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For The Record  

FTR #946 In Your Facebook: A Virtual Panopticon, Part 2

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This broadcast was recorded in one, 60-minute segment.

Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel

Introduction: In FTR #718 (recorded on Independence Day weekend of 2010), we noted that the new social medium–Facebook-might very well be the opposite of the liberating, empowering entity many believed it to be.

On the contrary, we said–it received financial backing from the CIA, permits unprecedented gathering and databasing of users’ personal information, and might very well be a “panopticon”–a type of prison in which the interned can never see his or her jailers, but their keepers can see the interned at all times.

In particular, we noted the prominent position of major Facebook investor Peter Thiel in “Mondo Zuckerberg.” Of German (and probable I.G. Farben) origins, we opined that Thiel was Underground Reich. Opposed to democracy because he feels it is inimical to wealth creation and doesn’t believe women should be allowed to vote, Thiel has now emerged as one of the most prominent of Donald Trump’s supporters, transition team creators and influential policy wonks.

Whereas we explored the “virtual panopticon” concept of Facebook with a question mark in 2010, we now feel affirmatively on the issue.

A very important story from New York magazine sets forth Facebook’s role in the just-concluded election.

A Panopticon

A Panopticon

” . . . . Facebook’s size, reach, wealth, and power make it effectively the only one that matters. And, boy, does it matter. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I think there are few events over the last decade more significant than the social network’s wholesale acquisition of the traditional functions of news media (not to mention the political-party apparatus). Trump’s ascendancy is far from the first material consequence of Facebook’s conquering invasion of our social, cultural, and political lives, but it’s still a bracing reminder of the extent to which the social network is able to upend existing structure and transform society — and often not for the better. . . .

” . . . . Facebook’s enormous audience, and the mechanisms of distribution on which the site relies — i.e., the emotionally charged activity of sharing, and the show-me-more-like-this feedback loop of the news feed algorithm — makes it the only site to support a genuinely lucrative market in which shady publishers arbitrage traffic by enticing people off of Facebook and onto ad-festooned websites, using stories that are alternately made up, incorrect, exaggerated beyond all relationship to truth, or all three. . . .

trump-hat” . . . . And at the heart of the problem, anyway, is not the motivations of the hoaxers but the structure of social media itself. Tens of millions of people, invigorated by insurgent outsider candidates and anger at perceived political enemies, were served up or shared emotionally charged news stories about the candidates, because Facebook’s sorting algorithm understood from experience that they were seeking such stories. Many of those stories were lies, or ‘parodies,’ but their appearance and placement in a news feed were no different from those of any publisher with a commitment to, you know, not lying. As those people and their followers clicked on, shared, or otherwise engaged with those stories — which they did, because Trump drives engagement extremely bigly — they were served up even more of them. The engagement-driving feedback loop reached the heights of Facebook itself, which shared fake news to its front page on more than one occasion after firing the small team of editorial employees tasked with passing news judgment. . . .

” . . . . Something like 170 million people in North America use Facebook every day, a number that’s not only several orders of magnitude larger than even the most optimistic circulation reckonings of major news outlets but also about one-and-a-half times as many people as voted on Tuesday. Forty-four percent of all adults in the United States say they get news from Facebook . . . “

Symptomatic of Facebook’s filter of what its users see concerns the social medium’s recent non-coverage of the women’s march:

” . . . . We don’t usually post on Pando at the weekend, but this is too topical and too shameful to wait until Monday. As you certainly know, today is the day of the Women’s March on Washington in protest of Donald Trump. The main event is in DC, where something close to 500,000 protesters of all genders and ages have packed the streets — but there are also major protests in Chicago, New York and around the world. Including Antarctica.

You certainly know this because the protest march is the top story on every major news outlet, and because updates and photos from the event are flooding your Twitter and Facebook feeds.

And yet, here’s what Facebook’s trending news feed looked like at the height of the march…
[see image of Carr’s news feed]
And here’s its trending politics feed…
[see image of trending politics fee]
Notice anything missing?

Like, say, a half million women.

In case you think I’m seeing something different from the rest of the world, be assured I’m not….”

Facebook has changed its algorithm, no longer factoring in “likes” and other personal preferences in determining its news feed.

This, however, does not bode as well as Facebook would like us to believe. Facebook has promoted, among others, Campbell Brown, to an important position in structuring its news feed:  ” . . . . Brown has longstanding ties not just to the traditional news media, but also to conservative politics, although she describes herself as a political independent. She is a close personal friend of Betsy DeVos, the Republican megadonor who is Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, and is married to Dan Senor, a former top advisor to Mitt Romney who also served as spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. . . .

. . . . And alongside her mainstream media experience, Brown is familiar with the world of non-traditional news outlets springing up online. In 2014, she founded a nonprofit news site, The 74, which bills itself as nonpartisan but which critics have said functions as advocacy journalism, tilted in favor of charter schools and against teachers’ unions. The site was launched with money from donors including the foundation run by DeVos, Trump’s proposed Education Secretary. When the nomination was announced, Brown said she would recuse herself from The 74’s coverage of DeVos. . .”  

Brown is joined by Tucker Bounds, a former John McCain adviser and spokesman for the McCain/Palin campaign.

Exemplifying the terrifying possibilities of the virtual panopticon, we examine the nexus of Cambridge Analytica, its principal investors, Robert and Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon, a key member of the firm’s board of directors and a political guru to Rebekah. ” . . . . For several years, a data firm eventually hired by the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, has been using Facebook as a tool to build psychological profiles that represent some 230 million adult Americans. A spinoff of a British consulting company and sometime-defense contractor known for its counterterrorism ‘psy ops’ work in Afghanistan, the firm does so by seeding the social network with personality quizzes. Respondents — by now hundreds of thousands of us, mostly female and mostly young but enough male and older for the firm to make inferences about others with similar behaviors and demographics — get a free look at their Ocean scores. Cambridge Analytica also gets a look at their scores and, thanks to Facebook, gains access to their profiles and real names.

“Cambridge Analytica worked on the ‘Leave’ side of the Brexit campaign. In the United States it takes only Republicans as clients: Senator Ted Cruz in the primaries, Mr. Trump in the general election. Cambridge is reportedly backed by Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire and a major Republican donor; a key board member is Stephen K. Bannon, the head of Breitbart News who became Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman and is set to be his chief strategist in the White House. . .

” . . . . Their [the Mercers] data firm, Cambridge Analytica, was hired by the Cruz campaign. They switched to support Trump shortly after he clinched the nomination, and he eventually hired Cambridge Analytica, as well. Their top political guru is Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News chairman and White House chief strategist. They’re close, too, with Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who also has a senior role in the White House. They never speak to the press and hardly ever even release a public statement. Like Trump himself, they’ve flouted the standard playbook for how things are done in politics. . . .”

Bannon’s influence on Rebekah Mercer is particularly strong: ” . . . Another of the Republican operatives described Bannon as the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ to Rebekah Mercer, and a third was even more pointed: ‘Svengali.’ Bannon is ‘really, really, really influential’ with Mercer, said the former Breitbart employee. The Mercers, the former employee said, made their wishes known through Bannon, who would sometimes cite the company’s financial backers as a reason for Breitbart not to do a story. Bannon didn’t respond to a request for comment about this. . . .”

In turn, the influence of Steve Bannon within the Facebook virtual panopticon is even more sinister considering Bannon’s political outlook: ” . . . . But, said the source, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about Bannon, ‘There are some things he’s only going to share with people who he’s tight with and who he trusts.’

Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years—a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history. . . .”

One of the influences on Bannon is Curtis Yarvin, aka Mencius Moldbug, who has actually opened a backchannel advisory connection to the White House: ” . . . . Before he emerged on the political scene, an obscure Silicon Valley computer programmer with ties to Trump backer and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel was explaining his behavior. Curtis Yarvin, the self-proclaimed ‘neoreactionary’ who blogs under the name ‘Mencius Moldbug,’ attracted a following in 2008 when he published a wordy treatise asserting, among other things, that ‘nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth.’ When the organizer of a computer science conference canceled Yarvin’s appearance following an outcry over his blogging under his nom de web, Bannon took note: Breitbart News decried the act of censorship in an article about the programmer-blogger’s dismissal.

Moldbug’s dense, discursive musings on history—’What’s so bad about the Nazis?’ he asks in one 2008 post that condemns the Holocaust but questions the moral superiority of the Allies—include a belief in the utility of spreading misinformation that now looks like a template for Trump’s approach to truth. ‘To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable [sic] demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army,’ he writes in a May 2008 post.It’s been a while since I posted anything really controversial and offensive here,’ he begins in a July 25, 2007, post explaining why he associates democracy with ‘war, tyranny, destruction and poverty.’

Moldbug, who does not do interviews and could not be reached for this story, has reportedly opened up a line to the White House, communicating with Bannon and his aides through an intermediary, according to a source. Yarvin said he has never spoken with Bannon. . . .”

After discussing Facebook’s new AI technology being employed to search users’ photos, the program concludes with the shift of Silicon Valley money to the GOP.

Program Highlights Include: 

  • Review of Steve Bannon’s role on the NSC.
  • Review of the martial law contingency plans drawn up by Oliver North during the Reagan administration, involving the deputizing of paramilitary right-wingers.
  • Review of Erik Prince’s relationship to the Trump administration and Betsy De Vos, Trump’s education secretary.

1. A very important story from New York magazine sets forth Facebook’s role in the just-concluded election.

” . . . . Facebook’s size, reach, wealth, and power make it effectively the only one that matters. And, boy, does it matter. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I think there are few events over the last decade more significant than the social network’s wholesale acquisition of the traditional functions of news media (not to mention the political-party apparatus). Trump’s ascendancy is far from the first material consequence of Facebook’s conquering invasion of our social, cultural, and political lives, but it’s still a bracing reminder of the extent to which the social network is able to upend existing structure and transform society — and often not for the better. . . .

” . . . . Facebook’s enormous audience, and the mechanisms of distribution on which the site relies — i.e., the emotionally charged activity of sharing, and the show-me-more-like-this feedback loop of the news feed algorithm — makes it the only site to support a genuinely lucrative market in which shady publishers arbitrage traffic by enticing people off of Facebook and onto ad-festooned websites, using stories that are alternately made up, incorrect, exaggerated beyond all relationship to truth, or all three. . . .

” . . . . And at the heart of the problem, anyway, is not the motivations of the hoaxers but the structure of social media itself. Tens of millions of people, invigorated by insurgent outsider candidates and anger at perceived political enemies, were served up or shared emotionally charged news stories about the candidates, because Facebook’s sorting algorithm understood from experience that they were seeking such stories. Many of those stories were lies, or ‘parodies,’ but their appearance and placement in a news feed were no different from those of any publisher with a commitment to, you know, not lying. As those people and their followers clicked on, shared, or otherwise engaged with those stories — which they did, because Trump drives engagement extremely bigly — they were served up even more of them. The engagement-driving feedback loop reached the heights of Facebook itself, which shared fake news to its front page on more than one occasion after firing the small team of editorial employees tasked with passing news judgment. . . .

” . . . . Something like 170 million people in North America use Facebook every day, a number that’s not only several orders of magnitude larger than even the most optimistic circulation reckonings of major news outlets but also about one-and-a-half times as many people as voted on Tuesday. Forty-four percent of all adults in the United States say they get news from Facebook . . . “

“Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook” by Max Read; New York Magazine; 11/09/2016.

A close and — to pundits, journalists, and Democrats — unexpected victory like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s is always overdetermined, and no one particular thing pushed Trump over the edge on Tuesday night. His chosen party’s lately increasing openness to explicit white nationalism, the still-recent global-scale failure of the liberal economic consensus, the apparently deep-seated misogyny and racism of the American electorate, Hillary Clinton’s multiple shortcomings as a candidate, or even the last-minute intervention of FBI director James Comey might each have been, on its own, sufficient to hand the election to a man who is, by any reckoning, a dangerous and unpredictable bigot.

Still, it can be clarifying to identify the conditions that allowed access to the highest levels of the political syste a man so far outside what was, until recently, the political mainstream that not a single former presidential candidate from his own party would endorse him. In this case, the condition was: Facebook.

To some extent I’m using “Facebook” here as a stand-in for the half-dozen large and influential message boards and social-media platforms where Americans now congregate to discuss politics, but Facebook’s size, reach, wealth, and power make it effectively the only one that matters. And, boy, does it matter. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I think there are few events over the last decade more significant than the social network’s wholesale acquisition of the traditional functions of news media (not to mention the political-party apparatus). Trump’s ascendancy is far from the first material consequence of Facebook’s conquering invasion of our social, cultural, and political lives, but it’s still a bracing reminder of the extent to which the social network is able to upend existing structure and transform society — and often not for the better.

The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news. Fake news is not a problem unique to Facebook, but Facebook’s enormous audience, and the mechanisms of distribution on which the site relies — i.e., the emotionally charged activity of sharing, and the show-me-more-like-this feedback loop of the news feed algorithm — makes it the only site to support a genuinely lucrative market in which shady publishers arbitrage traffic by enticing people off of Facebook and onto ad-festooned websites, using stories that are alternately made up, incorrect, exaggerated beyond all relationship to truth, or all three. (To really hammer home the cyberdystopia aspect of this: A significant number of the sites are run by Macedonian teenagers looking to make some scratch.)

All throughout the election, these fake stories, sometimes papered over with flimsy “parody site” disclosures somewhere in small type, circulated throughout Facebook: The Pope endorses Trump. Hillary Clinton bought $137 million in illegal arms. The Clintons bought a $200 million house in the Maldives. Many got hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of shares, likes, and comments; enough people clicked through to the posts to generate significant profits for their creators. The valiant efforts of Snopes and other debunking organizations were insufficient; Facebook’s labyrinthine sharing and privacy settings mean that fact-checks get lost in the shuffle. Often, no one would even need to click on and read the story for the headline itself to become a widely distributed talking point, repeated elsewhere online, or, sometimes, in real life. (Here’s an in-the-wild sighting of a man telling a woman that Clinton and her longtime aide Huma Abedin are lovers, based on “material that appeared to have been printed off the internet.”)

Profit motive, on the part of Macedonians or Americans, was not the only reason to share fake news, of course — there was an obvious ideological motivation to lie to or mislead potential voters — but the fake-news industry’s commitment to “engagement” above any particular political program has given it a terrifyingly nihilistic sheen that old-fashioned propagandists never displayed. (Say what you will about ratfuc king, dude, at least it’s an ethos.) And at the heart of the problem, anyway, is not the motivations of the hoaxers but the structure of social media itself. Tens of millions of people, invigorated by insurgent outsider candidates and anger at perceived political enemies, were served up or shared emotionally charged news stories about the candidates, because Facebook’s sorting algorithm understood from experience that they were seeking such stories. Many of those stories were lies, or “parodies,” but their appearance and placement in a news feed were no different from those of any publisher with a commitment to, you know, not lying. As those people and their followers clicked on, shared, or otherwise engaged with those stories — which they did, because Trump drives engagement extremely bigly — they were served up even more of them. The engagement-driving feedback loop reached the heights of Facebook itself, which shared fake news to its front page on more than one occasion after firing the small team of editorial employees tasked with passing news judgment. Flush with Trump’s uniquely passionate supporter base, Facebook’s vast, personalized sewer system has become clogged with toxic fatbergs.

And it is, truly, vast: Something like 170 million people in North America use Facebook every day, a number that’s not only several orders of magnitude larger than even the most optimistic circulation reckonings of major news outlets but also about one-and-a-half times as many people as voted on Tuesday. Forty-four percent of all adults in the United States say they get news from Facebook, and access to to an audience of that size would seem to demand some kind of civic responsibility — an obligation to ensure that a group of people more sizable than the American electorate is not being misled. But whether through a failure of resources, of ideology, or of imagination, Facebook has seemed both uninterested in and incapable of even acknowledging that it has become the most efficient distributor of misinformation in human history.

Facebook connected those supporters to each other and to the candidate, gave them platforms far beyond what even the largest Establishment media organizations might have imagined, and allowed them to effectively self-organize outside the party structure. Who needs a GOTV database when you have millions of voters worked into a frenzy by nine months of sharing impassioned lies on Facebook, encouraging each other to participate?

Even better, Facebook allowed Trump to directly combat the hugely negative media coverage directed at him, simply by giving his campaign and its supporters another host of channels to distribute counterprogramming. This, precisely, is why more good journalism would have been unlikely to change anyone’s mind: The Post and the Times no longer have a monopoly on information about a candidate. Endless reports of corruption, venality, misogyny, and incompetence merely settle in a Facebook feed next to a hundred other articles from pro-Trump sources (if they settle into a Trump supporter’s feed at all) disputing or ignoring the deeply reported claims, or, as is often the case, just making up new and different stories.

2. Paul Carr over at Pando had a rather troubling observation during the anti-Trump Woman’s March about Facebook’s coverage of the Million Woman March in its news feed. Specifically, his observation that he was unable to observe any news on Facebook about the historic march at all:

“Hundreds of Thousands of Women March in Protest against Trump: Facebook News Tries to Silence Them All” by Paul Bradley Carr; Pando ; 1/21/2017.

We don’t usually post on Pando at the weekend, but this is too topical and too shameful to wait until Monday.

As you certainly know, today is the day of the Women’s March on Washington in protest of Donald Trump. The main event is in DC, where something close to 500,000 protesters of all genders and ages have packed the streets — but there are also major protests in Chicago, New York and around the world. Including Antarctica.

You certainly know this because the protest march is the top story on every major news outlet, and because updates and photos from the event are flooding your Twitter and Facebook feeds.

And yet, here’s what Facebook’s trending news feed looked like at the height of the march…
[see image of Carr’s news feed]
And here’s its trending politics feed…
[see image of trending politics fee]
Notice anything missing?

Like, say, a half million women.

In case you think I’m seeing something different from the rest of the world, be assured I’m not….

@paulbradleycarr wow. just looked. very poor. i have one mention (for chicago march) under politics— Rachel Clarke (@rachelclarke) January 21, 2017

@rachelclarke@paulbradleycarr I don’t see any in top trends OR politics… and I’m in Chicago so I thought it might show up— Aesha (@heyitsaesh) January 21, 2017

…Facebook’s trending news feed really has obliterated the entire Women’s March in favor of stories about pastry chefs and professional wrestlers.

I’ve written plenty (most recently this) about Facebook’s increasing coziness with Donald Trump, and there’s plenty more to be written about the growing unhappiness inside the company with the right-ward direction that senior management are taking in an attempt to please (/avoid conflict with) the incoming administration. Stay tuned.

For now, I’ve contacted Facebook to ask if the trending news feed is yet another example of that attempt, or if there’s some mystery glitch that has caused the voices of hundreds of thousands of women to be silenced in favor of stories that, by Facebook’s own numbers, only a thousand or so people are talking about. I’ll update this post if I hear back.

Update: A Facebook spokesperson responded to me on Tuesday afternoon, insisting that “some number” of the following terms “began trending on Saturday.”

#whyimarch

#WomensMarch

Women’s March on Boston

Women’s March on Los Angeles

Women’s March on Chicago

Sundance Women’s March

He was unable to provide supporting evidence for which of the terms trended when, and who might have seen them. “Trending is algorithmically driven based on conversations on the platform,” he explained.

I also asked whether it was accurate that Facebook is staffing up its policy team with right-wingers or others sympathetic to Donald Trump. The spokesperson declined to comment on the record.

Update II:

Facebook announces it is “updating how topics are identified as trending on Facebook”

3. So was Facebook intentionally suppressing the Women’s March or is this is a case of an algorithmic hiccup that, for whatever reason, concluded that Paul Carr wouldn’t care about such things. Well, according to the article below, the number of people unable to find any trace of the Women’s March in their trending news feed wasn’t limited to Carr. But it also wasn’t limited to suppressing the Women’s March in trending news feeds either since others reported that they were seeing the Women’s March in their news feed but no mention of Trump’s inauguration. So while it’s unclear what cause the numerous reports of major stories not reaching some users’ news feeds but not other feed, it’s pretty clear that relying on Facebook for your news is probably bad news (which shouldn’t be news to anyone):

“People Want to Know Why the Women’s March Was Absent from Facebook Trending News” by Katie Perry; Social Media Week; 1/23/2017.

Some people are questioning why the Women’s March was absent from Facebook’s Trending news section on Jan. 21. Other users say they failed to see the Inauguration on the list the day prior.

Journalists and onlookers are seeking answers as to why Saturday’s Women’s March—fueled by some 3 million participants in dozens of cities and towns worldwide—failed to appear on Facebook’s Trending topics list for some users during the height of the event.

According to Facebook, Trending news items are determined algorithmically based on engagement, timelines, location and Page like data. Those topics appear on the right-rail of the Facebook home screen and link to popular articles and posts that are relevant to each item. These articles generally line up with the top news stories of the day, as determined and reported on by more traditional news outlets.

But something puzzling happened on Jan. 21. Despite the Women’s March capturing mainstream and local media attention and spurring a flood of photos and commentary from those who marched, some users noted that the event was nowhere to be found within Facebook’s Trending topics list. For Pando reporter Paul Bradley Carr, it didn’t even appear within the Political sub-section of Trending topics.

Other onlookers seem to have verified Carr’s finding; however, some people did see limited coverage (within the Political sub-section, for example). So far, Facebook has declined to comment, which has left room for rampant speculation as to whether this was a mere technological glitch or something more deliberate. Note: By Sunday evening Jan. 22, the march had made its way to my News Feed.

What’s also interesting is that many people reported not seeing the Inauguration as a Trending topic the day before. Scrolling through public commentary and screenshots shared on Twitter, the situation gets even murkier. Some users saw the Women’s March trending but not the Inauguration. Others saw the opposite. The thing about a personalized “front page” is that absent a large pool of data, it’s tough to know what really went on behind the scenes.

So, why is what appears in Trending so important? As was oft-discussed during and after the last Election cycle, Americans are increasingly relying on social media as their leading source of news. A Pew study from 2015 found that 40 percent of U.S. Facebook users primarily view it as a destination for news-gathering. Among users age 34 and younger, 60 percent say social platforms like Facebook and Twitter are “the most or an important way” to get news.

For critics of Trending and its influence on the political landscape, there are two issues at play. The first involves the alleged interference of human editors in what has been positioned as an algorithmic curation by Facebook. The second debate is more philosophical in nature, as it questions the so-called “bubbles” that an algorithmic editor naturally creates.

In fairness, right now there is limited data available to prove that the Women’s March was absent in a universal capacity. That said, anecdotally, it appears that many people who should have seen the march did not. Drawing some assumptions, it would have made sense that a tech reporter living in a major metropolitan area would be exposed to news of the march—perhaps even in an over-indexed capacity—given that it’s likely he or she would have known people participating.

Other journalists noted that it seemed strange for Twitter to be showing the march on its own curated news list, but not Facebook.

I think Twitter deserves the win for the coverage around Women’s March today. Facebook? Hmm…suspect w/no mention in trending topics.— Ken Yeung (@thekenyeung) January 22, 2017

In May 2016, Vox published an article which claimed that “Facebook has more influence over Americans than any media company in history.” Whether curated content, such as what appears in Trending, has been skewed by users’ personal data or directionally manipulated by human editors, the net effect is significant: “So many people spend so much time on Facebook that even a small shift in the platform’s approach could have a big impact on what people read online,” says Vox’s Timothy B. Lee.

4.  Now that Facebook announced that it’s totally changing its news feed algorithm so that everyone in the same region will see the same trending news it’s also a bit of a moot mystery going forward. Sure, it’s not an entirely moot mystery since it would still be nice to know if Facebook was somehow using its algorithm as an excuse to suppress very negative news for Trump. But at least it sounds like there will be new and different reasons for Facebook’s crappy news feeds going forward:

“Facebook Tweaks Its ‘Trending Topics’ Algorithm To Better Reflect Real News” by Laura Sydell; Nation Public Radio; 1/25/2017.

An article in an online publication accusing Facebook of suppressing the Women’s March in its trending topics caused a little tempest on social media over the weekend. Facebook says it did not intentionally block any story and is revealing a new way its trending-topics algorithm will now operate.

Paul Bradley Carr, writing for online outlet Pando, on Saturday posted what he said were screen shots of his Facebook pages at the height of the worldwide marches, which brought more than a million people into the streets around the globe to protest the agenda of the Trump administration.

Despite images and stories from the marches filling many people’s personal Facebook feeds and the day’s media coverage, Carr’s screenshots showed no signs of the march in Trending Topics — a feature supposed to reflect popular discussed topics.

And Carr says he discovered he was not the only one who didn’t see the Women’s March reflected on Trending Topics, accusing Facebook of trying to cozy up to the Trump administration. A very unscientific poll by this reporter found that among people in my Facebook and Twitter network most did see the Women’s March or something related trending on their page. However, a few did not.

According to Facebook, the Trending Topics — seen to the right of the main news feed on desktop and in search on mobile — are “based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location.” (Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams.)

Facebook representatives told NPR that the reason why some people did not see the march as trending had to do with the algorithm behind the feature. Although it took into account major news events and what’s popular on the site, it also accounted for the preferences of each person. It’s possible that Carr’s algorithmic profile indicated he wouldn’t be interested in the Women’s March.

In addition, some people may have seen trending topics they didn’t realize were about the Women’s March. For example, Ashley Judd and Madonna were trending — both women gave speeches at the main march in Washington, D.C.

And, Facebook says, none of this will happen in the future.

As of Wednesday, the company has once again changed its trending algorithms. Personal preferences are now out of the equation. “Facebook will no longer be personalized based on someone’s interests,” Facebook says in a press release. “Everyone in the same region will see the same topics.” For now, a region is considered a country, so everyone in the U.S. should see the same topics.

The latest algorithm changes are part of Facebook’s ongoing effort to curtail the spread of fake news. Some fabricated stories show up in Trending Topics, despite often originating on sites with no history of visitors and getting no coverage from legitimate news media. It’s a lucrative business, explored by NPR in November, when we tracked down one notorious fake-news creator.

The new algorithm would make hoax articles less likely to trend because it will look at “the number of publishers that are posting articles on Facebook about the same topic,” accounting for coverage by multiple news outlets, Facebook says.

 

5.  No more personalized reality bubbles for Facebook users. Now it’s regional reality bubbles. That’s progress! Maybe. It’s unclear. Especially since the new head of Facebook’s news division is a right-winger with close ties to Trump’s new education secretary:

“Facebook’s New Head Of News Has Close Ties To Conservative Politics” by Molly Hensley-Clancy; BuzzFeed; 1/6/2017.

Campbell Brown, a former TV news anchor and education reform activist, has personal and professional links to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary.

Facebook has chosen Campbell Brown, a former television news anchor who worked most recently as an education reform activist, as its head of news partnerships, tasked with rebuilding relationships with news outlets in the wake of a wave of fake news stories that dominated the site during the presidential election.

Brown has longstanding ties not just to the traditional news media, but also to conservative politics, although she describes herself as a political independent. She is a close personal friend of Betsy DeVos, the Republican megadonor who is Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, and is married to Dan Senor, a former top advisor to Mitt Romney who also served as spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But she, and Senor, were central to the losing battle against Donald Trump inside the Republican Party. Last June, in a closed-door interview with Paul Ryan, she grilled the House Speaker on his decision to back Trump, asking him how he would justify his decision to a small child. She had earlier blamed the news media for aiding Trump’s rise. “He is not a politician. He is not a leader. He is a supreme narcissist,” wrote in December, 2015, criticizing TV networks for their saturation coverage of the then-candidate. “You can deprive him of the one thing that keeps him going—airtime.”

At Facebook, she will work to navigate the social network’s sometimes fraught role as a central player in the news industry. She won’t, however, be making editorial or content-related decisions, such as deciding what stories get play on Facebook, the company said.

“Right now we are watching a massive transformation take place in the news business – both in the way people consume news and in the way reporters disseminate news,” Brown wrote in a Facebook post Friday. “Facebook is a major part of this transformation.”

In the wake of the election, Facebook has weathered criticism over its inability to stem a tide of fake political news stories. It has also scrambled to mend ties with conservative publications after reports claimed its trending news team suppressed stories from conservative news outlets.

In her post-media career as an education activist, Brown founded an advocacy group, the Partnership for Educational Justice, whose donors she chose to keep secret, that frequently battles with teachers’ unions. And she has worked in favor of charter school expansion, a pet project of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

And alongside her mainstream media experience, Brown is familiar with the world of non-traditional news outlets springing up online. In 2014, she founded a nonprofit news site, The 74, which bills itself as nonpartisan but which critics have said functions as advocacy journalism, tilted in favor of charter schools and against teachers’ unions.

The site was launched with money from donors including the foundation run by DeVos, Trump’s proposed Education Secretary. When the nomination was announced, Brown said she would recuse herself from The 74’s coverage of DeVos.

