worldwide” agreement “in perpetuity” for all of AggregateIQ’s intellectual property to be used by SCL Elections (a British firm that created Cambridge Analytica with Mercer).

The companies may have had different owners but they were legally bound together. And, the Observer has learned, they were working together on a daily basis at the time of the referendum – both companies were being paid by Mercer-funded organisations to work on Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in America. What is more, several anonymous sources reveal the two companies, working on two separate British Leave campaigns, actually shared the same database at the time.

So although Leave.EU and Vote Leave hired different companies, those two companies had signed a contract to work together, and the two campaigns were coordinating their messages, whether their staffs knew it or not.

Of course both companies quickly issued denials and threatened to sue, but Cadwalladr has amassed a veritable boatload of evidence … often from the companies’ own websites, social media posts, and press releases. Many of links she cites have been deleted, but she has screenshots and sprinkles them like breadcrumbs to document her trail.

It’s an impressive body of work and – yet again – you really need to read all four stories to follow the twists and turns. It’s a deeply disturbing look at how Big Data can be turned against democracy. I’d love to say she offers solutions, but so far there are few effective counter-strategies … and no legal accountability.

Perhaps in a future article, Cadwalladr can examine whether these same methods were used in Austria, the Netherlands, and France and – if so – why those methods failed in those three elections.

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Photo Credit: Oliver Contreras (Washington Post/Getty Images)

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Good day and good nuts