Earlier this year, The 74 published an undercover sting video made by conservative activist James O’Keefe, who posed undercover as a teacher and filmed union representatives advising him on how to handle a hypothetical assault of a child.

6. The guy just hired as the new Facebook Communications Director who will be focused on product communications, specifically on the news feed, is Tucker Bounds.

“Axios AM” by Mike Allen; Axios ; 1/16/2017.

Good Monday morning! Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a perfect time to reflect on historic days for our country, as we head into Inauguration Week. It’s three days and a wake-up till President Trump.

Scoop … Facebook adds a well-known operative: Tucker Bounds — co-founder of Sidewire, the online conversation platform — is stepping away from his operational role and returning to Facebook, where he was director of corporate communications from 2011 to 2014. Tucker, who’ll keep his seat on the Sidewise board, starts Jan. 30 as Communications Director, focused on product communications, specifically on News Feed. . . .

 

7. Fun fact: those Facebook personality tests that allegedly let you learn things about what make you tick allows whoever set up that test learn what makes you tick too. Since it’s done through Facebook, they can identify your test results with your real identity. It’s a rather obvious fun fact.

Here’s a less obvious fun fact: if the Facebook personality test in question happens to report your “Ocean score” (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism), that means the test your taking was created by Cambridge Analytica, a company with one of Donald Trump’s billionaire sugar-daddies, Robert Mercer, as a major investor. And it’s Cambridge Analytica that gets to learn all those fun facts about your psychological profile too. And Steve Bannon sat on its board:

“The Secret Agenda of a Facebook Quiz” by McKenzie Funk; The New York Times; 1/19/2017.

Do you panic easily? Do you often feel blue? Do you have a sharp tongue? Do you get chores done right away? Do you believe in the importance of art?

If ever you’ve answered questions like these on one of the free personality quizzes floating around Facebook, you’ll have learned what’s known as your Ocean score: How you rate according to the big five psychological traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. You may also be responsible the next time America is shocked by an election upset.

For several years, a data firm eventually hired by the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, has been using Facebook as a tool to build psychological profiles that represent some 230 million adult Americans. A spinoff of a British consulting company and sometime-defense contractor known for its counterterrorism “psy ops” work in Afghanistan, the firm does so by seeding the social network with personality quizzes. Respondents — by now hundreds of thousands of us, mostly female and mostly young but enough male and older for the firm to make inferences about others with similar behaviors and demographics — get a free look at their Ocean scores. Cambridge Analytica also gets a look at their scores and, thanks to Facebook, gains access to their profiles and real names.

Cambridge Analytica worked on the “Leave” side of the Brexit campaign. In the United States it takes only Republicans as clients: Senator Ted Cruz in the primaries, Mr. Trump in the general election. Cambridge is reportedly backed by Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire and a major Republican donor; a key board member is Stephen K. Bannon, the head of Breitbart News who became Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman and is set to be his chief strategist in the White House.

In the age of Facebook, it has become far easier for campaigners or marketers to combine our online personas with our offline selves, a process that was once controversial but is now so commonplace that there’s a term for it, “onboarding.” Cambridge Analytica says it has as many as 3,000 to 5,000 data points on each of us, be it voting histories or full-spectrum demographics — age, income, debt, hobbies, criminal histories, purchase histories, religious leanings, health concerns, gun ownership, car ownership, homeownership — from consumer-data giants.

No data point is very informative on its own, but profiling voters, says Cambridge Analytica, is like baking a cake. “It’s the sum of the ingredients,” its chief executive officer, Alexander Nix, told NBC News. Because the United States lacks European-style restrictions on second- or thirdhand use of our data, and because our freedom-of-information laws give data brokers broad access to the intimate records kept by local and state governments, our lives are open books even without social media or personality quizzes.

Ever since the advertising executive Lester Wunderman coined the term “direct marketing” in 1961, the ability to target specific consumers with ads — rather than blanketing the airwaves with mass appeals and hoping the right people will hear them — has been the marketer’s holy grail. What’s new is the efficiency with which individually tailored digital ads can be tested and matched to our personalities. Facebook is the microtargeter’s ultimate weapon.

The explosive growth of Facebook’s ad business has been overshadowed by its increasing role in how we get our news, real or fake. In July, the social network posted record earnings: quarterly sales were up 59 percent from the previous year, and profits almost tripled to $2.06 billion. While active users of Facebook — now 1.71 billion monthly active users — were up 15 percent, the real story was how much each individual user was worth. The company makes $3.82 a year from each global user, up from $2.76 a year ago, and an average of $14.34 per user in the United States, up from $9.30 a year ago. Much of this growth comes from the fact that advertisers not only have an enormous audience in Facebook but an audience they can slice into the tranches they hope to reach.

One recent advertising product on Facebook is the so-called “dark post”: A newsfeed message seen by no one aside from the users being targeted. With the help of Cambridge Analytica, Mr. Trump’s digital team used dark posts to serve different ads to different potential voters, aiming to push the exact right buttons for the exact right people at the exact right times.

Imagine the full capability of this kind of “psychographic” advertising. In future Republican campaigns, a pro-gun voter whose Ocean score ranks him high on neuroticism could see storm clouds and a threat: The Democrat wants to take his guns away. A separate pro-gun voter deemed agreeable and introverted might see an ad emphasizing tradition and community values, a father and son hunting together.

In this election, dark posts were used to try to suppress the African-American vote. According to Bloomberg, the Trump campaign sent ads reminding certain selected black voters of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “super predator” line. It targeted Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood with messages about the Clinton Foundation’s troubles in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Federal Election Commission rules are unclear when it comes to Facebook posts, but even if they do apply and the facts are skewed and the dog whistles loud, the already weakening power of social opprobrium is gone when no one else sees the ad you see — and no one else sees “I’m Donald Trump, and I approved this message.”

While Hillary Clinton spent more than $140 million on television spots, old-media experts scoffed at Trump’s lack of old-media ad buys. Instead, his campaign pumped its money into digital, especially Facebook. One day in August, it flooded the social network with 100,000 ad variations, so-called A/B testing on a biblical scale, surely more ads than could easily be vetted by human eyes for compliance with Facebook’s “community standards.”

On Monday, after a similar announcement from Google, Facebook said it would no longer allow fake-news websites to show ads, on their own sites, from Facebook’s ad network — a half-step that neither blocks what appears on your newsfeed nor affects how advertisers can microtarget users on the social network.

There are surely more changes to come. Mr. Zuckerberg is young, still skeptical that his radiant transparency machine could be anything but a force for good, rightly wary of policing what the world’s diverse citizens say and share on his network, so far mostly dismissive of Facebook’s role in the election. If Mr. Zuckerberg takes seriously his oft-stated commitments to diversity and openness, he must grapple honestly with the fact that Facebook is no longer just a social network. It’s an advertising medium that’s now dangerously easy to weaponize.

A Trump administration is unlikely to enforce transparency about who is targeted by dark posts and other hidden political ads — or to ensure that politicians take meaningful ownership of what the ads say. But Facebook can.

 

8. So what do we know about Robert Mercer, the man who first backed Ted Cruz in the 2016 race and then quickly switched to Trump? Well, there reportedly isn’t very much known about his politics…except that he’s a libertarian who backed Donald Trump after backing Ted Cruz. Which is pretty much all we need to know to know that he’s up to no good:

“What Does the Billionaire Family Backing Donald Trump Really Want?” by Rosie Gray; The Atlantic; 1/27/2017.

The Mercers are enjoying more influence than ever with their candidate in the White House—but no one seems to know how they intend to use it.

She owns a cookie store. He loves model trains. They both hate the Clintons. And beyond that, not much is clear about the motivations of the Mercer father-daughter duo of Republican megadonors who have become two of the most powerful people in the country over the last 18 months.

Hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah were among the earliest and strongest backers of Donald Trump while other elite donors still disdained him. It turned out to be a good investment. But now, with their favored candidate freshly installed as president of the United States, it remains unclear what they believe, or what they hope their investment will yield.

The Mercers have been a quiet but constant presence in the background of Republican politics since the beginning of the 2016 cycle. They started the campaign as backers of Ted Cruz, pouring millions into one of the main super PACs supporting his candidacy. Their data firm, Cambridge Analytica, was hired by the Cruz campaign. They switched to support Trump shortly after he clinched the nomination, and he eventually hired Cambridge Analytica, as well. Their top political guru is Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News chairman and White House chief strategist. They’re close, too, with Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who also has a senior role in the White House. They never speak to the press and hardly ever even release a public statement. Like Trump himself, they’ve flouted the standard playbook for how things are done in politics.

Clues to their policy preferences can be found in their family foundation’s pattern of giving. For example, they have given more than once to groups questioning climate-change science. But their donations have flown to groups all over the conservative political map, ranging from libertarian organizations to movement conservative groups to the Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners Action Fund to Breitbart. That scattershot approach suggests the family has some ideological flexibility.

No one seems to know what motivates the Mercers or what policies they want to see enacted, even people who have worked closely with them or for projects funded by them. While they’ve poured money into conservative causes, they’ve also invested in projects explicitly aimed at overturning the modern conservative movement, like Breitbart News, in which they reportedly invested $10 million, and Trump himself. And the mystery of their ideological motivations is made all the more striking by their success in helping Trump reach the White House. A recent Wall Street Journal story on the Mercers concluded: “It isn’t clear what specific policies or positions, if any, the Mercers are seeking for their support of Mr. Trump.”

“All I can take away is that they just want to be power players,” said a former Breitbart News staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a non-disclosure agreement. “I don’t know what their principles are. I don’t know how you switch from Ted Cruz to Donald Trump so quickly.”

“Most of these people I think I understand,” said a Republican operative who has been engaged on several Mercer-led efforts. (Like most people quoted in this story, the operative declined to be identified for fear of legal or professional consequences for speaking publicly about the Mercers.) “I don’t understand the Mercers.”

Rebekah Mercer “talks business. She talks data, she talks trends, she talks messaging,” said another Republican operative who has worked with the Mercers. “I have never really been in her presence where she’s talked policy.”

Asked to describe what’s motivating them, Bannon himself was vague.

“Really incredible folks,” Bannon said in an email. “Never ask for anything. Very middle class values as they came to their great wealth late in life.”

* * *

Robert Mercer got his start at IBM, working there for over 20 years. He went to Renaissance Technologies in 1993. It’s there that Mercer, already well into middle age, became wealthy. Renaissance, based in East Setauket, Long Island, includes three hedge funds managing over $25 billion in assets, as well as the mysterious Medallion Fund, an employees-only fund that has made its investors unimaginably rich. Mercer’s co-CEO is Jim Simons, a major donor to Democrats; one Republican operative with connections to the Mercers who spoke on condition of anonymity joked that the pair were trying to “hedge the political system.”

Rebekah, known as Bekah, is one of Bob and Diana Mercer’s three daughters. Along with her sisters Heather Sue and Jennifer (“Jenji”), she owns Ruby et Violette, a cookie store in New York (the cookies are now sold exclusively online). Rebekah, 43, is married to a French Morgan Stanley executive, Sylvain Mirochnikoff, with whom she has four children. Mercer did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Bob Mercer, 70, is an enigmatic figure who has a reputation for rarely speaking publicly. Nearly everyone spoken to for this story used some variation of the word “brilliant” to describe him. There’s a touch of eccentricity, too; “I know a couple things you can bond with Bob Mercer over is he hates the Federal Reserve and loves model trains,” said one Republican operative who has worked on Mercer-backed initiatives. (Mercer once sued a model train manufacturer, alleging that he was overcharged for a model train set installed in Owl’s Nest, his expansive Long Island estate).

Whatever her actual beliefs, there’s one thing upon which people who have worked with Rebekah Mercer agree: She has a keen understanding of politics and likes to be involved in the day-to-day running of projects she’s involved in. Many donors like to play strategist, much to the annoyance of the actual strategists in their employ. But Mercer appears to be more successful at it than most.

“Almost all donors want to pretend they’re Karl Rove. They all want to play political mastermind,” said one of the Republican operatives who has worked on Mercer-funded projects. But “I would say that Rebekah is as smart at politics as you could be without ever having been at the grunt level.”

“Her political instincts were always on the money,” said Hogan Gidley, a former Mike Huckabee aide who served as spokesman for the Make America Number One PAC which became the Mercers’ pro-Trump vehicle during the general election. “We would be talking about how a certain ad should look or changes we should make to an ad, and she would just offer an idea that would just elicit instantaneous agreement. It wasn’t because they were largely funding the PAC, it was because she was right.”

Gidley said Mercer was on every conference call related to the super PAC’s operations. Even so, he didn’t get a clear sense of Mercer or her father’s ideology.

“They’re libertarians who understand that they might have to make compromises with social conservatives,” said one person in the non-profit world who is a recipient of multiple Mercer grants. “They’re just as at home at the Cato Institute as they would be at the Heritage Foundation on general issues.”

The Mercers, the non-profit activist said, appeared to have two goals this election cycle: “They’ve been fighting the Clintons forever, and they wanted to back the winning horse.”

That first goal has been clear for some time. The Mercers have for years had their hands in the cottage industry of anti-Clinton activity in and around the conservative movement. According to tax records from the Mercer Family Foundation, they gave nearly $3.6 million to Citizens United between 2012 and 2014, which sued for access to Clinton Foundation-related emails last year and whose president David Bossie also got a senior job on the Trump campaign. They’ve also invested in the Government Accountability Institute, which publishes the conservative author Peter Schweizer. Schweizer’s book Clinton Cash was an influential source of talking points for Trump allies during this election cycle, providing fodder for one of Trump’s early salvos against Clinton in a speech in June and regularly populating the pages of Breitbart. Bannon co-founded GAI with Schweizer; Rebekah Mercer has sat on the board.

The Mercers’ activities during the election cycle are among the clearest public evidence of how their beliefs, whatever they might be, translate into action.

At first, the Mercers went in for Cruz. They backed Keep the Promise 1, one of the main super PACs supporting Cruz, to the tune of $11 million. Like other campaigns with which the Mercers have been involved, including Trump’s, the Cruz campaign engaged the Mercers’s data firm Cambridge Analytica. Cruz campaign officials clashed with Cambridge over the particulars of the contract and lodged complaints about the product itself, according to multiple sources familiar with what happened; in one instance, the Cruz campaign was paying for a database system, RIPON, that had not been built yet, leading to a contentious argument. They also caught wind of work Cambridge had done for the Ben Carson campaign; working on more than one primary campaign is a no-no for vendors. Elsewhere in Mercer-world, there were other signs of trouble when it came to Cruz. In January, before the primaries had even begun, Breitbart News began attacking Cruz, insinuating that he was ineligible to be president because of his Canadian birth (a line also in heavy use by Trump at the time). Meanwhile, the Mercers were still publicly behind Cruz.

“Cambridge Analytica’s data science team had an excellent relationship with the Cruz campaign: we were part of the campaign starting from day one and all the way through the primaries and caucuses until the final day, and we continue to work with many of the principals from the campaign,” a spokesman for Cambridge Analytica said. On the work they had done for the Carson campaign, the spokesman said “Cambridge Analytica is large enough to work on more than one campaign at any given time, and we take FEC firewall regulations very seriously. We would not work with multiple clients if we did not have the scale to provide devoted resources to ensure full compliance with firewalling procedures.” And on RIPON, the Cambridge Analytica spokesman said “Ripon was being used by many senatorial and gubernatorial candidates in the 2014 mid-terms. Some bespoke modifications were requested by the Cruz campaign and we were of course happy to make those for them.”

The Breitbart stories were troubling to Cruz staff, who had seen Breitbart as an ally and who didn’t think they had any reason to doubt the Mercers’ loyalty.

What Cruz’s staff may not have taken into account was the behind-the-scenes influence of Steve Bannon.

“I don’t think [the Mercers are] as nationalistic as Steve,” said a Republican operative who has worked for the Mercers. “Steve is an unapologetic nationalist. I don’t think the Mercers are as much.” But “they share a real disdain for elitism. That’s what sort of binds them together.”

Another of the Republican operatives described Bannon as the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” to Rebekah Mercer, and a third was even more pointed: “Svengali.” Bannon is “really, really, really influential” with Mercer, said the former Breitbart employee. The Mercers, the former employee said, made their wishes known through Bannon, who would sometimes cite the company’s financial backers as a reason for Breitbart not to do a story. Bannon didn’t respond to a request for comment about this.

That highlights a third apparent goal, which became clearer over the course of the campaign: dismantling the establishment. . . .

9. Guess which major world leader is reportedly taking the advice of Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug, the pro-monarchy, pro-eugenics founder of the contemporary “Dark Enlightenment”?

“What Steve Bannon Wants You to Read” by Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols; Politico; 2/07/2017.

President Trump’s strategic adviser is elevating a once-obscure network of political thinkers.

The first weeks of the Trump presidency have brought as much focus on the White House’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, as on the new president himself. But if Bannon has been the driving force behind the frenzy of activity in the White House, less attention has been paid to the network of political philosophers who have shaped his thinking and who now enjoy a direct line to the White House.

They are not mainstream thinkers, but their writings help to explain the commotion that has defined the Trump administration’s early days. They include a Lebanese-American author known for his theories about hard-to-predict events; an obscure Silicon Valley computer scientist whose online political tracts herald a “Dark Enlightenment”; and a former Wall Street executive who urged Donald Trump’s election in anonymous manifestos by likening the trajectory of the country to that of a hijacked airplane—and who now works for the National Security Council.

Bannon, described by one associate as “the most well-read person in Washington,” is known for recommending books to colleagues and friends, according to multiple people who have worked alongside him. He is a voracious reader who devours works of history and political theory “in like an hour,” said a former associate whom Bannon urged to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. “He’s like the Rain Man of nationalism.”

But, said the source, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about Bannon, “There are some things he’s only going to share with people who he’s tight with and who he trusts.”

Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years—a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history. His ascendant presence in the West Wing is giving once-obscure intellectuals unexpected influence over the highest echelons of government.

Bannon’s 2015 documentary, “Generation Zero,” drew heavily on one of his favorite books, “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book explains a theory of history unfolding in 80- to 100-year cycles, or “turnings,” the fourth and final stage of which is marked by periods of cataclysmic change in which the old order is destroyed and replaced—a current period that, in Bannon’s view, was sparked by the 2008 financial crisis and has now been manifested in part by the rise of Trump.

“The West is in trouble. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, and Trump’s election was a sign of health,” said a White House aide who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It was a revolt against managerialism, a revolt against expert rule, a revolt against the administrative state. It opens the door to possibilities.”

All of these impulses are evident in the White House, as the new administration—led by Bannon and a cadre of like-minded aides—has set about administering a sort of ideological shock therapy in its first two weeks. A flurry of executive orders slashing regulation and restricting the influx of refugees bear the ideological markings of obscure intellectuals in both form and content. The circumvention of the bureaucracy is a hallmark of these thinkers, as is the necessity of restricting immigration.

Their thinking has a clear nationalist strain, and Bannon has considered hiring a staffer responsible for monitoring nationalist movements around the world, according to two sources familiar with the situation. French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s visit to Trump Tower in mid-January was his handiwork. Le Pen has devoted her political career to softening the image and broadening the appeal of the nationalist movement in France by marginalizing its most extremist members. Her views are typically nationalist: She is hostile to the European Union and free trade and opposes granting foreigners from outside the EU the right to vote in local elections. Bannon’s former employer, Breitbart News, has covered Le Pen obsessively, casting her as the French Trump.

***

Many political onlookers described Trump’s election as a “black swan” event: unexpected but enormously consequential. The term was popularized by Nassim Taleb, the best-selling author whose 2014 book Antifragile—which has been read and circulated by Bannon and his aides—reads like a user’s guide to the Trump insurgency.

It’s a broadside against big government, which Taleb faults for suppressing the randomness, volatility and stress that keep institutions and people healthy. “As with neurotically overprotective parents, those who are trying to help us are hurting us the most,” he writes. Taleb also offers a withering critique of global elites, whom he describes as a corrupt class of risk-averse insiders immune to the consequences of their actions: “We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.”

It might as well have been the mission statement of the Trump campaign. Asked in a phone interview this week whether he’s had meetings with Bannon or his associates, Taleb said he could not comment. “Anything about private meetings would need to come from them,” he said, though he noted cryptically he’s had “coffee with friends.” He has been supportive of Trump but does not define himself as a supporter per se, though he said he would “be on the first train” to Washington were he invited to the White House.

“They look like the incarnation of ‘antifragile’ people,” Taleb said of the new administration. “The definition of ‘antifragile’ is having more upside than downside. For example, Obama had little upside because everyone thought he was brilliant and would solve the world’s problems, so when he didn’t it was disappointing. Trump has little downside because he’s already been so heavily criticized. He’s heavily vaccinated because of his checkered history. People have to understand: Trump did not run to be archbishop of Canterbury.”

Trump’s first two weeks in office have produced a dizzying blur of activity. But the president has also needlessly sparked controversy, arguing, for example, that his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever and that millions of people voted illegally in last November’s election, leaving even seasoned political observers befuddled.

Before he emerged on the political scene, an obscure Silicon Valley computer programmer with ties to Trump backer and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel was explaining his behavior. Curtis Yarvin, the self-proclaimed “neoreactionary” who blogs under the name “Mencius Moldbug,” attracted a following in 2008 when he published a wordy treatise asserting, among other things, that “nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth.” When the organizer of a computer science conference canceled Yarvin’s appearance following an outcry over his blogging under his nom de web, Bannon took note: Breitbart News decried the act of censorship in an article about the programmer-blogger’s dismissal.

Moldbug’s dense, discursive musings on history—“What’s so bad about the Nazis?” he asks in one 2008 post that condemns the Holocaust but questions the moral superiority of the Allies—include a belief in the utility of spreading misinformation that now looks like a template for Trump’s approach to truth. “To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable [sic] demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army,” he writes in a May 2008 post.

In one January 2008 post, titled “How I stopped believing in democracy,” he decries the “Georgetownist worldview” of elites like the late diplomat George Kennan. Moldbug’s writings, coming amid the failure of the U.S. state-building project in Iraq, are hard to parse clearly and are open to multiple interpretations, but the author seems aware that his views are provocative. “It’s been a while since I posted anything really controversial and offensive here,” he begins in a July 25, 2007, post explaining why he associates democracy with “war, tyranny, destruction and poverty.”

Moldbug, who does not do interviews and could not be reached for this story, has reportedly opened up a line to the White House, communicating with Bannon and his aides through an intermediary, according to a source. Yarvin said he has never spoken with Bannon. . . . .

***

If Taleb and Yarvin laid some of the theoretical groundwork for Trumpism, the most muscular and controversial case for electing him president—and the most unrelenting attack on Trump’s conservative critics—came from Michael Anton, a onetime conservative intellectual writing under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus.

Thanks to an entree from Thiel, Anton now sits on the National Security Council staff. Initial reports indicated he would serve as a spokesman, but Anton is set to take on a policy role, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. A former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush’s National Security Council, Anton most recently worked as a managing director for BlackRock, the Wall Street investment firm.

10. Facebook has been developing new artificial intelligence (AI) technology to classify pictures on your Facebook page:

“Facebook Quietly Used AI to Solve Problem of Searching Through Your Photos” by Dave Gershgorn [Quartz]; Nextgov.com; 2/2/2017.

For the past few months, Facebook has secretly been rolling out a new feature to U.S. users: the ability to search photos by what’s depicted in them, rather than by captions or tags.

The idea itself isn’t new: Google Photos had this feature built in when it launched in 2015. But on Facebook, the update solves a longstanding organization problem. It means finally being able to find that picture of your friend’s dog from 2013, or the selfie your mom posted from Mount Rushmore in 2009… without 20 minutes of scrolling.

To make photos searchable, Facebook analyzes every single image uploaded to the site, generating rough descriptions of each one. This data is publicly available—there’s even a Chrome extension that will show you what Facebook’s artificial intelligence thinks is in each picture—and the descriptions can also be read out loud for Facebook users who are vision-impaired.

For now, the image descriptions are vague, but expect them to get a lot more precise. Today’s announcement specified the AI can identify the color and type of clothes a person is wearing, as well as famous locations and landmarks, objects, animals and scenes (garden, beach, etc.) Facebook’s head of AI research, Yann LeCun, told reporters the same functionality would eventually come for videos, too.

Facebook has in the past championed plans to make all of its visual content searchable—especially Facebook Live. At the company’s 2016 developer conference, head of applied machine learning Joaquin Quiñonero Candela said one day AI would watch every Live video happening around the world. If users wanted to watch someone snowboarding in real time, they would just type “snowboarding” into Facebook’s search bar. On-demand viewing would take on a whole new meaning.

There are privacy considerations, however. Being able to search photos for specific clothing or religious place of worship, for example, could make it easy to target Facebook users based on religious belief. Photo search also extends Facebook’s knowledge of users beyond what they like and share, to what they actually do in real life. That could allow for far more specific targeting for advertisers. As with everything on Facebook, features have their cost—your data.

11. Here’s something worth noting while sifting through the 2016 election aftermath: Silicon Valley’s long rightward shift became official in 2016. At least if you look at the corporate PACs of tech giants like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Sure, the employees tended to still favor donating to Democrats, although not as much as before (and not at all at Microsoft). But when it came to the corporate PACs Silicon Valley was seeing red.

A new Oxfam study found that the just eight individuals – including tech titans Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison – own as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population. So, you know, wealth inequality probably isn’t a super big priority for their super PACs.

“Silicon Valley Takes a Right Turn” by Thomas B. Edsall; The New York Times; 1/12/2017.

In 2016, the corporate PACs associated with Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon broke ranks with the traditional allegiance of the broad tech sector to the Democratic Party. All four donated more money to Republican Congressional candidates than they did to their Democratic opponents.

As these technology firms have become corporate behemoths, their concerns over government regulatory policy have intensified — on issues including privacy, taxation, automation and antitrust. These are questions on which they appear to view Republicans as stronger allies than Democrats.

In 2016, the PACs of these four firms gave a total of $3.6 million to House and Senate candidates. Of that, $2.1 million went to Republicans, and $1.5 million went to Democrats. These PACs did not contribute to presidential candidates.

The PACs stand apart from donations by employees in the technology and internet sectors. According to OpenSecrets, these employees gave $42.4 million to Democrats and $24.2 million to Republicans.

In the presidential race, tech employees (as opposed to corporate PACs) overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Workers for internet firms, for example, gave her $6.3 million, and gave $59,622 to Trump. Employees of electronic manufacturing firms donated $12.6 million to Clinton and $534,228 to Trump.

Most tech executives and employees remain supportive of Democrats, especially on social and cultural issues. The Republican tilt of the PACs at Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook suggests, however, that as these companies’ domains grow larger, their bottom-line interests are becoming increasingly aligned with the policies of the Republican Party.

In terms of political contributions, Microsoft has led the rightward charge. In 2008, the Microsoft PAC decisively favored Democrats, 60-40, according to data compiled by the indispensable Center for Responsive Politics. By 2012, Republican candidates and committees had taken the lead, 54-46; and by 2016, the Microsoft PAC had become decisively Republican, 65-35.

In 2016, the Microsoft PAC gave $478,818 to Republican House candidates and $272,000 to Democratic House candidates. It gave $164,000 to Republican Senate candidates, and $75,000 to Democratic Senate candidates.

Microsoft employees’ contributions followed a comparable pattern. In 2008 and 2012, Microsoft workers were solidly pro-Democratic, with 71 percent and 65 percent of their contributions going to party members. By 2016, the company’s work force had shifted gears. Democrats got 47 percent of their donations.

This was not small change. In 2016 Microsoft employees gave a total of $6.47 million.

A similar pattern is visible at Facebook.

The firm first became a noticeable player in the world of campaign finance in 2012 when employees and the company PAC together made contributions of $910,000. That year, Facebook employees backed Democrats over Republicans 64-35, while the company’s PAC tilted Republican, 53-46.

By 2016, when total Facebook contributions reached $3.8 million, the Democratic advantage in employee donations shrank to 51-47, while the PAC continued to favor Republicans, 56-44.

While the employees of the three other most valuable tech companies, Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Apple, remained Democratic in their giving in 2016, at the corporate level of Alphabet and Amazon — that is, at the level of their PACs — they have not.

Google’s PAC gave 56 percent of its 2016 contributions to Republicans and 44 percent to Democrats. The Amazon PAC followed a similar path, favoring Republicans over Democrats 52-48. (Apple does not have a PAC.)

Tech giants can no longer be described as insurgents challenging corporate America.

“By just about every measure worth collecting,” Farhad Manjoo of The Times wrote in January 2016:

American consumer technology companies are getting larger, more entrenched in their own sectors, more powerful in new sectors and better insulated against surprising competition from upstarts.

These firms are now among the biggest of big business. In a 2016 USA Today ranking of the most valuable companies worldwide, the top four were Alphabet, $554.8 billion; Apple, $529.3 billion; Microsoft, $425.4 billion; and Facebook, $333.6 billion. Those firms decisively beat out Berkshire Hathaway, Exxon Mobil, Johnson & Johnson and General Electric.

In addition to tech companies’ concern about government policy on taxation, regulation and antitrust, there are other sources of conflict between tech firms and the Democratic Party. Gregory Ferenstein, a blogger who covers the tech industry, conducted a survey of 116 tech company founders for Fast Company in 2015. Using data from a poll conducted by the firm SurveyMonkey, Ferenstein compared the views of tech founders with those of Democrats, in some cases, and the views of the general public, in others.

Among Ferenstein’s findings: a minority, 29 percent, of tech company founders described labor unions as “good,” compared to 73 percent of Democrats. Asked “is meritocracy naturally unequal?” tech founders overwhelmingly agreed.

Ferenstein went on:

One hundred percent of the smaller sample of founders to whom I presented this question said they believe that a truly meritocratic economy would be “mostly” or “somewhat” unequal. This is a key distinction: Opportunity is about maximizing people’s potential, which founders tend to believe is highly unequal. Founders may value citizen contributions to society, but they don’t think all citizens have the potential to contribute equally. When asked what percent of national income the top 10% would hold in such a scenario, a majority (67%) of founders believed that the richest individuals would control 50% or more of total income, while only 31% of the public believes such an outcome would occur in a meritocratic society.

One of the most interesting questions posed by Ferenstein speaks to middle and working class anxieties over global competition:

In international trade policy, some people believe the U.S. government should create laws that favor American business with policies that protect it from global competition, such as fees on imported goods or making it costly to hire cheaper labor in other countries (“outsourcing”). Others believe it would be better if there were less regulations and businesses were free to trade and compete without each country favoring their own industries. Which of these statements come closest to your belief?

There was a large difference between tech company officials, 73 percent of whom chose free trade and less regulation, while only 20 percent of Democrats supported those choices.

Ferenstein also found that tech founders are substantially more liberal on immigration policy than Democrats generally. 64 percent would increase total immigration levels, compared to 39 percent of Democrats. Tech executives are strong supporters of increasing the number of highly trained immigrants through the HB1 visa program.

Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University who writes about demographic, social and economic trends, sees these differences as the source of deep conflict within the Democratic Party.

In a provocative August, 2015, column in the Orange County Register, Kotkin wrote:

The disruptive force is largely Silicon Valley, a natural oligarchy that now funds a party teetering toward populism and even socialism. The fundamental contradictions, as Karl Marx would have noted, lie in the collision of interests between a group that has come to epitomize self-consciously progressive mega-wealth and a mass base which is increasingly concerned about downward mobility.

The tech elite, Kotkin writes, “far from deserting the Democratic Party, more likely will aim take to take it over.” Until very recently, the

conflict between populists and tech oligarchs has been muted, in large part due to common views on social issues like gay marriage and, to some extent, environmental protection. But as the social issues fade, having been “won” by progressives, the focus necessarily moves to economics, where the gap between these two factions is greatest.

Kotkin sees future partisan machination in cynical terms:

One can expect the oligarchs to seek out a modus vivendi with the populists. They could exchange a regime of higher taxes and regulation for ever-expanding crony capitalist opportunities and political protection. As the hegemons of today, Facebook and Google, not to mention Apple and Amazon, have an intense interest in protecting themselves, for example, from antitrust legislation. History is pretty clear: Heroic entrepreneurs of one decade often turn into the insider capitalists of the next.

In 2016, Donald Trump has produced an upheaval within the Republican Party that shifted attention away from the less explosive turmoil in Democratic ranks. . . .

 

 

Discussion

15 comments for “FTR #946 In Your Facebook: A Virtual Panopticon, Part 2”

  1. Oh what a surprise: Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, is trying to worm its way into the US’s privatized intelligence industry:

    The Washington Post

    After working for Trump’s campaign, British data firm eyes new U.S. government contracts

    By Matea Gold and Frances Stead Sellers February 17

    During last year’s race, President Trump’s campaign paid millions of dollars to a data science firm, Cambridge Analytica, that touted its ability to target voters through psychological profiling.

    Now, with Trump in office, Cambridge’s British parent company is ramping up its U.S. government business by pursuing contracts that could be driven by the new president’s policy agenda, according to multiple people with knowledge of the firm’s activities who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions.

    The company, SCL Group, has hired additional staffers who are working out of a new office down the street from the White House. It has in recent weeks pitched officials in key national security agencies on how its technology could be used to deter terrorism, bolster the military’s capacities as it prepares for a possible buildup and help assess attitudes about immigrants.

    SCL Group has ties to people in Trump’s inner circle, including White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who until recently was on the board of Cambridge Analytica.

    In addition, one of Cambridge’s main financiers is hedge fund magnate Robert L. Mercer, whose daughter Rebekah is one of the most influential donors in Trump’s orbit, according to people with knowledge of Mercer’s investment.

    Company executives say they are not exploiting their ties to the White House and are simply building on government work they have done in the past. But SCL’s move to expand its government business reflects how corporate interests connected to the administration see new opportunities in Trump’s Washington, even as the president vows to “drain the swamp.” And it shows how contractors are viewing the new administration’s spending priorities as potentially lucrative opportunities.

    SCL’s effort is being driven by a former aide to now-departed national security adviser Michael Flynn, who served as an adviser to the company in the past.

    As part of its outreach to U.S. officials, SCL is touting more than 20 years of experience in shaping voter perceptions and advising militaries and governments around the world on how to conduct effective psychological operations. In materials obtained by The Washington Post, the company suggests it could help the Pentagon and other government agencies with “counter radicalization” programs. At the State Department, SCL is offering to assess the impact of foreign propaganda campaigns, while the company says it could provide intelligence agencies with predictions and insight on emerging threats, among other services.

    Government officials familiar with the company said that SCL just finalized a $500,000 contract with the State Department in the works before the election and that its executives recently met with procurement officials at the Department of Homeland Security.

    Alexander Nix, a senior SCL executive who has overseen its U.S. expansion, confirmed the recent outreach to federal agencies and acknowledged that the company was stepping up its efforts to secure U.S. government business. He said that the push is an extension of the work the company has done as a subcontractor on a variety of government projects during the last 14 years — and that SCL would have sought the new work no matter who had won the election.

    “We’re clearly seeking to augment our existing client services and products with some of the new technologies we’ve been developing in our other sectors, such as the political field,” he said in a phone interview. “But this is not a radical shake-up or anything new.”

    “I’d like to think that regardless of the outcome of the election, we’d be working in this space,” Nix added and said he has not communicated with Bannon about the company’s work. “We’ve survived different administrations from left and right of the aisle, with different policy agendas.”

    Cambridge Analytica collected at least $6 million from the Trump campaign for its data-analytics work, federal filings show. Bannon was a key driver of the company’s push into the U.S. political market in 2014, according to multiple people familiar with his role.

    Company officials declined to comment on Bannon’s relationship with Cambridge.

    Nix said that any involvement Bannon “may have had with the company is being discussed” with federal ethics officials. Bannon, like other top White House staff, is required to file a personal financial disclosure form that will become public later this year.

    “They will be, I’m sure, making all that information available in due course,” Nix said.

    White House officials did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the Mercers said they could not be reached for comment.

    Trump’s surprise win has meant boom times for Cambridge, which is now in hot demand by political campaigns and corporate clients across the globe.

    “It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge’s head of product, said in an interview at the company’s new Pennsylvania Avenue offices. “Besides Antarctica, we’ve gotten interest from every continent.”

    Much of the curiosity is driven by Cambridge’s emphasis on psychographics, the study of personality traits. By measuring qualities such as openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism, officials say they can craft more effective appeals and drive people to take action.

    The Mercers were early investors in the company, dismayed that the Republican Party had lost the data war in the 2012 elections.

    Bannon, who was then operating as the family’s political adviser, was a participant in strategy meetings as the company worked to sign up American campaign clients. “He was instrumental in the rollout of Cambridge Analytica in the United States,” said one person familiar with his role.

    The company first garnered attention in 2015 when it was tapped by the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). In the end, Cambridge’s work proved uneven, according to campaign officials, who said that while its data scientists were impressive, its psychographic analysis did not bear fruit. Company officials said they were still learning how to apply the approach in a tightly compressed primary environment.

    Cambridge then moved on to serve asthe Trump campaign’s data-science provider. While company officials said they did not have sufficient time to employ psychographics in that campaign, they did data modeling and polling that showed Trump’s strength in the industrial Midwest, shaping a homestretch strategy that led to his upset wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

    Headquartered in a non­descript building on New Oxford Street in central London, SCL Group has the look of a staid insurance agency, with employees working at rows of computer screens. But along with project managers, IT specialists and “creatives” who design websites are psychologists and a team of data-scientists, many of whom hold doctorates in physics, quantum mechanics and astrophysics.

    SCL’s main offering, first developed by its affiliated London think tank in 1989, involves gathering vast quantities of data about an audience’s values, attitudes and beliefs, identifying groups of “persuadables” and then targeting them with tailored messages. SCL began testing the technique on health and development campaigns in Britain in the early 1990s, then branched out into international political consulting and later defense contracting.

    Emma Briant, who wrote about SCL’s work in her 2015 book “Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change,” said its approach can be used to manipulate the public, which is largely unaware how much of their personal information is available.

    “They are using similar methodologies to those the intelligence agencies use with openly available data in order to create a commercial advantage for themselves,” said Briant, a journalism studies lecturer at the University of Sheffield in Britain, who is on leave to conduct research at George Washington University. “They are exploiting our dependence on social media.”

    Nix, who serves as Cambridge’s chief executive, said that none of the information the company collects is “particularly intrusive,” adding that SCL’s data-science techniques were predominantly developed in the political space, not for military clients.

    “This is not medical data or health data or financial data,” he said of the U.S. data that Cambridge collects. “It’s what cereal you eat for breakfast and what car you drive.”

    SCL, which says it has worked in 100 countries, offers military clients techniques in “soft power.” Nix described it as a modern-day upgrade of early efforts to win over a foreign population by dropping propaganda leaflets from the air.

    In a 2015 article for a NATO publication, Steve Tatham, a British military psyops expert who leads SCL’s defense business outside of the United States, explained that one of the benefits of using the company’s techniques is that it “can be undertaken covertly.”

    “Audience groups are not necessarily aware that they are the research subjects and government’s role and/or third parties can be invisible,” he wrote.

    In the United States, the company’s efforts to win new government contracts are being led by Josh Weerasinghe, a former vice president of global market development at defense giant BAE Systems who previously worked with Flynn at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Flynn served as an adviser to SCL on its efforts to expand its contracting work, according to two people familiar with his role.

    Weerasinghe declined to comment. Flynn, ousted this week as Trump’s national security adviser amid questions about his conversations with Russian officials, could not be reached for comment.

    In early February, Weerasinghe met with several procurement officials at the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS official said the gathering was focused on “whether their data analytics services could benefit the department.”

    The company also just finalized a contract with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center to provide audience analysis for the center’s efforts to dissuade military-age males from joining the Islamic State, according to people familiar with the details. A State Department spokesman declined to comment on why SCL was selected.

    SCL’s efforts to land new government contracts come as Trump has vowed to vastly expand the military. In late January, he signed an executive order to launch the “great rebuilding of the Armed Forces,” pledging support for more troops, weapons, ships and planes.

    Nix said that while an increase in defense spending could “help” the company’s business, SCL’s government division sees potential beyond the Pentagon and Homeland Security. “We see the applications for these technologies as much in tourism and health care and treasury,” he said.

    He rejected the idea that SCL’s intensifying pursuit of government contracts could be viewed as a conflict of interest because of its role in helping elect the president.

    “Look, clearly the decision-makers on the campaign are very different people than the ­decision-makers in government,” he said, noting that the responsibility for contracts falls with procurement officials. “There is a code of ethics in order to make sure that is the case, and we adhere to that.”

    Cambridge now has a database of 230 million American adults, with up to 5,000 pieces of demographic, consumer and lifestyle information about each individual, as well as psychological information people have shared with the company through quizzes on social media and extensive surveys, Nix has said.

    “By having hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans undertake this survey, we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America,” Nix declared in a speech at a New York conference in September 2016.

    “As part of its outreach to U.S. officials, SCL is touting more than 20 years of experience in shaping voter perceptions and advising militaries and governments around the world on how to conduct effective psychological operations. In materials obtained by The Washington Post, the company suggests it could help the Pentagon and other government agencies with “counter radicalization” programs. At the State Department, SCL is offering to assess the impact of foreign propaganda campaigns, while the company says it could provide intelligence agencies with predictions and insight on emerging threats, among other services.

    If Cambridge Analytica’s creepy secret psychological profiling and data collecting on hundreds of millions of Americans for the 2016 election didn’t seem creepy and psyop-ish enough, now it’s going to get to use those services for actual formal psyops. Oh goodie. And without any conflicts of interest *snicker*:

    Cambridge Analytica collected at least $6 million from the Trump campaign for its data-analytics work, federal filings show. Bannon was a key driver of the company’s push into the U.S. political market in 2014, according to multiple people familiar with his role.

    Bannon, who was then operating as the family’s political adviser, was a participant in strategy meetings as the company worked to sign up American campaign clients. “He was instrumental in the rollout of Cambridge Analytica in the United States,” said one person familiar with his role.

    In the United States, the company’s efforts to win new government contracts are being led by Josh Weerasinghe, a former vice president of global market development at defense giant BAE Systems who previously worked with Flynn at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Flynn served as an adviser to SCL on its efforts to expand its contracting work, according to two people familiar with his role.

    He rejected the idea that SCL’s intensifying pursuit of government contracts could be viewed as a conflict of interest because of its role in helping elect the president.

    “Look, clearly the decision-makers on the campaign are very different people than the ­decision-makers in government,” he said, noting that the responsibility for contracts falls with procurement officials. “There is a code of ethics in order to make sure that is the case, and we adhere to that.”

    Yep, no conflicts of interest there.

    You also have to wonder what Peter Thiel thinks of all this. After all, being the US government’s private CIA is sort of his thing. But he’s probably ok with sharing the privatized intelligence spoils with Cambridge Analytica. After all, there’s no doubt going to be an abundance of government contracts to go around. Like contracts to identify individuals for mass round ups and deportations. If there’s a contract for stuff like that, Palantir is probably getting it:

    Truthout

    Peter Thiel Advises the President While Palantir Plays Shadow CIA

    By Tim Tolka, Truthout | News Analysis
    Thursday, February 16, 2017

    Palantir Technologies tried to keep a low profile, but with the Wall Street Journal hailing it in 2009 as the “team of geeks who cracked the spy trade,” the firm drew a lot of attention. If providing the software equivalent of a crystal ball to every US spy agency caused Palantir to be regarded as an omen of dystopian portent, there is now more chatter about Peter Thiel, chairman of Palantir, serving as a shadowy special adviser to Trump. Palantir made data-mining sexy and saves the lives of US soldiers, but there are good reasons to ferret out the secrets of the firm and its founder. Palantir’s mission is avowedly to “reduce terrorism” while preserving privacy and civil liberties, but its products in the hands of the Trump regime are a grave threat to both.

    When they first met, Trump told Thiel, “You are terrific. We’re friends for life.” Trump identified in Thiel a huge asset for his campaign strategy and for his policy agenda. Trump and Thiel think alike when it comes to the press and immigrants, yet they are both similarly hypocritical in their concern for privacy and litigiousness when they feel violated. Palantir’s mission is avowedly to “reduce terrorism” while preserving privacy and civil liberties, but its products in the hands of the Trump regime are a grave threat to both.. Judging by his ponderous statements about computers, Trump knows nothing whatsoever about technology, so Thiel — as the only adviser other than Bannon from the tech industry — can showcase his libertarian futurist Big Brother vision in the Oval Office, generating more business for Palantir.

    Move over CIA! Along with Cambridge Analytica, which features Bannon as a board member, and the other private intelligence company Thiel founded, Quid, Trump has access to three private intelligence companies. Palantir’s exploits aren’t limited to helping US military locate improvised explosive devices. In 2011, federal contractor HBGary’s hacked emails revealed Palantir’s involvement, which Barrett Brown went to prison to expose, in retaliatory campaigns against WikiLeaks, labor unions and ThinkProgress. Palantir’s CEO Alex Karp apologized “to progressive organizations in general and [Glenn Greenwald] in particular,” reaffirming the company’s commitment to building software “that protects privacy and civil liberties.”

    A Palantir employee explained in a promotional video: “If you have multiple analysts working on the problem, you have to have collaboration, and collaboration doesn’t make sense without access control. Each person in your enterprise has a limited view because you have to respect the privacy of your users, of your customers, of citizens.” Considering that Palantir was originally funded by the CIA and has the NSA as a major client, that statement borders on absurd.

    A recent post on Harvard Business School’s tech blog noted “[Palantir’s] operating model, combined with motives for growth and profitability have recently created conflict between their business and operating model,” suggesting Palantir’s business development arm distributes its software to as many clients as possible, after which, tech support eventually leaves them to use it as they please. This poses a privacy dilemma of disgruntling proportions, manufactured by Palantir.

    Though his firm has various government contracts, Thiel has not signed any standard ethics form. The former ethics counsel of President George H.W. Bush, University of Minnesota Professor Richard Painter, stated in an email to Truthout that Thiel “seems to be one more behind-the-scenes guy who will not be subject to any of the ethics rules, along with [Carl] Icahn and perhaps even the Trump children.”

    House Democrats’ Move to Protect Dreamers’ Privacy

    On December 5, 2016, 60 Democratic House Representatives delivered a letter to President Obama, urging him to draft an executive order to protect the privacy rights of 740,000 Dreamers enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from attempts by the Trump administration to use their personal biometric data, social media profiles, home addresses and criminal histories to track and deport them.

    Two weeks later, The Verge reported on Palantir’s role as the secret engineer of the Analytical Framework for Intelligence, a tool that can be used to limit migration by tracking people, analyzing their activities and assessing or “vetting” their risk. The Dreamers’ uncertainty ended when Vox published six leaked executive orders, one of which scraps the DACA program and leaves the Dreamers slated for deportation once their current visas expire. Though Trump says his plan will “have a lot of heart,” there is still great uncertainty over the DACA program. Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durban have reintroduced the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act, which could offer Dreamers protection as long as they have lived in the country continuously and have not been convicted of any significant crimes.

    A Plot to Expose Thiel’s Secrets and Conflicts

    The nonprofit news site MuckRock, in collaboration with the Motherboard news site, has filed six (of 500) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for its Thiel Fellowship, which employs three journalists to investigate Thiel’s activities. The NYPD, the CIA and the NSA claimed that any responsive documents were exempted to protect national security. Michael Morisy, cofounder of MuckRock, acknowledged in an interview that Thiel has driven tech forward and that Palantir could help government improve cyber security, but he cautioned, “It gets worrisome when tools are created for mass surveillance with little public oversight or control.” He continued, “Increasingly, local police are acting like intelligence agencies. There’s not much scrutiny. [Palantir] has won a lot of contracts with cities, states and federal agencies, but the public doesn’t know what it’s paying for.”

    For Thiel, conflicts of interest are often a sign that “someone understands something way better than if there’s no conflict of interest.” In an interview with The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, Thiel turned every question on its head, but such sophistry may not be sufficient for Palantir’s competitors and legal ethics experts. Professor Painter warned that if Thiel is still involved with the administration post-inauguration, the US Department of Justice or an agency inspector general could start investigations of his conflicts of interest. Palantir’s competitors could also contest awards of future government contracts.

    Palantir did not respond to requests for comment and has sought to distance itself from Trump’s agenda, denying that it would build a Muslim registry. Regardless, Palantir already provided the “seeing stone” that Trump’s administration needs to become the most sophisticated dictatorship in history, in which Chairman Thiel is set to play a mostly shrouded role. Morisy of MuckRock, concluded, “I hope our institutions live up to their obligations to protect the interest of taxpayers and citizens. There was already a problem of the revolving door, now everybody’s on the same side of the door, involved in the private sector and government at the same time.” As a sign of the times, Thiel is considering a run for governor of California.

    “Palantir did not respond to requests for comment and has sought to distance itself from Trump’s agenda, denying that it would build a Muslim registry. Regardless, Palantir already provided the “seeing stone” that Trump’s administration needs to become the most sophisticated dictatorship in history, in which Chairman Thiel is set to play a mostly shrouded role. Morisy of MuckRock, concluded, “I hope our institutions live up to their obligations to protect the interest of taxpayers and citizens. There was already a problem of the revolving door, now everybody’s on the same side of the door, involved in the private sector and government at the same time.” As a sign of the times, Thiel is considering a run for governor of California.”

    While Cambridge Analytica might be the hot new thing on the private intelligence block, it’s not going be easy to replace Palantir. Especially after it uses Thiel’s connections to privatize even more intelligence community services and provide Trump with the tools it needs to effectively destroy targeted populations:


    On December 5, 2016, 60 Democratic House Representatives delivered a letter to President Obama, urging him to draft an executive order to protect the privacy rights of 740,000 Dreamers enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from attempts by the Trump administration to use their personal biometric data, social media profiles, home addresses and criminal histories to track and deport them.

    Two weeks later, The Verge reported on Palantir’s role as the secret engineer of the Analytical Framework for Intelligence, a tool that can be used to limit migration by tracking people, analyzing their activities and assessing or “vetting” their risk. The Dreamers’ uncertainty ended when Vox published six leaked executive orders, one of which scraps the DACA program and leaves the Dreamers slated for deportation once their current visas expire. Though Trump says his plan will “have a lot of heart,” there is still great uncertainty over the DACA program. Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durban have reintroduced the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act, which could offer Dreamers protection as long as they have lived in the country continuously and have not been convicted of any significant crimes.

    Yep, there’s plenty of work to go around. And, of course, despite Thiel’s growing role as one of Trump’s close advisors, there’s not going to be any conflicts of interest:


    Though his firm has various government contracts, Thiel has not signed any standard ethics form. The former ethics counsel of President George H.W. Bush, University of Minnesota Professor Richard Painter, stated in an email to Truthout that Thiel “seems to be one more behind-the-scenes guy who will not be subject to any of the ethics rules, along with [Carl] Icahn and perhaps even the Trump children.”

    See, no problems. So, yeah, Peter Thiel probably isn’t complaining about the rise of his Cambridge Analytica. They might be competitors in one sense, but they’re partners in a much deeper sense.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | February 22, 2017, 7:44 pm
  2. The Guardian has a long and critical piece on Robert Mercer and the Mercer clan’s role in the rise of Brietbart as the dominant ‘outsider’ conservative media outlet and how deeply intertwined that endeavor is with the Mercers’ other big investments. Specifically in the firms Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL, where Cambridge Analytica specializes in using AI and Big Data psychometric analysis on the data they collect on hundreds of millions of Americans to model individual behavior and then SCL develops strategies to use that information and manipulate search engine results to change public opinions (the Trump campaign was apparently very big into AI and Big Data during the campaign). As the article describes, not only does it looks like Cambridge Analytica/SCL are using their propaganda techniques to shape the US public opinion in a far-right direction, but it looks like one of the ways its going about achieving this shift in attitudes is by using its propaganda machine to the meme that all news outlets that to the left of Brietbart are “fake news” and can’t be trusted. Only far-right media can be trusted. That’s the meme getting pushed by this far-right Brietbart-investor’s meme-machine companies Cambridge Analytica/SCL.

    So, yes, the secretive far-right billionaire who runs multiple firms that specialize in mass psychometric profiling using data collected from Facebook and other social media and who is, of course, close friends with Steve Bannon, is using AI and Big Data to develop mass propaganda campaigns to turn the public against everything that isn’t like Brietbart by convincing the public that all non-Brietbartian media outlets are in a conspiracy to lie to the public, and especially lie about Trump:

    The Guardian

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

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

    Carole Cadwalladr

    Sunday 26 February 2017 04.00 EST
    Last modified on Sunday 26 February 2017 04.03 EST

    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.

    It’s money he’s 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 today’s 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.

    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.

    It was $10m of Mercer’s 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. It’s bigger than its inspiration, the Huffington Post, bigger, even, than PornHub. It’s 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 UK’s 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 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.)

    Cambridge Analytica worked for the Trump campaign and, so I’d 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 Mercer’s 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 Google’s 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 people’s 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 hasn’t worked in British politics.”

    Which is how, earlier this week, I ended up in a Pret a Manger near Westminster with Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s affable communications director, looking at snapshots of Donald Trump on his phone. It was Wigmore who orchestrated Nigel Farage’s 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. “That’s 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.EU’s 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 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.”

    It sounds creepy, I say.

    “It is creepy! It’s really creepy! It’s why I’m not on Facebook! I tried it on myself to see what information it had on me and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ What’s scary is that my kids had put things on Instagram and it picked that up. It knew where my kids went to school.”

    They hadn’t “employed” Cambridge Analytica, he said. No money changed hands. “They were happy to help.”

    Why?

    Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And Robert Mercer introduced them to us. He said, ‘Here’s 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 wouldn’t you?” Behind Trump’s campaign and Cambridge Analytica, he said, were “the same people. It’s 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? It’s 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 Commissioner’s 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 University’s 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 people’s “likes” – could be correlated across millions of others to produce uncannily accurate results. Michal Kosinski, the centre’s lead scientist, found that with knowledge of 150 likes, their model could predict someone’s 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 university’s model or data, I ask Professor Jonathan Rust, the centre’s 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 doesn’t know where Kogan’s data came from. “The evidence was contrary. I reported it.” An independent adjudicator was appointed by the university. “But then Kogan said he’d signed a non-disclosure agreement with SCL and he couldn’t continue [answering questions].”

    Kogan disputes this and says SCL satisfied the university’s 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.

    “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. It’s what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. It’s how you brainwash someone. It’s incredibly dangerous.

    “It’s 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 don’t know it’s 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, it’s what Cambridge Analytica’s 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 it’s 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 Thatcher’s 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 it’s 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 Trump’s administration. “It seems significant that a company involved in engineering a political outcome profits from what follows. Particularly if it’s the manipulation, and then resolution, of fear,” says Briant.

    It’s 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 don’t 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 can’t see, and that is working on us in ways we can’t 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. It’s totally covert. And people don’t realise what is going on.”

    Public mood and politics goes through cycles. You don’t 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 military’s or SCL’s playbook.

    But then there’s 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. It’s 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 Institute’s 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.

    You can take a trending topic, such as fake news, and then weaponise it, turn it against the media that uncovered it

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

    There’s nothing accidental about Trump’s behaviour, Andy Wigmore tells me. “That press conference. It was absolutely brilliant. I could see exactly what he was doing. There’s feedback going on constantly. That’s 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, it’s all about how can you use these trending words.”

    Wigmore met with Trump’s 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. “It’s 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 CNSnews.com. 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 Bannon’s media empire is the Government Accountability Institute.

    Bannon co-founded it with $2m of Mercer’s money. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, was appointed to the board. Then they invested in expensive, long-term investigative journalism. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” Bannon told Forbes magazine. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re 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 can’t 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 GAI’s 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 Clinton’s cash did. Like Hillary’s 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 couldn’t take Bill Clinton down because “they 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, there’s a sense that we are talking to ourselves. And whether it’s Mercer’s millions or other factors, Jonathan Albright’s 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. It’s clearly being led by money and politics.”

    There’s been a lot of talk in the echo chamber about Bannon in the last few months, but it’s 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. Nick Patterson, 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.”

    He describes Mercer as “very, very conservative. He truly did not like the Clintons. He thought Bill Clinton was a criminal. And his basic politics, I think, was that he’s a rightwing libertarian, he wants the government out of things.”

    He suspects that Mercer is bringing the brilliant computational skills he brought to finance to bear on another very different sphere. “We make mathematical models of the financial markets which are probability models, and from those we try and make predictions. What I suspect Cambridge Analytica do is that they build probability models of how people vote. And then they look at what they can do to influence that.”

    Finding the edge is what quants do. They build quantitative models that automate the process of buying and selling shares and then they chase tiny gaps in knowledge to create huge wins. Renaissance Technologies was one of the first hedge funds to invest in AI. But what it does with it, how it’s been programmed to do it, is completely unknown. It is, Bloomberg reports, the “blackest box in finance”.

    Johan Bollen, associate professor at Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing, tells me how he discovered one possible edge: he’s done research that shows you can predict stock market moves from Twitter. You can measure public sentiment and then model it. “Society is driven by emotions, which it’s always been difficult to measure, collectively. But there are now programmes that can read text and measure it and give us a window into those collective emotions.”

    The research caused a huge ripple among two different constituencies. “We had a lot attention from hedge funds. They are looking for signals everywhere and this is a hugely interesting signal. My impression is hedge funds do have these algorithms that are scanning social feeds. The flash crashes we’ve had – sudden huge drops in stock prices – indicates these algorithms are being used at large scale. And they are engaged in something of an arms race.”

    The other people interested in Bollen’s work are those who want not only to measure public sentiment, but to change it. Bollen’s research shows how it’s possible. Could you reverse engineer the national, or even the global, mood? Model it, and then change it?

    “It does seem possible. And it does worry me. There are quite a few pieces of research that show if you repeat something often enough, people start involuntarily to believe it. And that could be leveraged, or weaponised for propaganda. We know there are thousands of automated bots out there that are trying to do just that.”

    THE war of the bots is one of the wilder and weirder aspects of the elections of 2016. At the Oxford Internet Institute’s Unit for Computational Propaganda, its director, Phil Howard, and director of research, Sam Woolley, show me all the ways public opinion can be massaged and manipulated. But is there a smoking gun, I ask them, evidence of who is doing this? “There’s not a smoking gun,” says Howard. “There are smoking machine guns. There are multiple pieces of evidence.”

    “Look at this,” he says and shows me how, before the US election, hundreds upon hundreds of websites were set up to blast out just a few links, articles that were all pro-Trump. “This is being done by people who understand information structure, who are bulk buying domain names and then using automation to blast out a certain message. To make Trump look like he’s a consensus.”

    And that requires money?

    “That requires organisation and money. And if you use enough of them, of bots and people, and cleverly link them together, you are what’s legitimate. You are creating truth.”

    You can take an existing trending topic, such as fake news, and then weaponise it. You can turn it against the very media that uncovered it. Viewed in a certain light, fake news is a suicide bomb at the heart of our information system. Strapped to the live body of us – the mainstream media.

    One of the things that concerns Howard most is the hundreds of thousands of “sleeper” bots they’ve found. Twitter accounts that have tweeted only once or twice and are now sitting quietly waiting for a trigger: some sort of crisis where they will rise up and come together to drown out all other sources of information.

    Like zombies?

    “Like zombies.”

    You can take an existing trending topic, such as fake news, and then weaponise it. You can turn it against the very media that uncovered it. Viewed in a certain light, fake news is a suicide bomb at the heart of our information system. Strapped to the live body of us – the mainstream media.”

    The right-wing media-verse, which is by far the biggest creator and consumer of what is actually ‘fake news’, is on the verge of using modern propaganda techniques to help Donald Trump label all non-far-right media as ‘fake news’. Yeah, that’s scary.

    And note how the Mercers aren’t just pyscho-analyzing everyone and running a mass-psychological profiling/shaping empire. They’re also funding long-term investigative journalism via the Government Accountability Institute, which pays researchers to trawl the Dark-Web for facts that that won’t show up on Google so the rest of the Mercer propaganda machine can proceed to blast those facts, true or not, across venues like Youtube:


    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 CNSnews.com. 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 Bannon’s media empire is the Government Accountability Institute.

    Bannon co-founded it with $2m of Mercer’s money. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, was appointed to the board. Then they invested in expensive, long-term investigative journalism=. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” Bannon told Forbes magazine. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re 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 can’t 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 GAI’s 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 Clinton’s cash did. Like Hillary’s 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 couldn’t take Bill Clinton down because “they 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, there’s a sense that we are talking to ourselves. And whether it’s Mercer’s millions or other factors, Jonathan Albright’s 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.

    So, that’s all going to be something to keep in mind as Trump’s war on ‘fake news’ unfolds: he’s got a crazy far-right billionaire backing him who has a business empire specializing in full-spectrum personalized influence peddling, literally covert personalized psychological influence peddling where the target is everywhere. And this same billionaire has his own media empire that specializes in pushing highly questionable news and that media empire is intended to replace the current media landscape after they’ve finished convincing everywhere that almost all news is ‘fake news’ unless its super-right-wing news.

    Also note how Trump himself appears to be using the AI/psychological profiling techniques and services offered by Cambridge Analytica/SCL: Trump is using them to find his keywords of choice for the topic at hand:

    There’s nothing accidental about Trump’s behaviour, Andy Wigmore tells me. “That press conference. It was absolutely brilliant. I could see exactly what he was doing. There’s feedback going on constantly. That’s what you can do with artificial intelligence. You can measure ever reaction to every word. e 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, it’s all about how can you use these trending words.”

    Wigmore met with Trump’s 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. “It’s 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.”

    So, yes, while Steve Bannon is clearly Trump’s brain, Robert Mercer – the secretive far-right mass propaganda billionaire who doesn’t like to speak to the public – is apparently Trump’s mouth. As we can see, Frankstein’s monster has a really scary brother, and he’s the president. You have to wonder about the the psychometrics of the kind of nation that elected Dr. Frankenstein’s monster president but you can be sure they are off the charts in at least a few ways and not in a good way. And in some ways just as the doctor ordered.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | February 26, 2017, 4:15 pm
  3. Hi all,
    I just came across this video. It’s about the power of data collection and starts with a family’s continuous video recording of their son’s language acquisition over about 3 years. It’s actually very sweet.

    But then…

    About 11 minutes into the video, the ‘big data’ concepts and visualizations explained in the first part are expanded into the larger world of social media and television content and you begin to see something extremely unnerving — I think it could rightly be called the face of Big Brother. Connections are made and massive data trends of millions of links are assembled into a coherent, and in my opinion, frighteningly explicit depiction of our current fascist technocracy and it’s propaganda mechanisms. It’s right there in the data. And it’s a Muthafugga!

    Of course, the presenter is totally infatuated with the technology; ‘Gee whiz, aren’t we clever?’

    The only thing going through my mind was the Cambridge/Mercer/Bannon/Underground Reich nexus playing this thing like a 21at century Wurlizter while the masses dance to their tune.

    Here is the link…

    http://www.ted.com/talks/deb_roy_the_birth_of_a_word

    It helps if you watch the whole thing to understand how the data is extracted and correlated.

    God help us all.

    Posted by KalKanChowder | March 1, 2017, 1:52 pm
  4. Jane Mayer has a massive new piece in The New Yorker on the rise of Robert Mercer and the Mercer clan as major financiers and power-brokers in the contemporary far-right. And while there’s an abundance of fascinating tidbits and threads running through in the article, perhaps one of the most interesting threads is the role former Democratic pollster Pat Caddell has played in the rise of Trump. And part of what makes Caddell’s role so interesting is how incredibly cynical it is when you factor in everything we learn about the Mercers throughout the rest of the piece: Pat Caddell’s polls leading into the 2016 election were all pointing towards a deep disenchantment with establishment politicians in either major party and a strong desire to see an “outsider” come to Washington and get government working for the people. And when Caddell, who was working closely with Steve Bannon at this point, looked at all the GOP candidates in the 2016 race, Donald Trump was of course the candidate that most closely fit that “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” model. Mercer then got behind Trump and the rest is history.

    Envisioning Trump as the “Mr. Smith” candidate was clearly a cynical tactic given that Trump is setting out to destroy the safety net and create a government run almost exclusively by and more the super-wealthy, as is becoming more and more clear with each day of his presidency But part of what made is so extra cynical is the political views of Robert Mercer himself. As the article notes, Mercer appears to be an Objectivist who believes that the only value people have is derived from the money they make. Not surprisingly, Mercer also has contempt for the social safety net and feels that the government is harming the strong through taxes in order to help the weak and that this situation is the opposite of how it should be. In other words, the guy behind the “Mr. Smith, out for the little guy” Trump campaign actively hates the little guy and wants government to stop helping him so much because the little guy has no actual value:

    The New Yorker

    The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency

    How Robert Mercer exploited America’s populist insurgency.
    By Jane Mayer
    March 27, 2017 Issue

    Last month, when President Donald Trump toured a Boeing aircraft plant in North Charleston, South Carolina, he saw a familiar face in the crowd that greeted him: Patrick Caddell, a former Democratic political operative and pollster who, for forty-five years, has been prodding insurgent Presidential candidates to attack the Washington establishment. Caddell, who lives in Charleston, is perhaps best known for helping Jimmy Carter win the 1976 Presidential race. He is also remembered for having collaborated with his friend Warren Beatty on the 1998 satire “Bulworth.” In that film, a kamikaze candidate abandons the usual talking points and excoriates both the major political parties and the media; voters love his unconventionality, and he becomes improbably popular. If the plot sounds familiar, there’s a reason: in recent years, Caddell has offered political advice to Trump. He has not worked directly for the President, but at least as far back as 2013 he has been a contractor for one of Trump’s biggest financial backers: Robert Mercer, a reclusive Long Island hedge-fund manager, who has become a major force behind the Trump Presidency.

    During the past decade, Mercer, who is seventy, has funded an array of political projects that helped pave the way for Trump’s rise. Among these efforts was public-opinion research, conducted by Caddell, showing that political conditions in America were increasingly ripe for an outsider candidate to take the White House. Caddell told me that Mercer “is a libertarian—he despises the Republican establishment,” and added, “He thinks that the leaders are corrupt crooks, and that they’ve ruined the country.”

    Trump greeted Caddell warmly in North Charleston, and after giving a speech he conferred privately with him, in an area reserved for V.I.P.s and for White House officials, including Stephen Bannon, the President’s top strategist, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Caddell is well known to this inner circle. He first met Trump in the eighties. (“People said he was just a clown,” Caddell said. “But I’ve learned that you should always pay attention to successful ‘clowns.’ ”) Caddell shared the research he did for Mercer with Trump and others in the campaign, including Bannon, with whom he has partnered on numerous projects.

    The White House declined to divulge what Trump and Caddell discussed in North Charleston, as did Caddell. But that afternoon Trump issued perhaps the most incendiary statement of his Presidency: a tweet calling the news media “the enemy of the American people.” The proclamation alarmed liberals and conservatives alike. William McRaven, the retired Navy admiral who commanded the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, called Trump’s statement a “threat to democracy.” The President is known for tweeting impulsively, but in this case his words weren’t spontaneous: they clearly echoed the thinking of Caddell, Bannon, and Mercer. In 2012, Caddell gave a speech at a conference sponsored by Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog group, in which he called the media “the enemy of the American people.” That declaration was promoted by Breitbart News, a platform for the pro-Trump alt-right, of which Bannon was the executive chairman, before joining the Trump Administration. One of the main stakeholders in Breitbart News is Mercer.

    Mercer is the co-C.E.O. of Renaissance Technologies, which is among the most profitable hedge funds in the country. A brilliant computer scientist, he helped transform the financial industry through the innovative use of trading algorithms. But he has never given an interview explaining his political views. Although Mercer has recently become an object of media speculation, Trevor Potter, the president of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, who formerly served as the chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said, “I have no idea what his political views are—they’re unknown, not just to the public but also to most people who’ve been active in politics for the past thirty years.” Potter, a Republican, sees Mercer as emblematic of a major shift in American politics that has occurred since 2010, when the Supreme Court made a controversial ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That ruling, and several subsequent ones, removed virtually all limits on how much money corporations and nonprofit groups can spend on federal elections, and how much individuals can give to political-action committees. Since then, power has tilted away from the two main political parties and toward a tiny group of rich mega-donors.

    Private money has long played a big role in American elections. When there were limits on how much a single donor could give, however, it was much harder for an individual to have a decisive impact. Now, Potter said, “a single billionaire can write an eight-figure check and put not just their thumb but their whole hand on the scale—and we often have no idea who they are.” He continued, “Suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy—to sweep everything else off the table—even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.”

    Through a spokesman, Mercer declined to discuss his role in launching Trump. People who know him say that he is painfully awkward socially, and rarely speaks. “He can barely look you in the eye when he talks,” an acquaintance said. “It’s probably helpful to be highly introverted when getting lost in code, but in politics you have to talk to people, in order to find out how the real world works.” In 2010, when the Wall Street Journal wrote about Mercer assuming a top role at Renaissance, he issued a terse statement: “I’m happy going through my life without saying anything to anybody.” According to the paper, he once told a colleague that he preferred the company of cats to humans.

    Several people who have worked with Mercer believe that, despite his oddities, he has had surprising success in aligning the Republican Party, and consequently America, with his personal beliefs, and is now uniquely positioned to exert influence over the Trump Administration. In February, David Magerman, a senior employee at Renaissance, spoke out about what he regards as Mercer’s worrisome influence. Magerman, a Democrat who is a strong supporter of Jewish causes, took particular issue with Mercer’s empowerment of the alt-right, which has included anti-Semitic and white-supremacist voices. Magerman shared his concerns with Mercer, and the conversation escalated into an argument. Magerman told colleagues about it, and, according to an account in the Wall Street Journal, Mercer called Magerman and said, “I hear you’re going around saying I’m a white supremacist. That’s ridiculous.” Magerman insisted to Mercer that he hadn’t used those words, but added, “If what you’re doing is harming the country, then you have to stop.” After the Journal story appeared, Magerman, who has worked at Renaissance for twenty years, was suspended for thirty days. Undaunted, he published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, accusing Mercer of “effectively buying shares in the candidate.” He warned, “Robert Mercer now owns a sizeable share of the United States Presidency.”

    Nick Patterson, a former senior Renaissance employee who is now a computational biologist at the Broad Institute, agrees that Mercer’s influence has been huge. “Bob has used his money very effectively,” he said. “He’s not the first person in history to use money in politics, but in my view Trump wouldn’t be President if not for Bob. It doesn’t get much more effective than that.”

    Patterson said that his relationship with Mercer has always been collegial. In 1993, Patterson, at that time a Renaissance executive, recruited Mercer from I.B.M., and they worked together for the next eight years. But Patterson doesn’t share Mercer’s libertarian views, or what he regards as his susceptibility to conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton. During Bill Clinton’s Presidency, Patterson recalled, Mercer insisted at a staff luncheon that Clinton had participated in a secret drug-running scheme with the C.I.A. The plot supposedly operated out of an airport in Mena, Arkansas. “Bob told me he believed that the Clintons were involved in murders connected to it,” Patterson said. Two other sources told me that, in recent years, they had heard Mercer claim that the Clintons have had opponents murdered.

    The Mena story is one of several dark fantasies put forth in the nineties by The American Spectator, an archconservative magazine. According to Patterson, Mercer read the publication at the time. David Brock, a former Spectator writer who is now a liberal activist, told me that the alleged Mena conspiracy was based on a single dubious source, and was easily disproved by flight records. “It’s extremely telling that Mercer would believe that,” Brock said. “It says something about his conspiratorial frame of mind, and the fringe circle he was in. We at the Spectator called them Clinton Crazies.”

    Patterson also recalled Mercer arguing that, during the Gulf War, the U.S. should simply have taken Iraq’s oil, “since it was there.” Trump, too, has said that the U.S. should have “kept the oil.” Expropriating another country’s natural resources is a violation of international law. Another onetime senior employee at Renaissance recalls hearing Mercer downplay the dangers posed by nuclear war. Mercer, speaking of the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, argued that, outside of the immediate blast zones, the radiation actually made Japanese citizens healthier. The National Academy of Sciences has found no evidence to support this notion. Nevertheless, according to the onetime employee, Mercer, who is a proponent of nuclear power, “was very excited about the idea, and felt that it meant nuclear accidents weren’t such a big deal.”

    Mercer strongly supported the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Trump’s Attorney General. Many civil-rights groups opposed the nomination, pointing out that Sessions has in the past expressed racist views. Mercer, for his part, has argued that the Civil Rights Act, in 1964, was a major mistake. According to the onetime Renaissance employee, Mercer has asserted repeatedly that African-Americans were better off economically before the civil-rights movement. (Few scholars agree.) He has also said that the problem of racism in America is exaggerated. The source said that, not long ago, he heard Mercer proclaim that there are no white racists in America today, only black racists. (Mercer, meanwhile, has supported a super PAC, Black Americans for a Better Future, whose goal is to “get more Blacks involved in the Republican Party.”)

    “Most people at Renaissance didn’t challenge him” about politics, Patterson said. But Patterson clashed with him over climate change; Mercer said that concerns about it were overblown. After Patterson shared with him a scientific paper on the subject, Mercer and his brother, Randall, who also worked at the hedge fund, sent him a paper by a scientist named Arthur Robinson, who is a biochemist, not a climate expert. “It looked like a scientific paper, but it was completely loaded with selective and biased information,” Patterson recalled. The paper argued that, if climate change were real, future generations would “enjoy an Earth with far more plant and animal life.” Robinson owns a sheep ranch in Cave Junction, Oregon, and on the property he runs a laboratory that he calls the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. Mercer helps subsidize Robinson’s various projects, which include an effort to forestall aging.

    Patterson sent Mercer a note calling Robinson’s arguments “completely false.” He never heard back. “I think if you studied Bob’s views of what the ideal state would look like, you’d find that, basically, he wants a system where the state just gets out of the way,” Patterson said. “Climate change poses a problem for that world view, because markets can’t solve it on their own.”

    Magerman told the Wall Street Journal that Mercer’s political opinions “show contempt for the social safety net that he doesn’t need, but many Americans do.” He also said that Mercer wants the U.S. government to be “shrunk down to the size of a pinhead.” Several former colleagues of Mercer’s said that his views are akin to Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Magerman told me, “Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make. A cat has value, he’s said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.” Magerman added, “He thinks society is upside down—that government helps the weak people get strong, and makes the strong people weak by taking their money away, through taxes.” He said that this mind-set was typical of “instant billionaires” in finance, who “have no stake in society,” unlike the industrialists of the past, who “built real things.”

    Another former high-level Renaissance employee said, “Bob thinks the less government the better. He’s happy if people don’t trust the government. And if the President’s a bozo? He’s fine with that. He wants it to all fall down.”

    The 2016 Presidential election posed a challenge for someone with Mercer’s ideology. Multiple sources described him as animated mainly by hatred of Hillary Clinton. But Mercer also distrusted the Republican leadership. After the candidate he initially supported, Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, dropped out of the race, Mercer sought a disruptive figure who could upend both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Patterson told me that Mercer seems to have applied “a very Renaissance Technologies way of thinking” to politics: “He probably estimated the probability of Trump winning, and when it wasn’t very high he said to himself, ‘O.K., what has to happen in order for this twenty-per-cent thing to occur?’ It’s like playing a card game when you haven’t got a very good hand.”

    Mercer, as it happens, is a superb poker player, and his political gamble appears to have paid off. Institutional Investor has called it “Robert Mercer’s Trade of the Century.”

    In the 2016 campaign, Mercer gave $22.5 million in disclosed donations to Republican candidates and to political-action committees. Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster who worked for the Trump campaign, said that Mercer had “catapulted to the top of the heap of right-of-center power brokers.” It’s worth noting that several other wealthy financiers, including Democrats such as Thomas Steyer and Donald Sussman, gave even more money to campaigns. (One of the top Democratic donors was James Simons, the retired founder of Renaissance Technologies.) Nevertheless, Mercer’s political efforts stand apart. Adopting the strategy of Charles and David Koch, the billionaire libertarians, Mercer enlarged his impact exponentially by combining short-term campaign spending with long-term ideological investments. He poured millions of dollars into Breitbart News, and—in what David Magerman has called “an extreme example of modern entrepreneurial philanthropy”—made donations to dozens of politically tinged organizations.

    Like many wealthy families, the Mercers have a private foundation. At first, the Mercer Family Foundation, which was established in 2004, had an endowment of only half a million dollars, and most of its grants went to medical research and conventional charities. But by 2008, under the supervision of Mercer’s ardently conservative daughter, Rebekah, the foundation began giving millions of dollars to interconnected nonprofit groups, several of which played crucial roles in propagating attacks on Hillary Clinton. By 2015, the most recent year for which federal tax records are available, the foundation had grown into a $24.5-million operation that gave large sums to ultraconservative organizations.

    On top of this nonprofit spending, Mercer invested in private businesses. He put ten million dollars into Breitbart News, which was conceived as a conservative counterweight to the Huffington Post. The Web site freely mixes right-wing political commentary with juvenile rants and racist innuendo; under Bannon’s direction, the editors introduced a rubric called Black Crime. The site played a key role in undermining Hillary Clinton; by tracking which negative stories about her got the most clicks and “likes,” the editors helped identify which story lines and phrases were the most potent weapons against her. Breitbart News has been a remarkable success: according to ComScore, a company that measures online traffic, the site attracted 19.2 million unique visitors in October.

    Mercer also invested some five million dollars in Cambridge Analytica, a firm that mines online data to reach and influence potential voters. The company has said that it uses secret psychological methods to pinpoint which messages are the most persuasive to individual online viewers. The firm, which is the American affiliate of Strategic Communication Laboratories, in London, has worked for candidates whom Mercer has backed, including Trump. It also reportedly worked on the Brexit campaign, in the United Kingdom.

    Alexander Nix, the C.E.O. of the firm, says that it has created “profiles”—consisting of several thousand data points—for two hundred and twenty million Americans. In promotional materials, S.C.L. has claimed to know how to use such data to wage both psychological and political warfare. “Persuading somebody to vote a certain way,” Nix has said publicly, “is really very similar to persuading 14- to 25-year-old boys in Indonesia to not join Al Qaeda.” Some critics suggest that, at this point, Cambridge Analytica’s self-promotion exceeds its effectiveness. But Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of communications at Elon University, in North Carolina, recently published a paper, on Medium, calling Cambridge Analytica a “propaganda machine.”

    As important as Mercer’s business investments is his hiring of advisers. Years before he started supporting Trump, he began funding several conservative activists, including Steve Bannon; as far back as 2012, Bannon was the Mercers’ de-facto political adviser. Some people who have observed the Mercers’ political evolution worry that Bannon has become a Svengali to the whole family, exploiting its political inexperience and tapping its fortune to further his own ambitions. It was Bannon who urged the Mercers to invest in a data-analytics firm. He also encouraged the investment in Breitbart News, which was made through Gravitas Maximus, L.L.C., a front group that once had the same Long Island address as Renaissance Technologies. In an interview, Bannon praised the Mercers’ strategic approach: “The Mercers laid the groundwork for the Trump revolution. Irrefutably, when you look at donors during the past four years, they have had the single biggest impact of anybody, including the Kochs.”

    Last summer, Bannon and some other activists whom the Mercers have supported—including David Bossie, who initiated the Citizens United lawsuit—came together to rescue Trump’s wobbly campaign. Sam Nunberg, an early Trump adviser who watched Mercer’s group take over, said, “Mercer was smart. He invested in the right people.”

    Bannon and Rebekah Mercer have become particularly close political partners. Last month, when Bannon denounced “the corporatist, globalist media” at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in his first public appearance since entering the White House, Rebekah Mercer was part of his entourage. Bannon supports some initiatives, such as a major infrastructure program, that are anathema to libertarians such as Robert Mercer. But the Wall Street Journal has described Bannon joking and swearing on the deck of the Mercers’ yacht, the Sea Owl, as if he were a member of the family. Bannon assured me that the Mercers, despite all their luxuries, are “the most middle-class people you will ever meet.”

    In 2014, Mercer accepted a lifetime-achievement award from the Association for Computational Linguistics. In a speech at the ceremony, Mercer, who grew up in New Mexico, said that he had a “jaundiced view” of government. While in college, he had worked on a military base in Albuquerque, and he had showed his superiors how to run certain computer programs a hundred times faster; instead of saving time and money, the bureaucrats ran a hundred times more equations. He concluded that the goal of government officials was “not so much to get answers as to consume the computer budget.” Mercer’s colleagues say that he views the government as arrogant and inefficient, and believes that individuals need to be self-sufficient, and should not receive aid from the state. Yet, when I.B.M. failed to offer adequate support for Mercer and Brown’s translation project, they secured additional funding from DARPA, the secretive Pentagon program. Despite Mercer’s disdain for “big government,” this funding was essential to his early success.

    Meanwhile, Patterson kept asking Mercer and Brown to join Renaissance. He thought that their technique of extracting patterns from huge amounts of data could be applied to the pile of numbers generated daily by the global trade in stocks, bonds, commodities, and currencies. The patterns could generate predictive financial models that would give traders a decisive edge.

    In the spring of 1993, Mercer experienced two devastating losses: his mother was killed, in a car crash, and his father, a biologist, died six weeks later. With life’s precariousness made painfully clear, and with tuition bills mounting, he decided to leave I.B.M. for a higher-paying job at Renaissance. Brown made the leap, too.

    Renaissance was founded by James Simons, a legendary mathematician, in 1982. Simons had run the math department at Stony Brook University, on Long Island, and the hedge fund took a uniquely academic approach to high finance. Andrew Lo, a finance professor at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, has described it as “the commercial version of the Manhattan Project.” Intensely secretive and filled with people with Ph.D.s, it has been sensationally profitable. Its Medallion Fund, which is open only to the firm’s three hundred or so employees, has averaged returns of almost eighty per cent a year, before fees. Bloomberg News has called the Medallion Fund “perhaps the world’s greatest moneymaking machine.”

    In “More Money Than God,” Mallaby, who interviewed Mercer, describes his temperament as that of an “icy cold poker player”; Mercer told him that he could not recall ever having had a nightmare. But Mercer warms up when talking about computers. In the 2014 speech, he recalled the first time he used one, at a science camp, and likened the experience to falling in love. He also spoke of the government lab in New Mexico. “I loved the solitude of the computer lab late at night,” he said. “I loved the air-conditioned smell of the place. I loved the sound of the disks whirring and the printers clacking.” The speech lasted forty minutes—“more than I typically talk in a month,” he noted.

    Patterson told me that when Mercer arrived at Renaissance the firm’s equities division was lagging behind other areas, such as futures trading. Mercer and Brown applied their algorithms to equities trading. “It took several years,” Patterson recalled, but the equities group eventually accounted for the largest share of the Medallion Fund’s profits. Mercer and Brown’s code took into account nearly every conceivable predictor of market swings; their secret formula became so valuable that, when a pair of Russian mathematicians at the firm tried to take the recipe elsewhere, the company initiated legal action against them.

    Renaissance’s profits were further enhanced by a controversial tax maneuver, which became the subject of a 2014 Senate inquiry. According to Senate investigators, Renaissance had presented countless short-term trades as long-term ones, improperly avoiding some $6.8 billion in taxes. The Senate didn’t allege criminality, but it concluded that Renaissance had committed “abuses.” The I.R.S. demanded payment. (Renaissance defended its practices, and the matter remains contested, leaving a very sensitive material issue pending before the Trump Administration.)

    The Medallion Fund made Renaissance employees among the wealthiest people in the country. Forbes estimates that Simons, who has the biggest share, is worth eighteen billion dollars. In 2009, Simons stepped aside, to focus on philanthropy, and named Mercer and Brown co-C.E.O.s. Institutional Investor’s Alpha estimates that, in 2015, Mercer earned a hundred and thirty-five million dollars at Renaissance.

    Mercer’s fortune has allowed him and his family to indulge their wildest material fantasies. He and Diana moved into a waterfront estate in Head of the Harbor, a seaside community on Long Island, and called the property Owl’s Nest. Mercer, a gun enthusiast, built a private pistol range there. (He is also a part owner of Centre Firearms, a company that claims to have the country’s largest private cache of machine guns, as well as a weapon that Arnold Schwarzenegger wielded in “The Terminator.”) At Owl’s Nest, Mercer has installed a $2.7-million model-train set in his basement; trains chug through a miniature landscape half the size of a basketball court. The toy train attracted unwanted tabloid headlines, such as “Boo-hoo over 2m Choo-choo,” after Mercer sued the manufacturer for overcharging him. (The case was settled.)

    Rebekah worked for a few years at Renaissance after graduating from Stanford. A former colleague recalls her as smart but haughty. In 2003, she married a Frenchman, Sylvain Mirochnikoff, who is a managing director of Morgan Stanley. They had four children and bought a twenty-eight-million-dollar property—six apartments joined together—at Trump Place, on the Upper West Side. Now forty-three, she is divorcing Mirochnikoff. She homeschools the children, but in recent years she has become consumed by politics. “She is the First Lady of the alt-right,” Christopher Ruddy, the owner of the conservative outlet Newsmax Media, said. “She’s respected in conservative circles, and clearly Trump has embraced her in a big way.”

    Amity Shlaes, the conservative writer and the chair of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, where Rebekah Mercer is a trustee, told me, “In the dull crowds of policy, the Mercers are enchanting firecrackers.” She likened the Mercer sisters to the Schuylers—the high-spirited, witty sisters made famous by the musical “Hamilton.” Shlaes went on, “The Mercers have strong values, they’re kind of funny, and they’re really bright. Their brains are almost too strong.” Rebekah, she noted, supports several think tanks, but grows tired of talk; she “is into action.”

    After the Citizens United decision, in 2010, the Mercers were among the first people to take advantage of the opportunity to spend more money on politics. In Oregon, they quietly gave money to a super PAC—an independent campaign-related group that could now take unlimited donations. In New York, reporters discovered that Robert Mercer was the sole donor behind a million-dollar advertising campaign attacking what it described as a plan to build a “Ground Zero Mosque” in Manhattan. The proposed building was neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. The ads, which were meant to boost a Conservative Party candidate for governor, were condemned as Islamophobic.

    In Oregon, the Mercers gave six hundred and forty thousand dollars to a group that attacked Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat, with a barrage of negative ads during the final weeks of his 2010 reëlection campaign. This effort also failed—it didn’t help when DeFazio announced that a New York hedge-fund manager and his daughter were meddling in Oregon politics.

    Press accounts speculated that Robert Mercer may have targeted DeFazio because DeFazio had proposed a tax on a type of high-volume stock trade that Renaissance frequently made. But several associates of Mercer’s say that the truth is stranger. DeFazio’s Republican opponent was Arthur Robinson—the biochemist, sheep rancher, and climate-change denialist. The Mercers became his devoted supporters after reading Access to Energy, an offbeat scientific newsletter that he writes. The family has given at least $1.6 million in donations to Robinson’s Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. Some of the money was used to buy freezers in which Robinson is storing some fourteen thousand samples of human urine. Robinson has said that, by studying the urine, he will find new ways of extending the human life span.

    Robinson holds a degree in chemistry from Caltech, but his work is not respected in most scientific circles. (The Oregon senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, has called Robinson an “extremist kook.”) Robinson appears to be the source of Robert Mercer’s sanguine view of nuclear radiation: in 1986, Robinson co-authored a book suggesting that the vast majority of Americans would survive “an all-out atomic attack on the United States.” Robinson’s institute dismisses climate change as a “false religion.” A petition that he organized in 1998 to oppose the Kyoto Protocol, claiming to represent thirty thousand scientists skeptical of global warming, has been criticized as deceptive. The National Academy of Sciences has warned that the petition never appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, though it is printed in “a format that is nearly identical to that of scientific articles.” The petition, however, still circulates online: in the past year, it was the most shared item about climate change on Facebook.

    Robinson, who calls himself a “Jesus-plus-nothing-else” Christian, has become a hero to the religious right for homeschooling his six children. Robert and Rebekah Mercer have praised a curriculum that Robinson sells. (An advertisement for it casts doubt on evolution: “No demonstration has ever been made of the process of ‘spontaneous origin of life.’ ”) Robinson has said that the “socialist” agenda of public schools is “evil” and represents “a form of child abuse.”

    Even though 2010 was a successful election year for Republicans, the candidates that the Mercers had supported in Oregon and New York both lost decisively. Their investments had achieved nothing. Wealthy political donors sometimes make easy marks for campaign operatives. Patrick Caddell, the former pollster, told me, “These people who get so rich by running businesses get so taken in when it comes to politics. They’re just sheep. The consultants suck it out of them. A lot of them are surrounded by palace guards, but that’s not true of the Mercers.”

    By 2011, the Mercers had joined forces with Charles and David Koch, who own Koch Industries, and who have run a powerful political machine for decades. The Mercers attended the Kochs’ semiannual seminars, which provide a structure for right-wing millionaires looking for effective ways to channel their cash. The Mercers admired the savviness of the Kochs’ plan, which called for attendees to pool their contributions in a fund run by Koch operatives. The fund would strategically deploy the money in races across the country, although, at the time, the Kochs’ chief aim was to defeat Barack Obama in 2012. The Kochs will not reveal the identities of their donors, or the size of contributions, but the Mercers reportedly began giving at least a million dollars a year to the Kochs’ fund. Eventually, they contributed more than twenty-five million.

    The Mercers also joined the Council for National Policy, which the Times has described as a “little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.” The Mercers have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars. The group swears participants to secrecy. But a leaked 2014 roster revealed that it included many people who promoted anti-Clinton conspiracy stories, including Joseph Farah, the editor of WorldNetDaily. The group also brought the Mercers into the orbit of two people who have become key figures in the Trump White House: Kellyanne Conway, who was on the group’s executive committee, and Steve Bannon.

    In 2011, the Mercers met Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the fiery news outlet that bears his name, at a conference organized by the Club for Growth, a conservative group. They were so impressed by him that they became interested in investing in his operation. Breitbart, a gleefully offensive provocateur, was the temperamental opposite of Robert Mercer. (In 2010, Breitbart told this magazine, “I like to call someone a raving cunt every now and then, when it’s appropriate, for effect.”) Nevertheless, the Mercers were attracted to Breitbart’s vision of “taking back the culture” by building a media enterprise that could wage information warfare against the mainstream press, empowering what Breitbart called “the silenced majority.”

    Breitbart soon introduced the Mercers to Steve Bannon. For a while, Breitbart News operated out of office space that Bannon owned in Santa Monica. A Harvard Business School graduate, Bannon had worked at Goldman Sachs, but he eventually left the world of finance and began making political films. His ambition, apparently, was to become the Michael Moore of the right. In the aughts, he directed polemical documentaries, among them “Fire from the Heartland” and “District of Corruption.” A former associate of Bannon’s in California recalls him as a strategic thinker who was adept at manipulating the media. A voracious reader, he was quick and charming, but, according to the former associate, he had a chip on his shoulder about class. He often spoke of having grown up in a blue-collar Irish Catholic family in Richmond, Virginia, and of having served as a naval officer when he was young. Bannon seemed to feel excluded from the social world of Wall Street peers who had attended prep schools. He had left Goldman Sachs, in 1990, without making partner, and, though he was well off, he had missed out on the gigantic profits that partners had made when the company went public, in 1999.

    In 2011, Bannon drafted a business plan for the Mercers that called for them to invest ten million dollars in Breitbart News, in exchange for a large stake. At the time, the Breitbart site was little more than a collection of blogs. The Mercers signed the deal that June, and one of its provisions placed Bannon on the company’s board.

    Nine months later, Andrew Breitbart died, at forty-three, of a heart attack, and Bannon became the site’s executive chairman, overseeing its content. The Mercers, meanwhile, became Bannon’s principal patrons. The Washington Post recently published a house-rental lease that Bannon signed in 2013, on which he said that his salary at Breitbart News was seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

    Under Bannon’s leadership, the Web site expanded dramatically, adding a fleet of full-time writers. It became a new force on the right, boosting extreme insurgents against the G.O.P. establishment, such as David Brat, who, in 2014, took the seat of Eric Cantor, the Virginia congressman. But it also provided a public forum for previously shunned white-nationalist, sexist, and racist voices. One pundit hired by Bannon was Milo Yiannopoulos, who specialized in puerile insults. (He recently resigned from the site, after a video of him lewdly defending pederasty went viral.)

    In 2014, Bannon began hosting a radio show that often featured Patrick Caddell, who effectively had been banished by Democratic Party leaders after years of tempestuous campaigns and fallings-out. On the air, Caddell floated dark theories about Hillary Clinton, and often sounded a lot like Bannon, describing “economic nationalism” as the driving force in American politics. Under Barack Obama, he said, America had turned into a “banana republic.”

    By 2016, Breitbart News claims, it had the most shared political content on Facebook, giving the Mercers a platform that no other conservative donors could match. Rebekah Mercer is highly engaged with Breitbart’s content. An insider there said, “She reads every story, and calls when there are grammatical errors or typos.” Though she doesn’t dictate a political line to the editors, she often points out areas of coverage that she thinks require more attention. Her views about the Washington establishment, including the Republican leadership, are scathing. “She was at the avant-garde of shuttering both political parties,” the insider at Breitbart said. “She went a long way toward the redefinition of American politics.”

    The Mercers’ investment in Breitbart enabled Bannon to promote anti-establishment politicians whom the mainstream media dismissed, including Trump. In 2011, David Bossie, the head of the conservative group Citizens United, introduced Trump to Bannon; at the time, Trump was thinking about running against Obama. Bannon and Trump met at Trump Tower and discussed a possible campaign. Trump decided against the idea, but the two kept in touch, and Bannon gave Trump admiring coverage. Bannon noticed that, when Trump spoke to crowds, people were electrified. Bannon began to think that Trump might be “the one” who could shake up American politics.

    “Breitbart gave Trump a big role,” Sam Nunberg, the aide who worked on the early stages of Trump’s campaign, has said. “They gave us an outlet. No one else would. It allowed us to define our narrative and communicate our message. It really started with the birther thing”—Trump’s false claim that Obama was not born an American citizen—“and then immigration, and Iran. Trump was developing his message.” By 2013, Nunberg said, Trump, like others on Breitbart, was “hitting the establishment” by slamming the Republican leadership in Congress, including Paul Ryan. Nunberg added, “It wasn’t like Charlie Rose was asking us on.”

    The Mercer Family Foundation kept expanding its political investments. Between 2011 and 2014, it gave nearly eleven million dollars to the Media Research Center, an advocacy group whose “sole mission,” according to its Web site, “is to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left: the national news media.” The group’s founder, L. Brent Bozell III, is best known for his successful campaign to get CBS sanctioned for showing Janet Jackson’s bared breast during the 2004 Super Bowl broadcast. The Mercers have been among the M.R.C.’s biggest donors, and their money has allowed the group to revamp its news site, and it now claims to reach more than two hundred million Americans a week.

    In 2012, the Mercer Family Foundation donated two million dollars to Citizens United, which had trafficked in Clinton hatred for years. During the Clinton Administration, David Bossie, the group’s leader, was a Republican congressional aide, and he was forced to resign after releasing misleading material about a Clinton associate. In 2008, Citizens United released a vitriolic film, “Hillary: The Movie.” Two years ago, after the group received an additional five hundred and fifty thousand dollars from the Mercers’ foundation, it filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding access to Hillary Clinton’s State Department e-mails. When the e-mails were released, her Presidential campaign became mired in negative news stories.

    Bannon has often collaborated with Bossie, producing half a dozen films with him. In 2012, Bossie suggested a new joint project: a movie that urged Democrats and independents to abandon Obama in the Presidential election. The film’s approach was influenced by polling work that Patrick Caddell had shared with Bannon. The data suggested that attacking Obama was counterproductive; it was more effective to express “disappointment” in him, by contrasting him with earlier Presidents.

    Caddell and Bannon made an unholy alliance, but they had things in common: both men were Irish Catholic sons of the South, scourges to their respective parties, and prone to apocalyptic pronouncements. “We hit it off right away,” Caddell told me. “We’re both revolutionaries.” Bannon was excited by Caddell’s polling research, and he persuaded Citizens United to hire Caddell to convene focus groups of disillusioned Obama supporters. Many of these voters became the central figures of “The Hope & the Change,” an anti-Obama film that Bannon and Citizens United released during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. After Caddell saw the film, he pointed out to Bannon that its opening imitated that of “Triumph of the Will,” the 1935 ode to Hitler, made by the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Bannon laughed and said, “You’re the only one that caught it!” In both films, a plane flies over a blighted land, as ominous music swells; then clouds in the sky part, auguring a new era. The disappointed voters in the film “seared into me,” Bannon said, the fact that middle-class Americans badly wanted change, and could be lured away from the Democratic Party if they felt that they had been conned.

    In 2012, Citizens United’s foundation paid Bannon Strategic Advisors, a consultancy group founded by Bannon, three hundred thousand dollars for what it described to the I.R.S. as “fund-raising” services. Bossie told me that the tax filing must have been made in error: the payment was actually for Bannon’s “film development” work. Charitable groups are barred from spending tax-deductible contributions on partisan politics, yet, as Breitbart News noted at the time, “The Hope & the Change” was a “partisan” film “targeting Democrats” during an election year. Even so, the Mercers took a hefty tax deduction for their two-million-dollar donation to Citizens United.

    Bossie told me that “the Mercers are very interested in films.” Indeed, Rebekah Mercer is on the board of the Moving Picture Institute, a conservative group devoted to countering Hollywood liberalism with original online entertainment. Among its recent projects was a cartoon, “Everyone Coughs,” which spread the rumor that Hillary Clinton was mortally ill. The film ended by depicting an animated Clinton literally coughing herself to death.

    On Election Night in 2012, the Mercers and other top conservative donors settled into the V.I.P. section of a Republican Party victory celebration, having been assured that their investments would pay off. Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney particularly infuriated Rebekah Mercer, who concluded that the pollsters, the data crunchers, and the spin doctors were all frauds. Soon afterward, Republican Party officials invited big donors to the University Club, in New York, for a postmortem on the election. Attendees were stunned when Rebekah Mercer “ripped the shit out of them,” a friend of hers told me, adding, “It was really her coming out.” As the Financial Times has reported, from that point on Mercer wanted to know exactly how her donations were being spent, and wanted to invest only in what another friend described as “things that she thinks put lead on the target.”

    That year, Rebekah Mercer joined the board of the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit group, based in Tallahassee, which Bannon had recently founded. In 2013, the Mercer Family Foundation contributed a million dollars to the institute, and in 2014 it contributed another million. In 2015, it donated $1.7 million, which exceeded the group’s entire budget the previous year. The G.A.I., meanwhile, paid Bannon three hundred and seventy-six thousand dollars during its first four years; it told the I.R.S. that Bannon was working for it thirty hours a week, ostensibly on top of his full-time job running Breitbart News.

    The G.A.I. billed itself as a nonpartisan research institute, but in 2015 Bannon told Bloomberg Businessweek that its mission was to dig up dirt on politicians and feed it to the mainstream media. (A G.A.I. staffer called this “weaponizing” information.) The group reportedly hired an expert to comb the Deep Web—sites that don’t show up in standard searches—for incriminating information about its targets. The plan was to exploit the mainstream media’s growing inability to finance investigative reporting by doing it for them. The strategy paid off spectacularly in April, 2015, when the Times ran a front-page article based on the book “Clinton Cash,” a compendium of corruption allegations against the Clintons, which was written by the G.A.I.’s president, the conservative writer Peter Schweizer. (The G.A.I. had given the paper an advance copy.) The book triggered one story after another about Hillary Clinton’s supposed criminality, and became a best-seller. In 2016, a film version, co-produced by Bannon and Rebekah Mercer, débuted at the Cannes Film Festival, as the Mercers’ yacht bobbed offshore.

    The G.A.I. also undermined Jeb Bush, the candidate favored by the Republican establishment, with another Schweizer book, “Bush Bucks.” As Bannon put it in a 2015 interview, it depicted Bush as a figure of “grimy, low-energy crony capitalism.”

    During this period, the Mercers continued giving money to election campaigns. In 2014, Robert Mercer made a two-and-a-half-million-dollar contribution to the Kochs’ Freedom Partners Action Fund. This exceeded the two-million-dollar contributions of David and Charles Koch, prompting a memorable headline about Mercer from Bloomberg News: “The Man Who Out-koched the Kochs.”

    Rebekah Mercer, meanwhile, was growing impatient with the Kochs. She felt that they needed to investigate why their network had failed to defeat Obama in 2012. Instead, the Kochs gathered donors and presented them with more empty rhetoric. Mercer demanded an accounting of what had gone wrong, and when they ignored her she decided to start her own operation. In a further blow, Mercer soured several other top donors on the Kochs.

    In 2012, one area in which the Republicans had lagged badly behind the Democrats was in the use of digital analytics. The Mercers decided to finance their own big-data project. In 2014, Michal Kosinski, a researcher in the psychology department at the University of Cambridge, was working in the emerging field of psychometrics, the quantitative study of human characteristics. He learned from a colleague that a British company, Strategic Communication Laboratories, wanted to hire academics to pursue similar research, for commercial purposes. Kosinski had circulated personality tests on Facebook and, in the process, obtained huge amounts of information about users. From this data, algorithms could be fashioned that would predict people’s behavior and anticipate their reactions to other online prompts. Those who took the Facebook quizzes, however, had been promised that the information would be used strictly for academic purposes. Kosinski felt that repurposing it for commercial use was unethical, and possibly illegal. His concerns deepened when he researched S.C.L. He was disturbed to learn that the company specialized in psychological warfare, and in influencing elections. He spurned the chance to work with S.C.L., although his colleague signed a contract with the company.

    Kosinski was further disconcerted when he learned that a new American affiliate of S.C.L., Cambridge Analytica—owned principally by an American hedge-fund tycoon named Robert Mercer—was attempting to influence elections in the U.S. Kosinski, who is now an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s business school, supports the idea of using psychometric data to “nudge” people toward socially positive behavior, such as voting. But, he told me, “there’s a thin line between convincing people and manipulating them.”

    It is unclear if the Mercers have pushed Cambridge Analytica to cross that line. A company spokesman declined to comment for this story. What is clear is that Mercer, having revolutionized the use of data on Wall Street, was eager to accomplish the same feat in the political realm. He screened many data-mining companies before investing, and he chose Cambridge Analytica, in part, because its high concentration of accomplished scientists reminded him of Renaissance Technologies. Rebekah Mercer, too, has been deeply involved in the venture. Cambridge Analytica shares a corporate address in Manhattan with a group she chairs, Reclaim New York, which opposes government spending. (Bannon has reportedly served as a corporate officer for both Reclaim and Cambridge Analytica.)

    Political scientists and consultants continue to debate Cambridge Analytica’s record in the 2016 campaign. David Karpf, an assistant professor at George Washington University who studies the political use of data, calls the firm’s claim to have special psychometric powers “a marketing pitch” that’s “untrue.” Karpf worries, though, that the company “could take a very dark turn.” He explained, “What they could do is set up a MoveOn-style operation with a Tea Party-ish list that they could whip up. Typically, lists like that are used to pressure elected officials, but the dangerous thing would be if it was used instead to pressure fellow-citizens. It could encourage vigilantism.” Karpf said of Cambridge Analytica, “There is a maximalist scenario in which we should be terrified to have a tool like this in private hands.”

    Cambridge Analytica is not the only data-driven political project that the Mercers have backed. In 2013, at a conservative conference in Palm Beach, an oil tycoon named William Lee Hanley, who had commissioned some polls from Patrick Caddell, asked him to show the data to Mercer and Bannon, who were at the event. The data showed mounting anger toward wealthy élites, who many Americans believed had corrupted the government so that it served only their interests. There was a hunger for a populist Presidential candidate who would run against the major political parties and the ruling class. The data “showed that someone could just walk into this election and sweep it,” Caddell told me. When Mercer saw the numbers, he asked for the polling to be repeated. Caddell got the same results. “It was stunning,” he said. “The country was on the verge of an uprising against its leaders. I just fell over!”

    Until Election Day in 2016, Mercer and Hanley—two of the richest men in America—paid Caddell to keep collecting polling data that enabled them to exploit the public’s resentment of élites such as themselves. Caddell’s original goal was to persuade his sponsors to back an independent candidate, but they never did. In 2014, Caddell and two partners went public with what they called the Candidate Smith project, which promoted data suggesting that the public wanted a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” figure—an outsider—as President. During the next year or so, Caddell’s poll numbers tilted more and more away from the establishment. Caddell’s partner Bob Perkins, an advertising executive and a former finance director of the Republican Party, told me, “By then, it was clear there wouldn’t be a third-party candidate. But we thought that a Republican who harnessed the angst had a real chance.” At one point, Caddell tested all the declared Presidential candidates, including Trump, as a possible Mr. Smith. “People didn’t think Trump had the temperament to be President,” Caddell said. “He clearly wasn’t the best Smith, but he was the only Smith. He was the only one with the resources and the name recognition.” As Bernie Sanders’s campaign showed, the populist rebellion wasn’t partisan. Caddell worried, though, that there were dark undertones in the numbers: Americans were increasingly yearning for a “strong man” to fix the country.

    Caddell circulated his research to anyone who would listen, and that included people inside the Trump campaign. “Pat Caddell is like an Old Testament prophet,” Bannon said. “He’s been talking about alienation of the voters for twenty-five years, and people didn’t pay attention—but he’s a brilliant guy, and he nailed it.” The political consultant and strategist Roger Stone, who is a longtime Trump confidant, was fascinated by the research, and he forwarded a memo about it to Trump. Caddell said that he spoke with Trump about “some of the data,” but noted, “With Trump, it’s all instinct—he is not exactly a deep-dive thinker.”

    Robert Mercer, too, was kept informed. Perkins said, “He just loves the numbers. Most people say, ‘Tell me what you think—don’t show me the numbers.’ But he’s, like, ‘Give me the numbers!’ ”

    Brendan Fischer, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, said that the Mercers’ financial entanglement with the Trump campaign was “bizarre” and potentially “illegal.” The group has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, which notes that, at the end of the 2016 campaign, the super PAC run by the Mercers paid Glittering Steel—a film-production company that shares an address in Los Angeles with Cambridge Analytica and Breitbart News—two hundred and eighty thousand dollars, supposedly for campaign ads attacking Hillary Clinton. Although Bannon was running Trump’s campaign, Fischer said that it appears to have paid him nothing. Meanwhile, the Mercers’ super PAC made a payment of about five million dollars to Cambridge Analytica, which was incorporated at the same address as Bannon Strategic Advisors. Super PACs are legally required to stay independent of a candidate’s campaign. But, Fischer said, “it raises the possibility of the Mercers subsidizing Steve Bannon’s work for the Trump campaign.”

    On December 3rd, the Mercer family hosted a victory celebration at Owl’s Nest—a costume party with a heroes-and-villains theme. Rebekah Mercer welcomed several hundred guests, including Donald Trump. In extemporaneous remarks, Trump thanked the Mercers, saying that they had been “instrumental in bringing some organization” to his campaign. He specifically named Bannon, Conway, and Bossie. Trump then joked that he’d just had the longest conversation of his life with Bob Mercer—and it was just “two words.” A guest at the party told me, “I was looking around the room, and I thought, No doubt about it—the people whom the Mercers invested in, my comrades, are now in charge.”

    After the election, Rebekah Mercer was rewarded with a seat on Trump’s transition team. “She basically bought herself a seat,” Fischer said. She had strong feelings about who should be nominated to Cabinet positions and other top government jobs. Not all her ideas were embraced. She unsuccessfully pushed for John Bolton, the hawkish former Ambassador to the United Nations, to be named Secretary of State. So far, her suggestion that Arthur Robinson, the Oregon biochemist, be named the national science adviser has gone nowhere. Like her father, she advocates a return to the gold standard, but as of yet she has failed to get Trump to appoint officials who share this view.

    Still, Mercer made her influence felt. Her pick for national-security adviser was Michael Flynn, and Trump chose him for the job. (Flynn lasted only a month, after he lied about having spoken with the Russian Ambassador before taking office.) More important, several people to whom Mercer is very close—including Bannon and Conway—have become some of the most powerful figures in the world.

    Rebekah’s father, meanwhile, can no longer be considered a political outsider. David Magerman, in his essay for the Inquirer, notes that Mercer “has surrounded our President with his people, and his people have an outsized influence over the running of our country, simply because Robert Mercer paid for their seats.” He writes, “Everyone has a right to express their views.” But, he adds, “when the government becomes more like a corporation, with the richest 0.001% buying shares and demanding board seats, then we cease to be a representative democracy.” Instead, he warns, “we become an oligarchy.”

    “Magerman told the Wall Street Journal that Mercer’s political opinions “show contempt for the social safety net that he doesn’t need, but many Americans do.” He also said that Mercer wants the U.S. government to be “shrunk down to the size of a pinhead.” Several former colleagues of Mercer’s said that his views are akin to Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Magerman told me, “Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make. A cat has value, he’s said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.” Magerman added, “He thinks society is upside down—that government helps the weak people get strong, and makes the strong people weak by taking their money away, through taxes.” He said that this mind-set was typical of “instant billionaires” in finance, who “have no stake in society,” unlike the industrialists of the past, who “built real things.””

    As we can see, the main billionaires behind Bannon and Trump are basically sociopaths. Really, really rich sociopaths. And they’re bankrolling the media/psyop empire that managed to sell Donald Trump as a champion of the little guy:


    Until Election Day in 2016, Mercer and Hanley—two of the richest men in America—paid Caddell to keep collecting polling data that enabled them to exploit the public’s resentment of élites such as themselves. Caddell’s original goal was to persuade his sponsors to back an independent candidate, but they never did. In 2014, Caddell and two partners went public with what they called the Candidate Smith project, which promoted data suggesting that the public wanted a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” figure—an outsider—as President. During the next year or so, Caddell’s poll numbers tilted more and more away from the establishment. Caddell’s partner Bob Perkins, an advertising executive and a former finance director of the Republican Party, told me, “By then, it was clear there wouldn’t be a third-party candidate. But we thought that a Republican who harnessed the angst had a real chance.” At one point, Caddell tested all the declared Presidential candidates, including Trump, as a possible Mr. Smith. “People didn’t think Trump had the temperament to be President,” Caddell said. “He clearly wasn’t the best Smith, but he was the only Smith. He was the only one with the resources and the name recognition.” As Bernie Sanders’s campaign showed, the populist rebellion wasn’t partisan. Caddell worried, though, that there were dark undertones in the numbers: Americans were increasingly yearning for a “strong man” to fix the country.

    And after pulling off their “Mr. Trump/Smith goes to Washington” scam, the Mercer clan is one of the most powerful families on the planet and free to push their pro-“starve the weak”, pro-climate change, pro-“you’re on your own” Objectivist philosophy from inside the Oval Office. It’s all pretty cynical. Cynically suicidal, collectively speaking. Although since the Mercers are paying Art Robinson to develop longevity-technology and they’ve invested in the largest private machine gun cache in the US, they’re presumably assuming they won’t be caught up the nightmare they’re trying to unleash. Which is, again, pretty cynical.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | March 28, 2017, 7:16 pm
  5. Now that the #TrumpRussia investigation has started to focus on the use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter as part of some sort of alleged Kremiln-directed pro-Trump misinformation campaign we’re getting a flood of stories breathlessly covering what is purported to a massive, full-spectrum Kremlin operation that involved everything from micro-targeting voters with inflammatory ads in key swing-states to actually trying to hire real life US activists and arrange for live events. And yet, as is the case with so much of the #TrumpRussia investigation, when you look past the headlines and consensus narratives and examine the actual details that are reported a very different picture emerges.

    For example, there have been a number of reports about the recent revelation that ~3000 Facebook ads purchased through the Internet Research Agency, the notorious St. Petersburg-based ‘troll farm for hire’ that’s been reported on for years. About $100,000 was reportedly spent on these ads. If that seems like a lot of money, keep in mind that the Trump campaign alone reportedly spent $90 million on digital advertising and over half of that went to Facebook. So by US presidential campaign standards $100,000 is a miniscule amount.

    That said, a big part of the interest in those ads has been the possibility that they were micro-targeting individuals in a sophisticated manner that effectively gave the $100,000 ad campaign more bang for the buck. And by “ad”, in this case we are talking about a specific purchase on Facebook to show a particular ad to a selected audience based on that audience’s interests. And as we saw with the recent reports about Facebook offering advertising categories that include “Jew haters” and Nazi parties, it’s shockingly easy to micro-target people on Facebook. For just about any category. So it’s not inconceivable that great deal of of these $100,000 in ad purchases were employing some sort of micro-targeting because that’s basically what Facebook is: a social media platform that collects information on its users for the purpose of micro-targeting.

    So how many people did these 3,000 Facebook ads purchased for $100,000 actually reach? According to Facebook, half the ads cost $3 each, with 99% costing less than $1,000. And in total about 10,000,000 people in the US saw the ads. And yes, 10,000,000 people is quite a few people. But don’t forget, if these 10,000,000 people saw one of more of these 3,000 ‘Kremlin’ ads, they almost assuredly saw A LOT more ads from the myriad of other entities that simultaneously advertising on Facebook.

    In other words, given how low-impact a $100,000 advertising campaign would be in the context of a US presidential election it’s kind of hard to imagine that this $100,000 was actually spent for the purpose of making a meaningful impact on the election unless those ads were all targeting roughly the same group of people during the entire ad campaign. $100,000 spent on Facebook ads exclusively targeting potential swing-voters in Michigan and Wisconsin, for instance, would have been a potentially impactful advertising campaign. But based on the following article it doesn’t look like that was remotely how this ad campaign was done. Especially since over half of those ads “impressions” (instances when the ads were shown) took place after the 2016 election:

    24/7 Wall St.

    Half of Facebook Russian Ads Cost Less Than $3 Each

    Douglas A. McIntyre
    October 3, 2017

    Facebook Inc. (FB) has disclosed more about Russian ads that ran at its site and were likely meant to affect the last election. As it passed the information to Congress, among the comments it made is that many of the ads were bought for less than $3.

    According to a message from Facebook:

    An estimated 10 million people in the US saw the ads. We were able to approximate the number of unique people (“reach”) who saw at least one of these ads, with our best modeling 44% of total ad impressions (number of times ads were displayed) were before the US election on November 8, 2016; 56% were after the election.

    Roughly 25% of the ads were never shown to anyone. That’s because advertising auctions are designed so that ads reach people based on relevance, and certain ads may not reach anyone as a result.

    For 50% of the ads, less than $3 was spent; for 99% of the ads, less than $1,000 was spent.

    What the information does show is how inexpensive it can be for a person who is both clever and presumably familiar with the Facebook ad system to target groups in a manner meant to change their opinions or actions. An attempt to changing votes is among a much longer list of fake news and fake claims that can be posted on Facebook at a cost well below what most people would expect. It opens Facebook up to abuses that almost anyone can afford.

    For those who want to stop fake claims from reaching people on the internet, the hurdle is very high. Facebook is only one of scores of places inaccurate information can be distributed, although it is the largest. Among all large social media sites, the number of people who can be targeted rises to the hundreds of millions. Fake news, delivered via the internet, is here to stay because in a sea of other ads it is almost impossible to detect, and it can be very cheap as well.

    ———-

    “Half of Facebook Russian Ads Cost Less Than $3 Each” by Douglas A. McIntyre; 24/7 Wall St.; 10/03/2017

    “For 50% of the ads, less than $3 was spent; for 99% of the ads, less than $1,000 was spent.”

    As we can see, targeted advertising on Facebook is cheap enough that just about anyone can afford it:


    What the information does show is how inexpensive it can be for a person who is both clever and presumably familiar with the Facebook ad system to target groups in a manner meant to change their opinions or actions. An attempt to changing votes is among a much longer list of fake news and fake claims that can be posted on Facebook at a cost well below what most people would expect. It opens Facebook up to abuses that almost anyone can afford.

    And as we also saw, whoever was purchasing these ads that Facebook is attributing to the Internet Research Agency bought most of those ads after the election was over:


    An estimated 10 million people in the US saw the ads. We were able to approximate the number of unique people (“reach”) who saw at least one of these ads, with our best modeling 44% of total ad impressions (number of times ads were displayed) were before the US election on November 8, 2016; 56% were after the election.

    Roughly 25% of the ads were never shown to anyone. That’s because advertising auctions are designed so that ads reach people based on relevance, and certain ads may not reach anyone as a result.

    So what was the actual content of these 3,000 Facebook ads? Well, as the following article notes, these ads largely focusing on controversial and polarizing topics topics across the political spectrum – anti-Muslim ads for some voters, pro-Black Lives Matter ads for others – and ran in key swing-states that flipped to Trump (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsyvania). The article frames this as clear evidence of some sort of Kremlin attempt to divide and conquer the United States and notes how investigators are looking into whether or not the Trump team was passing information to the Kremlin about which voters to target.

    But as the article also notes, a large number of these ads were run in areas that weren’t heavily contested at all and only about a quarter of the ads were geographically targeted (i.e. trying to influence voters in a particular state). And of that 25 percent that were geographically targeted, most ran in 2015.
    And when were the targeted ads for key states like Wisconsin and Michigan run relative to the election in November? Well, we don’t know at this point since Facebook hasn’t released that information.

    At this point, all we know about those 3,000 Facebook ads is that most of the 25 percent of the ads that were geographically targeted ran in 2015, and most of the ads overall ran after the election. So if the Kremlin really was running a sophisticated targeted advertising campaign intended to flip the election for Trump it must have been an extremely sophisticated campaign because it looks like a completely random mess of a campaign to the naked eye and running an ad campaign that looks like a random mess, but is actually sophisticated, is obviously very sophisticated. Of course, it might also have just been a random mess:

    CNN

    Exclusive: Russian-linked Facebook ads targeted Michigan and Wisconsin

    By Manu Raju, Dylan Byers and Dana Bash, CNN

    Updated 6:57 AM ET, Wed October 4, 2017

    (CNN)A number of Russian-linked Facebook ads specifically targeted Michigan and Wisconsin, two states crucial to Donald Trump’s victory last November, according to four sources with direct knowledge of the situation.

    Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal, two of the sources said. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages, sources said.

    It has been unclear until now exactly which regions of the country were targeted by the ads. And while one source said that a large number of ads appeared in areas of the country that were not heavily contested in the elections, some clearly were geared at swaying public opinion in the most heavily contested battlegrounds.

    Michigan saw the closest presidential contest in the country — Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by about 10,700 votes out of nearly 4.8 million ballots cast. Wisconsin was also one of the tightest states, and Trump won there by only about 22,700 votes. Both states, which Trump carried by less than 1%, were key to his victory in the Electoral College.

    The sources did not specify when in 2016 the ads ran in Michigan and Wisconsin.

    As part of their investigations, both special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees are seeking to determine whether the Russians received any help from Trump associates in where to target the ads.

    White House officials could not be reached for comment on this story. The President and senior White House officials have long insisted there was never any collusion with Russia, with Trump contending the matter is a “hoax.”

    The focus on Michigan and Wisconsin also adds more evidence that the Russian group tied to the effort was employing a wide range of tactics potentially aimed at interfering in the election.

    Facebook previously has acknowledged that about one quarter of the 3,000 Russian-bought ads were targeted to specific geographic locations, without detailing the locations. The company said of the ads that were geographically targeted “more ran in 2015 than 2016.” In all, Facebook estimates the entire Russian effort was seen by 10 million people.

    Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN the panel was still assessing the full geographical breakdown of the Russian ads and whether there was any assistance from individuals associated with the Trump campaign.

    “Obviously, we’re looking at any of the targeting of the ads, as well as any targeting of efforts to push out the fake or false news or negative accounts against Hillary Clinton, to see whether they demonstrate a sophistication that would be incompatible with not having access to data analytics from the campaign,” Schiff said Tuesday evening. “At this point, we still don’t know.”

    One person with direct knowledge of the matter said that some of the ads were aimed at reaching voters who may be susceptible to anti-Muslim messages, even suggesting that Muslims were a threat to the American way of life. Such messaging could presumably appeal to voters attracted to Trump’s hard-line stance against immigration and calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

    Schiff said that the committee was planning to investigate ads that suggested Muslims supported Clinton, and how those were geared to people who had been searching online for the Muslim Brotherhood and other items to suggest they were critical of Islam.

    The ads were part of roughly 3,000 that Facebook turned over to congressional investigators this week as part of the multiple Capitol Hill inquiries into Russia meddling in the 2016 elections.

    CNN reported last that at least one of the Facebook ads bought by Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign referenced Black Lives Matter and was specifically targeted to reach audiences in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, according to sources with knowledge of the ads.

    Lawmakers have only started to assess the scope of the data, and sources from both parties said the 3,000 ads touched on a range of polarizing topics, including the Second Amendment and civil rights issues. The ads were aimed at suppressing the votes and sowing discontent among the electorate, the sources said.

    Members from both parties said that there was a clear sophistication in the Russian ad campaign, and they said they were only just beginning to learn the full extent of the social media efforts.

    ———-

    “Exclusive: Russian-linked Facebook ads targeted Michigan and Wisconsin” by Manu Raju, Dylan Byers and Dana Bash; CNN; 10/04/2017

    “Members from both parties said that there was a clear sophistication in the Russian ad campaign, and they said they were only just beginning to learn the full extent of the social media efforts.”

    Members of both parties said “there was a clear sophistication in the Russian ad campaign.” And that “sophistication” demonstrated by the fact that ad campaign was using divisive issues “aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online”, according to two of the sources for the article. It’s the kind of observation that raises the question as to whether or not these sources have ever seen ads on the internet:


    Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal, two of the sources said. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages, sources said.

    It has been unclear until now exactly which regions of the country were targeted by the ads. And while one source said that a large number of ads appeared in areas of the country that were not heavily contested in the elections, some clearly were geared at swaying public opinion in the most heavily contested battlegrounds.

    Michigan saw the closest presidential contest in the country — Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by about 10,700 votes out of nearly 4.8 million ballots cast. Wisconsin was also one of the tightest states, and Trump won there by only about 22,700 votes. Both states, which Trump carried by less than 1%, were key to his victory in the Electoral College.

    And when it comes to key swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan we don’t get to know when those geographically targeted ads actually ran. Was it in 2015? Early 2016? Right before the November election? We don’t get to know. But we’re assured that this was all part of a super sophisticated ad campaign that could have only been executed by people with advanced knowledge of the US electorate:


    The sources did not specify when in 2016 the ads ran in Michigan and Wisconsin.

    The focus on Michigan and Wisconsin also adds more evidence that the Russian group tied to the effort was employing a wide range of tactics potentially aimed at interfering in the election.

    Facebook previously has acknowledged that about one quarter of the 3,000 Russian-bought ads were targeted to specific geographic locations, without detailing the locations. The company said of the ads that were geographically targeted “more ran in 2015 than 2016.” In all, Facebook estimates the entire Russian effort was seen by 10 million people.

    It’s going to be really interesting to eventually learn all the various locations these geographically targeted ads. Because guess what: if you geographically target lots of different locations, odds are you’re going to include some politically significant locations. That’s just basic probability.

    Now, the fact that so many of these ads only cost $3 does suggest that these cheap ads might have been micro-targeted ads. Or maybe not. Facebook’s ad system has different options for getting billed. Options include getting charged only when someone clicks on your ad (cost-per-click), or getting charged when Facebook shows your ad 1000 times (cost-per-mile). Other options include cost-per-like (getting charged when people “like” your page) or cost-per-action (where someone clicks on the ad, goes to your page, and does something). But the price you pay for each of these options still varies quite a bit based on other factors because Facebook’s prices work on a bidding system and the target audience you select will determine who you’re competing with in that bidding. The more competition there is to advertise for your selected audience the more its going to cost. And if you choose to target particular locations (like a city), that’s potentially going to costs relatively more too vs no location targeting if a lot or other advertisers are targeting that location too.

    So we really need to know a lot about more about the particulars of these Russian troll farm ads (what audiences were targeted, where, and when) to get a sense of whether or not those these ad buys represented a sophisticated attempt to subtly tip the election by targeting key demographic in key states or if these ad buys were simply small-scale test run experiments done in order to see what resonated with audiences. Lot’s a small ad buys might represent sophisticated micro-targeting but it might just be standard Facebook ad campaign methodology of trying out lots of little ads in order to refine an ad campaign. It’s a big reason why it’s absurd to presume micro-targeting on Facebook is a sign of sophistication without more information. Facebook is designed to facilitate cheap, micro-targeted ads that any doofus to set up, enabling lots of small tests of different ads to see what works.

    And if we do ever get to see the details on these ad purchases and it turns out that there’s no particular strategic methodology apparent in the data that would point to the other obvious scenario we haven’t considered yet: that this entire operation run out of the Internet Research Agency was primarily a for-profit clickbait operation run on behalf of someone who wanted to make a bunch of advertising money by getting traffic to their Facebook pages by using polarizing ads. A diabolical scheme otherwise known as the basic internet business model.

    It’s also possible that some of the ads really were part of a relatively small and ineffective Kremlin influence campaign, and some were just for-profit clickbait. At this point we have no where near enough information to make that call.

    But what we do know is that the Internet Research Agency has corporate clients. It’s not simply a troll-farm run by a Putin-connected oligarch. It’s also a for-profit troll-for-hire operation. How do we know this? Well, while the bulk of the reporting on the Internet Research over the years has focused on their ostensible work for the Kremlin, Adrien Chen, a reporter to who wrote about the Internet Research Agency back in 2015, recently tweeted this about the business:

    The internet research agency, from what I could tell, had commercial clients as well as government ones. So do most big PR firms in Russia.— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) September 6, 2017

    Yep, the Internet Research Agency has commercial clients. Private clients who want to hire its services for whatever reason. Perhaps to influence people or perhaps to just drive traffic to their sites to make money which, again, is the basic internet business model. At this point we don’t have enough information to determine who actually hired the Internet Research Agency to run these ads and whether or not it was simply a for-profit operation or something else.

    So when we hear about how this Russian troll farm was pushing these controversial and polarizing topics using edgy ads that ‘break through the clutter’ and grab people’s attention, don’t forget that using ads on controversial and polarizing topics is a great way to make money on the internet and this isn’t a secret:

    Moon of Alabama

    The “Russian Ads” On Facebook Are Just Another Click-Bait Scheme

    Posted by b on October 3, 2017 at 02:09 PM

    The “Russian Ads” On Facebook Are Just Another Click-Bait Scheme

    Congress is investigating 3,000 “suspicious” ads which were run on Facebook. They were claimed to have been bought by “Russia” to influence the U.S.presidential election in favor of Trump.

    With more details now known we can conclude that these Facebook ads had nothing to do with the election. The mini-ads were bought to promote click-bait pages and sites. These pages and sites were created and promoted to sell further advertisement. The media though, has still not understood the issue.

    On September 6 the NYT asserted:

    Providing new evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Facebook disclosed on Wednesday that it had identified more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on hot-button issues purchased by a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin.

    The disclosure adds to the evidence of the broad scope of the Russian influence campaign, which American intelligence agencies concluded was designed to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Donald J. Trump during the election.

    Like any Congress investigation the current one concerned with Facebook ads is leaking like a sieve. What oozes out makes little sense. If “Russia” aimed to make Congress and U.S. media a laughing stock it has surely achieved that.

    Today the NYT says that the ads were bought by “the Russians” “in disguise” to promote variously themed Facebook pages:

    There was “Defend the 2nd,” a Facebook page for gun-rights supporters, festooned with firearms and tough rhetoric. There was a rainbow-hued page for gay rights activists, “LGBT United.” There was even a Facebook group for animal lovers with memes of adorable puppies that spread across the site with the help of paid ads.

    No one has explained how these pages are connected to a Russian “influence” campaign. It is unexplained how these are connected to the 2016 election. Both is simply asserted because Facebook said, for unknown reasons, that these ads may have come from some Russian agency. How Facebook has determined that is not known.

    With each new detail from the “Russian ads” investigation the framework of “election manipulation” falls further apart:

    Late Monday, Facebook said in a post that about 10 million people had seen the ads in question. About 44 percent of the ads were seen before the 2016 election and the rest after, the company said.

    The original claim was that “Russia” intended to influence the election in favor of Trump. But why then was the majority of the ads in questions run after November 9? And how would an animal-lovers page with adorable puppies help to achieve Trump’s election victory?

    More details via the Wall Street Journal:

    Roughly 25% of the ads were never shown to anyone. That’s because advertising auctions are designed so that ads reach people based on relevance, and certain ads may not reach anyone as a result.

    For 50% of the ads, less than $3 was spent; for 99% of the ads, less than $1,000 was spent.

    Of the 3,000 ads Facebook originally claimed were “Russian” only 2,200 were ever viewed. Most of the advertisements were mini-ads which, for the price of a coffee, promoted private pages related to hobbies and a wide spectrum of controversial issues. The majority of the ads ran after the election.

    All that “adds to the evidence of the broad scope of the Russian influence campaign”? “…designed to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Donald J. Trump during the election”?

    No.

    But the NYT still finds “experts” who believe in the “Russian influence” nonsense and find the most stupid explanations for their claims:

    Clinton Watts, a former F.B.I. agent now at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said Russia had been entrepreneurial in trying to develop diverse channels of influence. Some, like the dogs page, may have been created without a specific goal and held in reserve for future use.

    Puppy pictures for “future use”?

    Nonsense.

    Lunacy!

    The pages described and the ads leading to them are typical click-bait, not part of a political influence op.

    The for-profit scheme runs as follows:

    One builds pages with “hot” stuff that hopefully attracts lots of viewers. One creates ad-space on these pages and fills it with Google ads. One attracts viewers and promotes the spiked pages by buying $3 Facebook mini-ads for them. The mini-ads are targeted at the most susceptible groups.

    A few thousand users will come and look at such pages. Some will ‘like’ the puppy pictures or the rant for or against LGBT and further spread them. Some will click the Google ads. Money then flows into the pockets of the page creator. One can rinse and repeat this scheme forever. Each such page is a small effort for a small revenue. But the scheme is highly scaleable and parts of it can be automatized.

    This is, in essence, the same business model traditional media publishers use. They create “news” and controversies to attract readers. The attention of the readers is then sold to advertisers. The business is no longer limited to a few rich oligarchs. One no longer needs reporters or a printing press to join it. Anyone can now run a similar business.

    We learned after the election that some youths in Macedonia created whole “news”-websites filled with highly attractive but fake partisan stories. They were not interested in the veracity or political direction of their content. Their only interest was to attract viewers. They made thousands of dollars by selling advertisements on their sites:

    The teen said his monthly revenue was in the four figures, a considerable sum in a country where the average monthly pay is 360 euros ($383). As he navigated his site’s statistics, he dropped nuggets of journalism advice.

    “You have to write what people want to see, not what you want to show,” he said, scrolling through The Political Insider’s stories as a large banner read “ARREST HILLARY NOW.”

    The 3,000 Facebook ads Congress is investigating are part of a similar scheme. The mini-ads promoted pages with hot button issues and click-bait puppy pictures. These pages were themselves created to generate ad-clicks and revenue. Facebook claims that “Russia” is behind them. We will likely find some Russian teens who simply repeated the scheme their Macedonian friends were running on.

    The mystery of “Russian” $3 ads for “adorable puppies” pages on Facebook has been solved, Congress and the New York Times will have to move on. There next subject is probably the “Russian influence campaign” on Youtube.

    ———-

    “The “Russian Ads” On Facebook Are Just Another Click-Bait Scheme” by b; Moon of Alabama; 10/03/2017

    “The pages described and the ads leading to them are typical click-bait, not part of a political influence op.”

    Yeah, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this entire Russian Facebook operation sure looks a lot like a clickbait campaign. Although we’d have to know more about whether or not there was a for-profit angle to the ads and fake Facebook pages set up by this troll farm. Were they directing people to sites filled with ads? It’s a pretty important question at this point and we don’t have an answer for it yet but the fact that a majority of these ads were purchased after the election certainly raises questions about the whole ‘Kremlin influence campaign’ narrative:


    The pages described and the ads leading to them are typical click-bait, not part of a political influence op.

    The for-profit scheme runs as follows:

    One builds pages with “hot” stuff that hopefully attracts lots of viewers. One creates ad-space on these pages and fills it with Google ads. One attracts viewers and promotes the spiked pages by buying $3 Facebook mini-ads for them. The mini-ads are targeted at the most susceptible groups.

    A few thousand users will come and look at such pages. Some will ‘like’ the puppy pictures or the rant for or against LGBT and further spread them. Some will click the Google ads. Money then flows into the pockets of the page creator. One can rinse and repeat this scheme forever. Each such page is a small effort for a small revenue. But the scheme is highly scaleable and parts of it can be automatized.

    This is, in essence, the same business model traditional media publishers use. They create “news” and controversies to attract readers. The attention of the readers is then sold to advertisers. The business is no longer limited to a few rich oligarchs. One no longer needs reporters or a printing press to join it. Anyone can now run a similar business.

    So can well just dismiss all of these polarizing ads as a clickbait campaign that included puppies and rainbows too and was just interested in profits and nothing else? Well, we still clearly need more information.

    And we got more information, at least regarding the Internet Research Agency’s operation targeting African Americans on hot-button issues. Because it turns out that there were a number of real-life outreach efforts to black activists in the US that appear to involve the people from the Internet Research Agency creating fake black activist groups and reach out to, and financing, Americans black activist. This was discovered as part of a recent investigative report from RBC, a Russian news outlet, that included interviews with the actual employees of the Internet Research Agency carrying out these campaigns in the US.

    According to the RBC report, starting in 2015 the Internet Research Agency basically started an experimental campaign to see if they could use social media test a hypothesis: can you remotely organize measures in American cities. “Simply a test of possibilities, an experiment,” as one employee put it. And it worked. They actually arranged for meet up events in places in the US where there were publicly available cameras that you could watch on the internet so they could see if people actually showed up. And they did.

    So how much was spent on these real-world influence campaign? $5,000 per month during the period RBC covered and $80,000 in total, which included in some cases paying these local organizers – who didn’t realize they were in contact with an Internet Research Agency front – for flights, printing costs, and technical equipment.

    This report is widely being interpreted as a validation that the Kremlin intent on fomenting civic unrest in the US via Facebook. And who knows, perhaps it really was just that. It would be rather shocking if governments around the world aren’t doing experiments like that. But, of course, there’s the other obvious possibility that’s rarely considered: if you’re a troll farm, and you’re business is internet influence campaign, you’re going to want to eventually run an experiment on doing exactly what they did. Because why not? From a purely business perspective it’s an amazingly useful service for a troll farm to offer.

    And as was the case with the Facebook ads, we still have no idea a whether or not these real-world-influence services are done at the behest of the Kremlin or some other commercial client. For instance, could the GOP quietly hire the Internet Research Agency to foment protests in the African American community? These are pretty critical questions to get answers to and at this point we don’t have remotely enough information to know:

    Talking Points Memo
    Muckraker

    Russian Trolls Used ‘Up To 100’ Activists To Organize Events In US, Report Finds

    By Sam Thielman
    Published October 17, 2017 4:01 pm

    Alan Yuhas contributed English-language translation

    As many as 100 unwitting activists were recruited to help organize events in the United States both before and after the election by the same St. Petersburg-based Russian troll farm behind scores of fake social media accounts that purchased ads to sow discord during the 2016 campaign.

    The revelation comes from a report in the Russian business magazine RBC published on Tuesday morning.

    The events included an October 2016 rally in Charlotte, North Carolina to protest police violence mere weeks after a protester was fatally shot at a Black Lives Matter protest there. The organizers of the October protest were not with BLM, though, according to RBC’s report. They were with BlackMattersUS, the organization outed as a Russian front last week by Casey Michel at ThinkProgress.

    The Charlotte rally was one of ten BlackMattersUS events catalogued by RBC journalists Polina Rusyaeva and Andrey Zakharov. The two reporters interviewed numerous former employees at the Federal News Agency (FAN), the troll farm formerly known as the Internet Research Agency, and reviewed chats on encrypted messaging app Telegram from senior personnel.

    The report also found that from January-May 2017, the troll farm contacted martial arts instructors through a puppet group called BlackFist. In places as disparate as New York City, Los Angeles, Lansing, Michigan and Tampa, Florida, BlackFist offered to pay the instructors to provide free self-defense course for “anyone who wanted them.” Those instructors told RBC that they had indeed received sponsorship for free classes, although it was abruptly withdrawn.

    A source familiar with the troll farm’s activities told RBC that it spent about $80,000 total—just $20,000 less than Facebook said was spent promoting divisive ads on its platform—on “paying for these local organizers’ work (flights, printing costs, technical equipment),” according to a translation of the report commissioned by TPM.

    RBC found that the troll farm was carrying out dry runs for political protests in the U.S. as early as 2015. That spring, the organization used publicly accessible webcams in Times Square to see if people would follow instructions on Facebook to show up at a designated place and time for a free hot dog. They did, and didn’t even get a promised hot dog for their trouble.

    FAN considered that show of hungry Facebook users a huge success, according to the translation of RBC’s report:

    The action was meant to test the effectiveness of a hypothesis: can you remotely organize measures in American cities. “Simply a test of possibilities, an experiment. And it succeeded,” remembered one of the “factory” workers, not concealing their pleasure. From this day forward, almost a year and a half before the US presidential election, began the full work of the “trolls” in American communities.

    In March 2015, on the web portal SuperJob, there appeared vacancies for “internet operators (night),” with a salary of 40-50 thousand roubles and a work schedule of 21pm to 9am, in the office on Primorsky district; job duties included writing materials “on designated themes” and “news information and analysis.” On the list of requirements for the position, “natural English,” “confident ownership” of written language, and creativity.

    Russian reporter Alexey Kovalev told TPM last month that a troll he took to task for praising Putin in the comments of one of his articles made him a similar offer for work.

    The RBC report also identified the head of FAN’s American division, Jayhoon (also spelled Dzheikhun) Aslanov, 27, who studied abroad in the U.S. in 2009 and graduated with a degree in economics from Russian State Hydrometeorological University in 2012. Three sources confirmed Aslanov’s role at the troll farm to RBC, including one who showed the reporters messages from Aslanov on Telegram; Aslanov himself denied it to the news outlet.

    FAN’s American unit spent $2.3 million between June 2015 and August 2017 and employed 90 people at its peak, according to the report; it is still active and today employs 50 people. During the period RBC studied, the troll farm’s budget for promotion on social media was $5,000 a month, fully half of which was devoted to “posts touching on race issues.”

    But Trump himself factored into that material far less than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, RBC found. From the translated report:

    A RBC analysis of hundreds of posts showed that Clinton figured in troll posts far more frequently than Trump.
    “Share if you believe that Muslims did not do 9/11,” (United Muslims of America, 11 September 2016), “Clinton insists ‘We have not lost a single American in Libya’ Four coffins, covered in flags, were not empty, Hillary.” (Being Patriotic, in a post about Clinton’s relation to the tragedy, from 8 September 2016). In a statement, Facebook said that for the most part the blocked ads “range across the ideological spectrum,” touching on issues like LGBT rights, race, immigrants and firearms.

    RBC’s investigation uncovered more than 100 community pages and associated accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms active through August 2017 that it believes were run by the troll farm. It confirmed those accounts’ authenticity using screenshots of posts and by consulting “a source close to the factory’s leadership.” The report estimates about 70 million people a week saw something posted by those accounts.

    Zakharov told TPM that he believes there are accounts run by FAN with a total following around 1 million that remain active to this day.

    ———-

    “Russian Trolls Used ‘Up To 100’ Activists To Organize Events In US, Report Finds” by Sam Thielman; Talking Points Memo; 10/17/2017

    RBC found that the troll farm was carrying out dry runs for political protests in the U.S. as early as 2015. That spring, the organization used publicly accessible webcams in Times Square to see if people would follow instructions on Facebook to show up at a designated place and time for a free hot dog. They did, and didn’t even get a promised hot dog for their trouble.”

    A dry run experiment for remotely triggering political protests in the US. That, according to this RBC report, is what this particular campaign was all about. And African Americans were clearly a primary target in this experiment.

    And like the 3,000 Facebook ads, this experiment continued after the election:


    The events included an October 2016 rally in Charlotte, North Carolina to protest police violence mere weeks after a protester was fatally shot at a Black Lives Matter protest there. The organizers of the October protest were not with BLM, though, according to RBC’s report. They were with BlackMattersUS, the organization outed as a Russian front last week by Casey Michel at ThinkProgress.

    The Charlotte rally was one of ten BlackMattersUS events catalogued by RBC journalists Polina Rusyaeva and Andrey Zakharov. The two reporters interviewed numerous former employees at the Federal News Agency (FAN), the troll farm formerly known as the Internet Research Agency, and reviewed chats on encrypted messaging app Telegram from senior personnel.

    The report also found that from January-May 2017, the troll farm contacted martial arts instructors through a puppet group called BlackFist. In places as disparate as New York City, Los Angeles, Lansing, Michigan and Tampa, Florida, BlackFist offered to pay the instructors to provide free self-defense course for “anyone who wanted them.” Those instructors told RBC that they had indeed received sponsorship for free classes, although it was abruptly withdrawn.

    “The report also found that from January-May 2017, the troll farm contacted martial arts instructors through a puppet group called BlackFist. In places as disparate as New York City, Los Angeles, Lansing, Michigan and Tampa, Florida, BlackFist offered to pay the instructors to provide free self-defense course for “anyone who wanted them.” Those instructors told RBC that they had indeed received sponsorship for free classes, although it was abruptly withdrawn.”

    So in the first months of the Trump presidency the Internet Research Agency (now named the Federal News Agency) used a front group called “BlackFist” to pay martial arts instructors to offer free self-defense courses. And this the same troll farm that was targeting African Americans with all sorts polarizing (and often anti-Hillary) ads starting in 2015. Ok, yeah, it certainly appears that the Internet Research Agency really was conducting an big experiment on seeing how it can use social media to influence Americans.

    But, again, this is what troll farms do and this is also what governments do! Does that mean it’s OK if the Kremlin really was conducting influence operations over Facebook and front groups? As with many things governments routinely do, no, it’s not OK. It’s creepy. And perhaps it even signals an intent to do this on a far greater scale in the future. It would almost be surprising of that wasn’t the case, just as it would be surprising if governments around the world aren’t doing exactly the same thing. Facebook and the other major social media platforms are designed to allow anyone to anonymously influence its billions of users. Of course a Russian troll farm is going to be doing this stuff. How many other governments have front groups interfacing with US activist groups? We don’t know because we don’t look. Don’t forget, if the current #TrumpRussia fixation never happened we almost certainly would have never heard about this.

    So it’s going to be interesting to see what more we can learn about these Russian troll farm operations, especially since they appear to be ongoing and presumably getting better at it. But as opposed to being some sort of diabolical new Kremlin plot to destroy America, it looks like we’re looking at the same old diabolical plot to get better at influencing the public that foreign and domestic groups and governments have been practicing forever. Should we be aware of this growing Russian troll farm capability? Absolutely. But it would have been foolish in the extreme to assume they weren’t already taking place, just as it would be foolish in the extreme to assume that there aren’t all sorts of other governments and private entities around the globe doing exactly the same thing.

    And that’s perhaps the biggest revelation of this entire affair: the Internet Research Agency apparently waited until 2015 to experiment with using Facebook to fool Americans into doing their bidding. 2015! The scandal here is how long they waited to do this and it’s more of a corporate negligence scandal than anything else.

    And when you consider how much of the internet at this point is essentially trolling, how much of that trolling is non-Russian in origin (yes, American troll farms exist too), and how much cheaper Russian trolls must be than American trolls (cost of labor is going to be one of the primary costs), it’s going to be particularly interesting to see whether or not we end up seeing troll farm outsourcing taking place in coming years. Remember those reports about Fox News effectively running its own troll farm? And how about the studies showing the Tea Party emerged from a decade of astro-turfing working by Big Tobacco and the Koch brothers? Well, how many of those operations could be effectively, and cheaply, outsourced to places like Russia? We’ll find out! Via lots and lots of future trolling.

    Who knows, perhaps that could be part of Trump’s 2020 bid: stopping the outflow of American trolling jobs. Make American Trolling Great Again.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | October 21, 2017, 3:33 pm
  6. Imagine that: Facebook’s year-old fact-checking operation – where Facebook users ‘alert’ Facebook to possibly fake news and then ABC News, AP, FactCheck.org, Politifact and Snopes help Facebook determine if it’s really fake news – just added its first openly partisan news organization to the fact-checking operation. It’s unfortunately more of a ‘news’ organization. The Weekly Standard is joining the Facebook fact-checking team:

    The Guardian

    Conservative Weekly Standard to aid in Facebook fact-checks, prompting outcry

    Magazine dubbed ‘serial misinformer’ becomes first explicitly partisan organization to aid in task, fueling concerns over rightwing influence at site

    Sam Levin in San Francisco
    Wednesday 6 December 2017 16.07 EST
    Last modified on Wednesday 6 December 2017 16.39 EST

    A conservative news organization has been approved to partner with Facebook to fact-check false news, drawing criticisms that the social media company is caving to rightwing pressures and collaborating with a publication that has previously spread propaganda.

    The Weekly Standard, a conservative opinion magazine, said it is joining a fact-checking initiative that Facebook launched last year aimed at debunking fake news on the site with the help of outside journalists. The Weekly Standard will be the first right-leaning news organization and explicitly partisan group to do fact-checks for Facebook, prompting backlash from progressive organizations, who have argued that the magazine has a history of publishing questionable content.

    Some of the third-party media partners – which include reporters from the Associated Press and ABC News, and journalists from the fact-checking organizations Snopes, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org – have alleged that the project is largely failing to have an impact. Facebook has repeatedly refused to release meaningful data on the success of the journalists’ debunking efforts and has insisted that it is a platform and not a media publisher or “arbiter of truth”.

    Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at Poynter, which verifies Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers, said it approved the Weekly Standard because the publication agreed to the IFCN code of principles. The magazine also has a fact-checking operation that is not associated with political parties or advocacy organizations and has committed not to write opinion pieces, he said.
    Advertisement

    The conservative pundits Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes and John Podhoretz launched the Weekly Standard in 1995, with support from the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, aimed at countering successful liberal publications, such as the Nation. During last year’s presidential campaign, the magazine was aligned with the #NeverTrump movement and has recently sought to expand its fact-checking efforts.

    Though the Weekly Standard is distinct from far-right publications like Breitbart that are known for publishing propaganda and misinformation, some have questioned whether it was an appropriate partner for Facebook given its ideological bent.

    “I’m really disheartened and disturbed by this,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group that published numerous criticisms of the Weekly Standard after the partnership was first rumored in October. “They have described themselves as an opinion magazine. They are supposed to be thought leaders.”

    Calling the magazine a “serial misinformer”, Media Matters cited the Weekly Standard’s role in pushing false and misleading claims about Obamacare, Hillary Clinton and other political stories.

    In recent years, the magazine also faced backlash for giving a platform to a contrarian climate scientist and for sending an anti-gay marketing email warning of the “homosexual lobby” and its “perverted vision for a homosexual America”.

    Recently, the Weekly Standard has also repeatedly attacked the fact-checkers who are already working with Facebook.

    Stephen Hayes, the Weekly Standard’s editor-in-chief, told the Guardian in an email that the publication had been “formally” doing fact-checking for six months and had hired “an incredibly sharp” fact-checker, Holmes Lybrand. He added: “The work really does speak for itself.”

    Hayes praised Facebook for working with rightwing journalists: “I think it’s a good move for [Facebook] to partner with conservative outlets that do real reporting and emphasize facts. Our fact-checking isn’t going to seek conservative facts because we don’t believe there are ‘conservative facts’. Facts are facts.”

    A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the Weekly Standard, but told the Guardian: “We continue to believe that objective facts are objective facts. The political provenance of a given source is irrelevant if their reporting is factual … At Facebook, providing access to authentically fact-checked content is one of our top priorities and is just one of the tools we use to fight fake news.”

    Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of the Facebook fact-checking partner Snopes.com, said she didn’t have specific concerns about the Weekly Standard, but was worried about the broader implications of Facebook choosing to rely on a partisan conservative outlet.

    “If you’re going to be politicizing facts, no good can come of that,” she said. “What they are saying is we consider you to be liberal. It doesn’t give us a lot of credit for being trained, being transparent.”

    Last year, Facebook fired its team responsible for “trending” topics after it was accused of being biased against conservatives. Without human moderators, the algorithms promoted false stories and offensive content. The company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, subsequently met with prominent rightwing leaders to address the backlash.

    ———-

    “Conservative Weekly Standard to aid in Facebook fact-checks, prompting outcry” by Sam Levin; The Guardian; 12/06/2017

    “The Weekly Standard, a conservative opinion magazine, said it is joining a fact-checking initiative that Facebook launched last year aimed at debunking fake news on the site with the help of outside journalists. The Weekly Standard will be the first right-leaning news organization and explicitly partisan group to do fact-checks for Facebook, prompting backlash from progressive organizations, who have argued that the magazine has a history of publishing questionable content.”

    So Facebook decides to add its first explicitly partisan group to it’s new fact-check team and it’s is a right-wing opinion outlet set up by Rupert Murdoch and Bill Kristol in 1995:


    The conservative pundits Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes and John Podhoretz launched the Weekly Standard in 1995, with support from the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, aimed at countering successful liberal publications, such as the Nation. During last year’s presidential campaign, the magazine was aligned with the #NeverTrump movement and has recently sought to expand its fact-checking efforts.

    And note that while the Weekly Standard isn’t quite Brietbart and is largely in the #NeverTrump column of the GOP, it’s still #ClassicGOP, which is why the Weekly Standard’s addition to the Facebook fact-checking team is #ClassGOPBadNews:


    Though the Weekly Standard is distinct from far-right publications like Breitbart that are known for publishing propaganda and misinformation, some have questioned whether it was an appropriate partner for Facebook given its ideological bent.

    “I’m really disheartened and disturbed by this,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group that published numerous criticisms of the Weekly Standard after the partnership was first rumored in October. “They have described themselves as an opinion magazine. They are supposed to be thought leaders.”

    Calling the magazine a “serial misinformer”, Media Matters cited the Weekly Standard’s role in pushing false and misleading claims about Obamacare, Hillary Clinton and other political stories.

    In recent years, the magazine also faced backlash for giving a platform to a contrarian climate scientist and for sending an anti-gay marketing email warning of the “homosexual lobby” and its “perverted vision for a homosexual America”.<

    Recently, the Weekly Standard has also repeatedly attacked the fact-checkers who are already working with Facebook.

    “Recently, the Weekly Standard has also repeatedly attacked the fact-checkers who are already working with Facebook.”

    Given that the Weekly Standard was recently taking issue with the fact-checker team it’s joining, it raises the question: is Facebook planning on having different fact-checking for self-identified conservatives?

    It’s hard to answer because it’s not at all clear how the fact-checking power is shared? Do they all review the same content or divide the labor? Perhaps the Weekly Standard be tasked with specifically fact-checking conservative content? Or maybe specifically left-wing content? We’ll see! Or, rather, not see. What can be plainly seen is that alt-fact-checking is coming to Facebook in one form or another.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | December 6, 2017, 11:51 pm
  7. Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president for user growth before leaving the company, recently shared some thought about Facebook. They were mostly negative thoughts. Very negative thoughts:

    The Verge

    Former Facebook exec says social media is ripping apart society
    ‘No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth.’

    By James Vincent
    Dec 11, 2017, 6:07am EST

    Another former Facebook executive has spoken out about the harm the social network is doing to civil society around the world. Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business, before recommending people take a “hard break” from social media.

    Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

    He went on to describe an incident in India where hoax messages about kidnappings shared on WhatsApp led to the lynching of seven innocent people. “That’s what we’re dealing with,” said Palihapitiya. “And imagine taking that to the extreme, where bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs.” He says he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that sh it.” He later adds, though, that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world.”

    Palihapitiya’s remarks follow similar statements of contrition from others who helped build Facebook into the powerful corporation it is today. In November, early investor Sean Parker said he has become a “conscientious objector” to social media, and that Facebook and others had succeeded by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” A former product manager at the company, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, has said Facebook lies about its ability to influence individuals based on the data it collects on them, and wrote a book, Chaos Monkeys, about his work at the firm.

    These former employees have all spoken out at a time when worry about Facebook’s power is reaching fever pitch. In the past year, concerns about the company’s role in the US election and its capacity to amplify fake news have grown, while other reports have focused on how the social media site has been implicated in atrocities like the “ethnic cleansing” of Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic group.

    Palihapitiya also notes that although tech investors seem almighty, they’ve achieved their power more through luck than skill. “Everybody’s bullsh itting,” he said. “If you’re in a seat, and you have good deal flow, and you have precious capital, and there’s a massive tailwind of technological change … Over time you get one of the 20 [companies that become successful] and you look like a genius. And nobody wants to admit that but that’s the fuc king truth.”

    ———-

    “Former Facebook exec says social media is ripping apart society” by James Vincent; The Verge; 12/11/2017

    “Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.””

    As this former Facebook executive sees it, Facebook is a global problem. A global problem in the form of a social networking platform used globally and used to disrupt civil discourse and spread misinformation in a whole new way. And the power to do this is potentially accessible to anyone. And the more resources an individual or group has, the greater their ability to weaponize something like Facebook presumably:


    He went on to describe an incident in India where hoax messages about kidnappings shared on WhatsApp led to the lynching of seven innocent people. “That’s what we’re dealing with,” said Palihapitiya. “And imagine taking that to the extreme, where bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs.” He says he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that sh it.” He later adds, though, that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world.”

    And this former Facebook executive is just the latest former Facebook executive to issue this kind of warning:


    Palihapitiya’s remarks follow similar statements of contrition from others who helped build Facebook into the powerful corporation it is today. In November, early investor Sean Parker said he has become a “conscientious objector” to social media, and that Facebook and others had succeeded by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” A former product manager at the company, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, has said Facebook lies about its ability to influence individuals based on the data it collects on them, and wrote a book, Chaos Monkeys, about his work at the firm.

    “A former product manager at the company, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, has said Facebook lies about its ability to influence individuals based on the data it collects on them, and wrote a book, Chaos Monkeys, about his work at the firm.”

    Yep, according to another former Facebook executive, Facebook has been lying to the world about its own ability to influence individuals based on the data it collects on them. It’s a reminder that, as scary as it is to think about powerful, nefarious forces weaponizing Facebook for their own ends, the scariest potential that exists is likely Facebook itself weaponizing Facebook for nefarious ends simply because Facebook is going to have much, much more information on Facebook users available to itself than a third-party user.

    Given that enormous potential for abusing the power of Facebook and the even more enormous potential for Facebook itself to carry out abusive, manipulative practices, it raises an intriguing question about the 2016 US presidential campaign that’s never really been asked or answered related to Facebook, micro-targeting, and the Trump campaign:

    We’ve had a number of reports about Facebook working closely with the Trump campaign throughout the election and capacity of the Trump campaign to “micro-target” individuals with customized messages (recall the “psychometric profiles” Cambridge Analytica reportedly built on hundreds of millions of Americans). But also recall the recent stories about how Facebook allowed people to target ads to categories of Facebook users that include “Jew haters” and Nazi party members and how the journalists reporting on this had to keep adding to categories of extremists because Facebook required a minimum number of target users for an ad to be purchased. In other words, it doesn’t appear that Facebook’s ad system actually allows real micro-targeting (down to targeting an individual user).

    This raises the question: did Facebook actually allow the Trump campaign to micro-target Facebook users? It’s a pretty open question that doesn’t appear to have been asked or answered. And yet when you read the following interview of Brad Parscale, the digital director for Trump’s campaign, we learn that Facebook embedded its own employees into the Trump campaign in order to help the campaign fully harness what Facebook. We also hear Parscale bragging about how the campaign would learn about what types of ads “you” are most to click on. And that sure sounds like the micro-targeting at the individual level:

    CBS News

    Facebook “embeds,” Russia and the Trump campaign’s secret weapon

    Brad Parscale, digital director for Trump’s campaign, was a critical factor in the president’s election. Now questions surround how he did it

    Correspondent Lesley Stahl
    2017 Oct 08

    Tonight, you’re going to hear from a 41-year-old man who has remained largely unnoticed even though he was one of the top decision-makers of the Trump campaign.

    His name is Brad Parscale. While Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, and Kellyanne Conway are marquee names you’re familiar with, Parscale was in the back room — operating as the campaign’s secret weapon.

    He was hired to run the digital team, but over time came to oversee advertising, data collection and much of the fund-raising. As digital director, he’s being drawn into the investigation of whether the campaign colluded with the Russians in the election. It’s a charge he denies. He says he was focused on competing with the Clinton campaign’s huge advantage in money and TV ads. What he decided to do was turn to social media, most importantly to Facebook.

    Brad Parscale: I understood early that Facebook was how Donald Trump was going to win. Twitter is how he talked to the people. Facebook was going to be how he won.

    Lesley Stahl: And Facebook IS how he won.

    Brad Parscale: I think so. I think Donald Trump won, but I think Facebook was the method – it was the highway in which his car drove on.

    And Brad Parscale was in the driver’s seat. In the beginning of the campaign he worked alone at home in San Antonio, but by the end he had 100 people reporting to him. One of his main jobs was to send out carefully-tailored, low-cost digitals ads to millions of people.

    Lesley Stahl: And these were ads on Facebook?

    Brad Parscale: Facebook, we did ’em on Twitter, Google search, other platforms. Facebook was the 500-pound gorilla, 80 percent of the budget kind of thing.

    Facebook’s advertising technology helped President Obama in 2012, but today Facebook offers something far more precise and sophisticated. While the president recently tweeted that “Facebook was always anti-Trump,” Parscale relied heavily on the company, particularly on its cutting-edge targeting tools.

    Lesley Stahl: One of the best things Facebook did for you, I heard, was penetrate the rural vote. Is that correct?

    Brad Parscale: Yeah. So Facebook now lets you get to places and places possibly that you would never go with TV ads. Now, I can find, you know, 15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for. And, we took opportunities that I think the other side didn’t.

    Lesley Stahl: Like what?

    Brad Parscale: Well, we had our– their staff embedded inside our offices.

    Lesley Stahl: What?

    Brad Parscale: Yeah, Facebook employees would show up for work every day in our offices.

    Lesley Stahl: Whoa, wait a minute. Facebook employees showed up at the Trump headquarters—

    Brad Parscale: Google employees, and Twitter employees.

    Lesley Stahl: They were embedded in your campaign?

    Brad Parscale: I mean, like, they were there multiple days a week, three, four days a week, two days week, five days a week—

    Lesley Stahl: What were they doing inside? I mean—

    Brad Parscale: Helping teach us how to use their platform. I wanna get—

    Lesley Stahl: Helping him get elected?

    Brad Parscale: I asked each one of them by email, I wanna know every, single secret button, click, technology you have. “I wanna know everything you would tell Hillary’s campaign plus some. And I want your people here to teach me how to use it.”

    Lesley Stahl: Inside?

    Brad Parscale: Yeah, I want ’em sittin’ right next to us—

    Lesley Stahl: How do you know they weren’t Trojan Horses?

    Brad Parscale: ‘Cause I’d ask ’em to be Republicans, and I’d– we’d talk to ’em.

    Lesley Stahl: Oh, you only wanted Republicans?

    Brad Parscale: I wanted people who support Donald Trump from their companies.

    Lesley Stahl: And that’s what you got?

    Brad Parscale: Yeah. They already have divisions set up that way.

    Lesley Stahl: What do you mean?
    global
    Brad Parscale: They already have groups of people in their political divisions that are Republican and Democrat.

    Lesley Stahl: You’re kidding?

    Brad Parscale: Yeah, they’re businesses, they are publicly traded companies with stock price.

    Lesley Stahl: Did Hillary’s campaign have someone embedded—

    Brad Parscale: I had heard that they didn’t accept any of their offers.

    Lesley Stahl: So you’re saying Facebook and the others offered an embed, and they said no.

    Brad Parscale: That’s what I’ve heard.

    People in the Clinton campaign confirmed that the offer was made and turned down. Facebook told us in a statement:
    [see Facebook statement]

    “…for candidates across the political spectrum, Facebook offers the same level of support in key moments to help campaigns understand how best to use the platform.”

    And indeed, both campaigns used Facebook’s technology extensively to reach out to potential voters. Parscale said the Trump campaign used the technology to microtarget on a scale never seen before – and to customize their ads for individual voters.

    Brad Parscale: We were making hundreds of thousands of ’em.

    Lesley Stahl: You make 100,000 ads.

    Brad Parscale: Programmatically. In one day. In one day.

    Lesley Stahl: So 100,000 different ads every day?

    Brad Parscale: Average day 50-60 thousands ads.

    This was all automated.

    Brad Parscale: Changing language, words, colors, changing things because certain people like a green button better than a blue button. Some people like the word “donate” or “contribute.”

    Lesley Stahl: So how would you know… let’s say I like a green button. How do you know I’d only like a green button?

    Brad Parscale: Because I’d give you the red, blue buttons, you never click on ’em.

    Parscale showed us how they tested: by sending out multiple versions of the same ad with only subtle differences.

    Brad Parscale: Here we have an American flag, here we have a face of Hillary. Different colors, the blues, different messages above.

    Lesley Stahl: So you’d send two identical ads with different colors?

    Brad Parscale: Maybe thousands.

    Lesley Stahl: You’d send THOUSAND of ads with different colors?

    Brad Parscale: Different colors. What it is is: what can make people react? What catches their attention? Remember, there’s so much noise on your phone. You know, or on your desktop. What is it that makes it go: Poof! “I’m gonna stop and look.”

    To get people to stop and look, he crafted different messages for different people — so that you only got ads about the issues you cared about most. He showed us three ads that looked alike.

    Brad Parscale: It’s pretty much the identical design. Positive coloring. Different message.

    Lesley Stahl: This is one is tax, this one is childcare, this one is energy.

    Brad Parscale: They were all targeted to different users of whatever platform, in this case it was Facebook.

    Sent out to different people. And it could be each other’s next-door neighbors…all in Ohio.

    Lesley Stahl: This one person at 11 Elm Street gets this one and 13 Elm Street gets that one.

    Brad Parscale: Yup, yup.

    Parscale took some heat for taking microtargeting too far because he hired Cambridge Analytica. It’s a company that uses so-called psychographics that microtarget ads based on personality. For instance, an extrovert would get one kind of message, a neurotic person another. It’s controversial because of its Orwellian overtones.

    After Trump won, Cambridge Analytica said it was key to the victory. But Parscale insists he never used psychographics. He said it doesn’t work.

    Lesley Stahl: So you didn’t use it because you didn’t think it really worked, as opposed to you didn’t use it because you thought it was wrong that it was manipulative or sinister, or something like that.
    n
    Brad Parscale: No, I don’t believe it’s sinister.

    Lesley Stahl: No. OK, you just don’t think it works.

    Brad Parscale: No, I just don’t think it works.

    Parscale’s title was digital director, but by the end of the campaign his portfolio grew. He oversaw data collection, polling, advertising both online and on TV, and significantly digital fund raising. By adding donation buttons for people to click on in the online ads, he was able to bring in a record $240 million in small donations.

    While he tried to persuade Democrats to vote for Mr. Trump – the campaign was accused, in a Businessweek article, of trying to suppress the vote of “idealistic white liberals, young women and African Americans,” a charge he denies.

    Lesley Stahl: Did you micro target by race?

    Brad Parscale: No we did not. Not at all.

    Lesley Stahl: Never?

    Brad Parscale: Nope.

    Lesley Stahl: Did you post hateful images?

    Brad Parscale: I don’t believe so.

    Many of the messages he sent out were what’s known as dark ads. They’re called dark because they’re microtargeted to individual users who are the only ones who see them. Unless they choose to share them – they disappear.

    Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to make political ads on the site more transparent. As for Brad Parscale, he’s already working on President Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.

    ———-

    “Facebook “embeds,” Russia and the Trump campaign’s secret weapon” by Lesley Stahl; CBS News; 10/08/2017

    “Facebook’s advertising technology helped President Obama in 2012, but today Facebook offers something far more precise and sophisticated. While the president recently tweeted that “Facebook was always anti-Trump,” Parscale relied heavily on the company, particularly on its cutting-edge targeting tools.

    As we just saw, Facebook’s “cutting-edge targeting tools” played a key role in the Trump campaign’s success. So on some level it’s no surprise to learn that Facebook employees were actually embedded in the Trump campaign to teach the campaign how to fully exploit what Facebook had to offer. On the other hand, that’s still kind of shocking:


    Brad Parscale: Yeah. So Facebook now lets you get to places and places possibly that you would never go with TV ads. Now, I can find, you know, 15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for. And, we took opportunities that I think the other side didn’t.

    Lesley Stahl: Like what?

    Brad Parscale: Well, we had our– their staff embedded inside our offices.

    Lesley Stahl: What?

    Brad Parscale: Yeah, Facebook employees would show up for work every day in our offices.

    Lesley Stahl: Whoa, wait a minute. Facebook employees showed up at the Trump headquarters—

    Brad Parscale: Google employees, and Twitter employees.

    Lesley Stahl: They were embedded in your campaign?

    Brad Parscale: I mean, like, they were there multiple days a week, three, four days a week, two days week, five days a week—

    Brad Parscale: They already have groups of people in their political divisions that are Republican and Democrat.

    “Brad Parscale: Google employees, and Twitter employees.”

    So apparently employee embeds is service Facebook offers. Presumably to all sorts of campaigns. And Google and Twitter offered the same service.

    And that again raises the question of just what kind of other special services was Facebook, Google, and Twitter offering to groups that are spending so much money they get their own embed employees. Specifically, were there any types of special micro-targeting services? Because it sure sounds a lot like the Trump campaign was targeting individual voters with customized messages:


    And indeed, both campaigns used Facebook’s technology extensively to reach out to potential voters. Parscale said the Trump campaign used the technology to microtarget on a scale never seen before – and to customize their ads for individual voters.

    Brad Parscale: We were making hundreds of thousands of ’em.

    Lesley Stahl: You make 100,000 ads.

    Brad Parscale: Programmatically. In one day. In one day.

    Lesley Stahl: So 100,000 different ads every day?

    Brad Parscale: Average day 50-60 thousands ads.

    This was all automated.

    Brad Parscale: Changing language, words, colors, changing things because certain people like a green button better than a blue button. Some people like the word “donate” or “contribute.”

    Lesley Stahl: So how would you know… let’s say I like a green button. How do you know I’d only like a green button?

    Brad Parscale: Because I’d give you the red, blue buttons, you never click on ’em.

    Brad Parscale: Different colors. What it is is: what can make people react? What catches their attention? Remember, there’s so much noise on your phone. You know, or on your desktop. What is it that makes it go: Poof! “I’m gonna stop and look.”

    To get people to stop and look, he crafted different messages for different people — so that you only got ads about the issues you cared about most. He showed us three ads that looked alike.

    Brad Parscale: It’s pretty much the identical design. Positive coloring. Different message.

    Lesley Stahl: This is one is tax, this one is childcare, this one is energy.

    Brad Parscale: They were all targeted to different users of whatever platform, in this case it was Facebook.

    Sent out to different people. And it could be each other’s next-door neighbors…all in Ohio.

    Lesley Stahl: This one person at 11 Elm Street gets this one and 13 Elm Street gets that one.

    Brad Parscale: Yup, yup.

    So is that process described above an example of individual-level micro-targeting, or is it describing a process where each individual is effectively thrown into a group of people who share a very similar profile? It’s not clear from the interview.

    But note how Parscale dismisses the value of the psychological profiles developed by Cambridge Analytica. Profiles were collected on individual Facebook users. And yet Parscale strongly dismisses them as useless in the middle of an interview focused on micro-targeting. It’s rather conspicuous:


    Parscale took some heat for taking microtargeting too far because he hired Cambridge Analytica. It’s a company that uses so-called psychographics that microtarget ads based on personality. For instance, an extrovert would get one kind of message, a neurotic person another. It’s controversial because of its Orwellian overtones.

    After Trump won, Cambridge Analytica said it was key to the victory. But Parscale insists he never used psychographics. He said it doesn’t work.

    Lesley Stahl: So you didn’t use it because you didn’t think it really worked, as opposed to you didn’t use it because you thought it was wrong that it was manipulative or sinister, or something like that.
    n
    Brad Parscale: No, I don’t believe it’s sinister.

    Lesley Stahl: No. OK, you just don’t think it works.

    Brad Parscale: No, I just don’t think it works.

    “But Parscale insists he never used psychographics. He said it doesn’t work.”

    The Cambridge Analytica psychological profiles generated by Facebook users were were never used by the Trump campaign’s unprecedented micro-targeting on Facebook. That seems rather questionable.

    So was Parscale just outright and blatantly lying when he made that claim? Well, it’s worth noting that he did make one pretty massive blatant verifiable lie during that interview: When asked if the campaign ever micro-targeted by race, Parscale completely denied it:


    While he tried to persuade Democrats to vote for Mr. Trump – the campaign was accused, in a Businessweek article, of trying to suppress the vote of “idealistic white liberals, young women and African Americans,” a charge he denies.

    Lesley Stahl: Did you micro target by race?

    Brad Parscale: No we did not. Not at all.

    Lesley Stahl: Never?

    Brad Parscale: Nope.

    Lesley Stahl: Did you post hateful images?

    Brad Parscale: I don’t believe so.

    “While he tried to persuade Democrats to vote for Mr. Trump – the campaign was accused, in a Businessweek article, of trying to suppress the vote of “idealistic white liberals, young women and African Americans,” a charge he denies.”

    Bwah!! Yeah, they did not target by race at all. Also, Cambridge Analytica’s massive database wasn’t really used because Parscale didn’t find it useful. Those were his answers and they weren’t said sarcastically. So it’s probably worth pointing out the Businessweek article where Parscale was “accused” of trying to suppress the vote of “idealistic white liberals, young women and African Americans,” didn’t actually include any accusations. Parscale was bragging about how they were targeting these groups with negative ads, including Facebook ads. The article also talks about they used Cambridge Analytica to categorize voters:

    Bloomberg Businessweek

    Inside the Trump Bunker, With Days to Go
    Win or lose, the Republican candidate and his inner circle have built a direct marketing operation that could power a TV network—or finish off the GOP.

    By Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg
    October 27, 2016, 5:00 AM CDT

    On Oct. 19, as the third and final presidential debate gets going in Las Vegas, Donald Trump’s Facebook and Twitter feeds are being manned by Brad Parscale, a San Antonio marketing entrepreneur, whose buzz cut and long narrow beard make him look like a mixed martial arts fighter. His Trump tie has been paired with a dark Zegna suit. A lapel pin issued by the Secret Service signals his status. He’s equipped with a dashboard of 400 prewritten Trump tweets. “Command center,” he says, nodding at his laptop.

    Still, Trump’s reality is plain: He needs a miracle. Back in May, newly anointed, he told Bloomberg Businessweek he would harness “the movement” to challenge Clinton in states Republicans haven’t carried in years: New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Connecticut, California. “I’m going to do phenomenally,” he predicted. Yet neither Trump’s campaign nor the RNC has prioritized registering and mobilizing the 47 million eligible white voters without college degrees who are Trump’s most obvious source of new votes, as FiveThirtyEight analyst David Wasserman noted.

    To compensate for this, Trump’s campaign has devised another strategy, which, not surprisingly, is negative. Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans. Trump’s invocation at the debate of Clinton’s WikiLeaks e-mails and support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to turn off Sanders supporters. The parade of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton and harassed or threatened by Hillary is meant to undermine her appeal to young women. And her 1996 suggestion that some African American males are “super predators” is the basis of a below-the-radar effort to discourage infrequent black voters from showing up at the polls—particularly in Florida.

    On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

    After Trump won the Indiana primary, vanquishing his remaining rivals, Parscale had to integrate his do-it-yourself operation with two established players who would jostle for primacy as supplier of Trump’s data. The first was Cambridge Analytica, on whose board Bannon sits. Among its investors is the hedge fund titan Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, who were about to become some of the largest donors to the Trump cause. Locations for the candidate’s rallies, long the centerpiece of his media-centric candidacy, are guided by a Cambridge Analytica ranking of the places in a state with the largest clusters of persuadable voters. The other was the Republican National Committee, to which Trump relinquished control over many of its tactical decisions. “I told him he’s going to want to use the RNC once he’s the nominee,” says Newt Gingrich. “Reince has built a real system, and it can be very valuable to him.”

    Parscale was building his own list of Trump supporters, beyond the RNC’s reach. Cambridge Analytica’s statistical models isolated likely supporters whom Parscale bombarded with ads on Facebook, while the campaign bought up e-mail lists from the likes of Gingrich and Tea Party groups to prospect for others. Some of the ads linked directly to a payment page, others—with buttons marked “Stand with Trump” or “Support Trump”—to a sign-up page that asked for a name, address, and online contact information. While his team at Giles-Parscale designed the ads, Parscale invited a variety of companies to set up shop in San Antonio to help determine which social media ads were most effective. Those companies test ad variations against one another—the campaign has ultimately generated 100,000 distinct pieces of creative content—and then roll out the strongest performers to broader audiences. At the same time, Parscale made the vendors, tech companies with names such as Sprinklr and Kenshoo, compete Apprentice-style; those whose algorithms fared worst in drumming up donors lost their contracts. Each time Parscale returned to San Antonio from Trump Tower, he would find that some vendors had been booted from their offices.


    ———-

    “Inside the Trump Bunker, With Days to Go” by Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg; Bloomberg Businessweek; 10/27/2016

    To compensate for this, Trump’s campaign has devised another strategy, which, not surprisingly, is negative. Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans. Trump’s invocation at the debate of Clinton’s WikiLeaks e-mails and support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to turn off Sanders supporters. The parade of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton and harassed or threatened by Hillary is meant to undermine her appeal to young women. And her 1996 suggestion that some African American males are “super predators” is the basis of a below-the-radar effort to discourage infrequent black voters from showing up at the polls—particularly in Florida.”

    That was the word from the Trump campaign just two weeks before the election: they were targeting African Americans with negative ads. And this included “dark post” on Facebook:


    On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

    Now, it’s not exactly shocking that the Trump campaign did this. But it’s still noteworthy given Parscale’s claims a year later that there was no race-based targeting of ads at all. Noteworthy in the sense that it conclusively establishes that Parscale was more than happy to blatantly lie during that CBS interview couple months ago.

    So what other blatant lies was he telling during that interview? A lie about using Cambridge Analytica’s data, perhaps?


    Parscale was building his own list of Trump supporters, beyond the RNC’s reach. Cambridge Analytica’s statistical models isolated likely supporters whom Parscale bombarded with ads on Facebook, while the campaign bought up e-mail lists from the likes of Gingrich and Tea Party groups to prospect for others. Some of the ads linked directly to a payment page, others—with buttons marked “Stand with Trump” or “Support Trump”—to a sign-up page that asked for a name, address, and online contact information. While his team at Giles-Parscale designed the ads, Parscale invited a variety of companies to set up shop in San Antonio to help determine which social media ads were most effective. Those companies test ad variations against one another—the campaign has ultimately generated 100,000 distinct pieces of creative content—and then roll out the strongest performers to broader audiences. At the same time, Parscale made the vendors, tech companies with names such as Sprinklr and Kenshoo, compete Apprentice-style; those whose algorithms fared worst in drumming up donors lost their contracts. Each time Parscale returned to San Antonio from Trump Tower, he would find that some vendors had been booted from their offices.

    Again, this was the article about the Trump campaign’s mechanics just two weeks before the election and the campaign was clearly very open about its operations.

    Interestingly, it isn’t just Parscale who downplays the importance of Cambridge Analytica and its psychometric profiles. Cambridge Analytica itself also downplayed this after the election. As the following article notes, Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge Analytica’s chief data scientist, told a panel hosted by Google five weeks after the election, “I don’t want to break your heart; we actually didn’t do any psychographics with the Trump campaign.” And he claimed this was because Cambridge Analytica was brought onto the Trump campaign that summer, and therefore “we had five months to scale extremely fast, and doing sexy psychographics profiles requires a much longer run time.” It’s a rather strange claim since the firm already had these profiles on hundreds of millions of Americans and was using them during the primaries to help Ted Cruz. But that’s what the company claimed…that its key service wasn’t actually used. The same article notes that it was Cambridge Analytica algorithms that identified a large number of “persuadable” voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in the final weeks of the campaign, leading to the strategic decision to focus on these voters.

    And the article also makes an important point regarding direct targeting of individual voters on Facebook: it turns out Facebook has a tool called “Custom Audiences from Customer Lists” that allowed the Trump campaign to match Trump supporters with their actual Facebook profiles. And since the campaign had information on a lot more than just Trump supporters, this presumably means the Trump campaign was able to connect Facebook profiles with its vast database on almost all Americans. And once these “Customer Lists” were uploaded into Facebook’s system, the Trump team was able to slice and dice them according to all sorts of parameters like race, ethnicity, gender, location, and other identities and affinities.

    So instead of choosing the target audience based on the categories Facebook places people in (like “People who like puppies”, or “People who hate Jews”), it sounds like the Trump campaign had the option of generating target audiences that based on specific lists of people. In other words, yes, the Trump campaign was able to directly target specific voters by name with specific messages. At least, it sure sounds like that was how it worked:

    The New York Review of Books

    How He Used Facebook to Win

    Sue Halpern
    June 8, 2017 Issue

    Not long after Donald Trump’s surprising presidential victory, an article published in the Swiss weekly Das Magazin, and reprinted online in English by Vice, began churning through the Internet. While pundits were dissecting the collapse of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the journalists for Das Magazin, Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, pointed to an entirely different explanation—the work of Cambridge Analytica, a data science firm created by a British company with deep ties to the British and American defense industries.

    According to Grassegger and Krogerus, Cambridge Analytica had used psychological data culled from Facebook, paired with vast amounts of consumer information purchased from data-mining companies, to develop algorithms that were supposedly able to identify the psychological makeup of every voter in the American electorate. The company then developed political messages tailored to appeal to the emotions of each one. As the New York Times reporters Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim described it:

    A voter deemed neurotic might be shown a gun-rights commercial featuring burglars breaking into a home, rather than a defense of the Second Amendment; political ads warning of the dangers posed by the Islamic State could be targeted directly at voters prone to anxiety….

    Even more troubling was the underhanded way in which Cambridge Analytica appeared to have obtained its information. Using an Amazon site called Mechanical Turk, the company paid one hundred thousand people in the United States a dollar or two to fill out an online survey. But in order to receive payment, those people were also required to download an app that gave Cambridge Analytica access to the profiles of their unwitting Facebook friends. These profiles included their Facebook “likes” and their own contact lists.

    According to the investigative reporter Mattathias Schwartz, writing in The Intercept, a further 185,000 people were recruited from an unnamed data company, to gain access to another 30 million Facebook profiles. Again, none of these 30 million people knew their data were being harvested and analyzed for the benefit of an American political campaign.

    Facebook did turn out to be essential to Trump’s victory, but not in the way Grassegger, Krogerus, and Schwartz suggest. Though there is little doubt that Cambridge Analytica exploited members of the social network, Facebook’s real influence came from the campaign’s strategic and perfectly legal use of Facebook’s suite of marketing tools. (It should be noted that internal Facebook documents leaked in early May show that Facebook itself has been mining users’ emotional states and sharing that information with advertisers.)

    In the course of the 2016 election, the Trump campaign ended up relying on three voter databases: the one supplied by Cambridge Analytica, with its 5,000 data points on 220 million Americans including, according to its website, personality profiles on all of them; the RNC’s enhanced Voter Vault, which claims to have more than 300 terabytes of data, including 7,700,545,385 microtargeting data points on nearly 200 million voters; and its own custom-designed one, called Project Alamo, culled in part from the millions of small donors to the campaign and e-mail addresses gathered at rallies, from sales of campaign merchandise, and even from text messages sent to the campaign. Eventually, Project Alamo also came to include data from the other two databases.

    In the early phase of the primaries, Parscale launched Trump’s digital operation by buying $2 million in Facebook ads—his entire budget at the time. He then uploaded all known Trump supporters into the Facebook advertising platform and, using a Facebook tool called Custom Audiences from Customer Lists, matched actual supporters with their virtual doppelgangers and then, using another Facebook tool, parsed them by race, ethnicity, gender, location, and other identities and affinities. From there he used Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences tool to find people with interests and qualities similar to those of his original cohort and developed ads based on those characteristics, which he tested using Facebook’s Brand Lift surveys. He was just getting started. Eventually, Parscale’s shop was reportedly spending $70 million a month on digital advertising, most of it on Facebook. (Facebook and other online venues also netted Trump at least $250 million in donations.)

    While it may not have created individual messages for every voter, the Trump campaign used Facebook’s vast reach, relatively low cost, and rapid turnaround to test tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of different campaign ads. According to Issie Lapowsky of Wired, speaking with Gary Coby, director of advertising at the Republican National Committee and a member of Trump’s digital team:

    On any given day…the campaign was running 40,000 to 50,000 variants of its ads, testing how they performed in different formats, with subtitles and without, and static versus video, among other small differences. On the day of the third presidential debate in October, the team ran 175,000 variations. Coby calls this approach “A/B testing on steroids.”


    And this was just Facebook. The campaign also placed ads on other social media, including Twitter and Snapchat, and ran sponsored content on Politico. According to one estimate by a campaign insider, the Trump team spent “in the high eight figures just on persuasion.” Remarkably, none of this money was used on ads created from Cambridge Analytica’s questionably obtained Facebook data.

    Not long after touting the edge it gave the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica began walking back its initial claim that psychological targeting was crucial to Trump’s victory. “I don’t want to break your heart; we actually didn’t do any psychographics with the Trump campaign,” Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge Analytica’s chief data scientist, told a panel hosted by Google five weeks after the election. Because the firm was only brought onto the Trump campaign the summer before the general election, he said, “we had five months to scale extremely fast, and doing sexy psychographics profiles requires a much longer run time.” Apparently, Cambridge Analytica had deployed its psychological targeting techniques during the Republican primaries on behalf of Ted Cruz, but Cruz’s failure to win the nomination was cited as evidence that Cambridge Analytica’s models were ineffective and that the company did not understand American politics.

    “Trump didn’t have a lot of ‘Here is my agenda, here is my narrative, I have to persuade people to it,’” Catalist’s Laura Quinn told me.

    The Trump world was more like, “Let’s say a lot of different things, they don’t even necessarily need to be coherent, and observe, through the wonderful new platforms that allow you to observe how people respond and observe what works, and whatever squirrel everyone chases, that’s going to become our narrative, our agenda, our message.” I’m being very simplistic, but that was the very different approach that truly was creative, different, imaginative, revolutionary—whatever you want to say.

    Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but winning the popular vote does not automatically lead to the White House, and Trump was never going to try to appeal to the entire electorate. Applying Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms, Trump’s data scientists built a model they called Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory to rank and weight the states needed to get to 270 electoral college votes, which was used to run daily simulations of the election. Through this work, the digital team identified 13.5 million persuadable voters in sixteen battleground states, and modeled which combinations of those voters would yield the winning number.

    Once the Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory model took account of this cohort, and showed that the ones who lived in Rust Belt states had the most likely chance of delivering the presidency to Trump, Parscale’s digital team focused all its resources in those last few weeks on these voters. This included sending the candidate himself to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in the days before the election, even though those states were considered by most observers likely to be unsympathetic to him, because the reweighted Cambridge Analytica algorithms were pointing there, and those algorithms dictated the candidate’s travel schedule. “[Clinton’s] strategy was…‘if I turn out enough people in urban areas, Republicans can’t make up those numbers in rural areas,’” Cambridge Analytica’s Oczkowski explained. “Little did she know that almost every rural voter in the country was going to show up in this election.”


    ———-

    “How He Used Facebook to Win” by Sue Halpern; The New York Review of Books; 06/08/2017

    “In the early phase of the primaries, Parscale launched Trump’s digital operation by buying $2 million in Facebook ads—his entire budget at the time. He then uploaded all known Trump supporters into the Facebook advertising platform and, using a Facebook tool called Custom Audiences from Customer Lists, matched actual supporters with their virtual doppelgangers and then, using another Facebook tool, parsed them by race, ethnicity, gender, location, and other identities and affinities. From there he used Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences tool to find people with interests and qualities similar to those of his original cohort and developed ads based on those characteristics, which he tested using Facebook’s Brand Lift surveys. He was just getting started. Eventually, Parscale’s shop was reportedly spending $70 million a month on digital advertising, most of it on Facebook. (Facebook and other online venues also netted Trump at least $250 million in donations.)”

    Behold the “Custom Audiences from Customer Lists” too! A tool that allows people to upload lists of things like email addresses to Facebook and then Facebook and advertise directly to them. Or upload the lists, slice and dice them into sub-lists, and then advertise to thos sub-list. That appears to be a key ‘secret ingredient’ in the ‘secret-sauce’ Facebook is offering political campaigns. And offering to anyone else with money to spend.

    And while that may not allow for a customized ad to be sent to individual Facebook users, it’s probably close enough to be effectively customized for every individual since few people are likely to require a uniquely crafted message to persuade them. In other words, breaking people up into smaller and smaller groups, with messages customized for each group, could be as microtargeted as a campaign needs to get to be effectively individually targeting people. Especially when the campaign is running 40,000-50,000 variants of its ads each day:


    While it may not have created individual messages for every voter, the Trump campaign used Facebook’s vast reach, relatively low cost, and rapid turnaround to test tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of different campaign ads. According to Issie Lapowsky of Wired, speaking with Gary Coby, director of advertising at the Republican National Committee and a member of Trump’s digital team:

    On any given day…the campaign was running 40,000 to 50,000 variants of its ads, testing how they performed in different formats, with subtitles and without, and static versus video, among other small differences. On the day of the third presidential debate in October, the team ran 175,000 variations. Coby calls this approach “A/B testing on steroids.”

    “While it may not have created individual messages for every voter, the Trump campaign used Facebook’s vast reach, relatively low cost, and rapid turnaround to test tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of different campaign ads.”

    Tens of thousands of ads getting tested every day on the known list of voters made available through the “Custom Audiences from Customer Lists” feature. It’s like shotgun micro-targeting set on full-auto.

    And yet, oddly, we are told that none of the money spent on these ads were created using the psychological profils from Cambridge Analytica.


    And this was just Facebook. The campaign also placed ads on other social media, including Twitter and Snapchat, and ran sponsored content on Politico. According to one estimate by a campaign insider, the Trump team spent “in the high eight figures just on persuasion.” Remarkably, none of this money was used on ads created from Cambridge Analytica’s questionably obtained Facebook data.

    Even more odd is how Cambridge Analytica appeared to be downplaying its own role too, claiming it just didn’t have enough time to adequately profile people after joining the Trump team (despite having already collected them before joining the campaign):


    Not long after touting the edge it gave the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica began walking back its initial claim that psychological targeting was crucial to Trump’s victory. “I don’t want to break your heart; we actually didn’t do any psychographics with the Trump campaign,” Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge Analytica’s chief data scientist, told a panel hosted by Google five weeks after the election. Because the firm was only brought onto the Trump campaign the summer before the general election, he said, “we had five months to scale extremely fast, and doing sexy psychographics profiles requires a much longer run time.” Apparently, Cambridge Analytica had deployed its psychological targeting techniques during the Republican primaries on behalf of Ted Cruz, but Cruz’s failure to win the nomination was cited as evidence that Cambridge Analytica’s models were ineffective and that the company did not understand American politics.

    So everyone involved with Cambridge Analytica is now downplaying its role. Even Cambridge Analytica. Isn’t that rather suspicious? Especially after reading that it was apparently Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms that identified all those voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin:


    Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but winning the popular vote does not automatically lead to the White House, and Trump was never going to try to appeal to the entire electorate. Applying Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms, Trump’s data scientists built a model they called Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory to rank and weight the states needed to get to 270 electoral college votes, which was used to run daily simulations of the election. Through this work, the digital team identified 13.5 million persuadable voters in sixteen battleground states, and modeled which combinations of those voters would yield the winning number.

    Once the Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory model took account of this cohort, and showed that the ones who lived in Rust Belt states had the most likely chance of delivering the presidency to Trump, Parscale’s digital team focused all its resources in those last few weeks on these voters. This included sending the candidate himself to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in the days before the election, even though those states were considered by most observers likely to be unsympathetic to him, because the reweighted Cambridge Analytica algorithms were pointing there, and those algorithms dictated the candidate’s travel schedule. “[Clinton’s] strategy was…‘if I turn out enough people in urban areas, Republicans can’t make up those numbers in rural areas,’” Cambridge Analytica’s Oczkowski explained. “Little did she know that almost every rural voter in the country was going to show up in this election.”

    So Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms are used to build the “Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory” model, which ran a bunch of simulations that identified 13.5 million persuadable voters in 16 battleground states, and determined the Rust Belt states were the campaign’s best shot at victory. The campaign invests in those states and wins. And yet we are being told by both Brad Parscale and Cambridge Analytica that the firm’s data just wasn’t actually all that useful. Again, isn’t that kind of suspicious?

    Also note that Facebook technically doesn’t tell you who (which Facebook profile) clicked on your ads. The company says they don’t do this out of concerns about user privacy. But keep in mind that web tracking technology is such that an individual’s web activity to be effectively tracked across the web. It’s the same technology (like Facebook’s “pixel”) that enables the creepy phenomena of, for example, browsing a product web on some random website and then seeing ads for that same product suddenly show up on all sorts of other websites.

    More importantly, in terms of the ability to use Facebook to target individual boters, keep in mind that if the Trump campaign (or Clinton campaign or anyone) uploads a “Customer List” to target a particular group of voters and then uses Facebook’s internal parameters to create subsets of those users – based on interests, geographic location, etc – there’s no reason the campaign couldn’t do the same subsetting of that known list of users with the vast database of knowledge they’ve collected from third-party resources like Cambridge Analytica or the RNC’s massive database on users. For example, imagine the following scenario:

    1. The minimum number of people Facebook would allow the Trump campaign to target a particular ad at is 10,000 people.

    2. Trump campaign creates a “Customer List” with the email addresses of 9,900 left-leaning voters and 100 GOP voters and then throw a bunch of pro-Trump ads at that group.

    3. Keep in mind that the Trump campaign would know the real ids of these 10,000 people, but wouldn’t know which of those 10,000 people clicked on their ads. But, odds are whoever clicks on the ad will be one of those 100 GOP voters. And thanks to the things like track pixels, the Trump campaign would now potentially be able to link unique tracking pixels to each of the people who clicked on the ad and track their web behavior going forward.

    4. Next, the Trump campaign takes those same 100 voters, finds something that divides them (some are really interested guns, others are really interested in religious stuff), and then creates a NEW “Customer List” with that same 100 GOP voters and another 9,900 left-leaning voters and pushes ads intended to appeal to GOP voters that either cover guns or religion. If someone clicks on that add, thanks to tracking pixels the Trump campaign could see if any of these people were the same people who clicked on the previous ad from step 2.

    5. Repeat this process of repeatedly pushing different ads designed to target people with different interests at the same audiences people and seeing which ones different Facebook profiles click on. Then, using web tracking techonology, compare interests of these anonymized Facebook profiles with the known interests of the real people you’re uploading to these “Customer Lists” that you already have from the massive voter databases.

    6. Eventually, the Trump campaign will be able to make very educated guesses about which real voters in their voter databases correspond to which anonymous Facebook profile’s unique tracking cookies/pixels. More imporantly, the campaign will have learned what makes these unique voters ‘tick’. What type of persuasion techniqes are required to prompt a response from each voter. THAT’s micro-targeting on effetively an individual scale.

    Is that what the Trump campaign was actually doing? Again, it’s unclear, but it sure sounds like that’s what they were doing.

    So, to summarize, it looks like Facebook has built a platform that will allow just about anyone to cheaply and effectively micro-target individuals by enabling advertisers to effectively learn what makes their audience ‘tick’. After all, look at the strategy the Trump team successfully employed: say anything and everything and see what people respond to:


    “Trump didn’t have a lot of ‘Here is my agenda, here is my narrative, I have to persuade people to it,’” Catalist’s Laura Quinn told me.

    The Trump world was more like, “Let’s say a lot of different things, they don’t even necessarily need to be coherent, and observe, through the wonderful new platforms that allow you to observe how people respond and observe what works, and whatever squirrel everyone chases, that’s going to become our narrative, our agenda, our message.” I’m being very simplistic, but that was the very different approach that truly was creative, different, imaginative, revolutionary—whatever you want to say.

    That’s what Facebook enabled. A weaponization of the ‘say anything to win’ strategy. And it’s a strategy that can only be successfully employed if you use the tools available to gain insights into your target audience’s psychology. What they click on. What they respond to, etc. And one of the best ways to do that is to be very divisive, deceptive, and generally inflammatory.

    And, yes, on some level this is just classical marketing. But on another level, it’s classical marketing on steroids: Big Data applied to massively detailed profiles on virtually everybody…profiles that grow more and more detailed as these marketing techniques are applied. Don’t forget, the general strategy here is to take a bunch of information known about people, and use that information to gain even more information about them. The Big Data on “Us” gets bigger the more it’s used.

    And don’t forget what Chamath Palihapitiya, the former Facebook executive, warned above: this isn’t just a Trump campaign problem. Or even exclusively a Facebook problem. This is a global problem with the internet and social media. It’s just a much, much bigger global problem thanks to Facebook, which is another reason why it would be nice to learn what those “embeds” were doing in the Trump campaign.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | December 15, 2017, 3:53 pm
  8. Here’s an interesting followup article on the topic of Google, Facebook, and Twitter embedding their employees with the Trump campaign: a recently published study examined the role of these social media ’embeds’. And while the study doesn’t go into the details of the services these embeds offered, it does make the point that the services offered went far beyond just helping use the technology, and approached something much closer to that of a political consultant:

    Politico

    How Facebook, Google and Twitter ’embeds’ helped Trump in 2016

    A study reveals employees the companies placed in the Trump campaign played a surprisingly active role in shaping its message and targeting voters.

    By NANCY SCOLA

    10/26/2017 05:00 AM EDT
    Updated 10/26/2017 01:24 PM EDT

    Facebook, Twitter and Google played a far deeper role in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign than has previously been disclosed, with company employees taking on the kind of political strategizing that campaigns typically entrust to their own staff or paid consultants, according to a new study released Thursday.

    The peer-reviewed paper, based on more than a dozen interviews with both tech company staffers who worked inside several 2016 presidential campaigns and campaign officials, sheds new light on Silicon Valley’s assistance to Trump before his surprise win last November.

    While the companies call it standard practice to work hand-in-hand with high-spending advertisers like political campaigns, the new research details how the staffers assigned to the 2016 candidates frequently acted more like political operatives, doing things like suggesting methods to target difficult-to-reach voters online, helping to tee up responses to likely lines of attack during debates, and scanning candidate calendars to recommend ad pushes around upcoming speeches.

    Such support was critical for the Trump campaign, which didn’t invest heavily in its own digital operations during the primary season and made extensive use of Facebook, Twitter and Google “embeds” for the general election, says the study, conducted by communications professors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Utah.

    The companies offered such services, without charge, to all the 2016 candidates, according to the study, which details extensive tech company involvement at every stage of the race. But Hillary Clinton’s campaign declined to embed the companies’ employees in her operations, instead opting to develop its own digital apparatus and call in the tech firms to help execute elements of its strategy.

    “Facebook, Twitter, and Google [went] beyond promoting their services and facilitating digital advertising buys,” the paper concludes, adding that their efforts extended to “actively shaping campaign communications through their close collaboration with political staffers.”

    “The extent to which they were helping candidates online was a surprise to us,” said co-author Daniel Kreiss, from UNC Chapel Hill. He called the assistance “a form of subsidy from technology firms to political candidates.”

    The study was published Thursday in the journal Political Communication.

    Kreiss and the University of Utah’s Shannon McGregor interviewed tech company liaisons to the Trump and Clinton operations as well as officials from a range of campaigns, including those of former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

    The researchers’ findings add to the many questions surrounding the part that the country’s biggest tech companies played in the 2016 election. Facebook, Google and Twitter already face heavy criticism for allowing the spread of disinformation, “fake news” and divisive advertising during the campaign — much of which targeted Clinton. All three companies are set to testify at congressional hearings beginning next week on Russian use of their platforms to interfere with the election.

    The idea that the tech companies were so deeply enmeshed in the efforts to elect Trump in particular could also complicate the companies’ reputations as political actors. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is among those in liberal-leaning Silicon Valley who have roundly condemned Trump’s actions as president on topics like LGBT issues and immigration.

    As Trump emerged as the likely Republican nominee, staffers from each of the three companies set up shop in a strip-mall office rented by the Trump campaign in San Antonio, Texas, home to the campaign’s lead digital strategist, Brad Parscale, the study reports. It attributes that information to Nu Wexler, a Twitter communications official at the time, who is explicit about the value of the arrangement for Trump.

    “One, they found that they were getting solid advice, and two, it’s cheaper. It’s free labor,” Wexler said in the study.

    While the paper does not detail the specific tasks Facebook carried out for Trump, it describes the sort of work the company did generally for 2016 candidates, including coordinating so-called dark posts that would appear only to selected users and identifying the kinds of photos that perform best on Facebook-owned Instagram. Twitter, meanwhile, would help candidates analyze the performances of their tweet-based fundraising pushes to recommend what moves the campaigns should make next. Google kept tabs on candidates’ travels to recommend geographically targeted advertisements.

    Digital experts interviewed by the researchers concluded that the tech company employees, who would work in San Antonio for days at a time, helped Trump close his staffing gap with Clinton.

    The White House referred questions to the Trump campaign, and Parscale did not respond to requests for comment. Parscale said in an Oct. 8 episode of “60 Minutes” that he actively solicited the companies’ support, saying that he told them: “I wanna know everything you would tell Hillary’s campaign plus some. And I want your people here to teach me how to use it.”

    A source close to the Clinton campaign rejected the notion that her team failed to take advantage of a valuable resource, arguing that her operation was in regular contact with the tech companies to tap their expertise. The source, who would only speak anonymously because of the sensitivity around attributing causes of Clinton’s defeat, said there would have been no advantage to having tech company employees sitting at desks at Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters.

    One unnamed tech company staffer is quoted in the study as saying, “Clinton viewed us as vendors rather than consultants.”

    Asked about the arrangement with Trump, the tech companies were quick to point out that they make their services available to all political players regardless of party.

    “Facebook offers identical levels of support to candidates and campaigns across the political spectrum, whether by Facebook’s politics and government or ad sales teams,” a spokesperson for the social network said in a statement.

    That sentiment was echoed by Twitter, which said it offered help to both the Clinton and Trump campaigns, and by Google, which stressed that it is up to each candidate to determine how extensively to work with the company. During the primary season, Google made available to each candidate an eight-hour session with the company’s creative teams, but only Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign took them up on it, according to the study.

    But at least one tech veteran said he can see how it would raise alarms that the bulk of Silicon Valley’s hands-on campaign support went to Trump rather than to Clinton.

    “It can be confusing from the outside looking in when it appears one campaign or another is getting more support,” Adam Sharp, a former Twitter executive who led the company’s elections team from 2010 to 2016, said in an interview. But while the companies strive to be balanced, they cannot inform voters “when a candidate doesn’t heed the help,” he said.

    An intimate relationship between tech companies and candidates has considerable upside for both. The campaign gets high-quality advice and advance notice on cutting-edge products. The company gets national exposure for its products and builds relationships with politicians who might be in a position to regulate it once they get to Washington.

    Silicon Valley had additional considerations during the 2016 campaign. The big tech companies were eager to fight the perception they were unfair to conservatives — and few in the liberal-leaning industry expected Trump to win, with or without their assistance.

    The history of the tech companies’ campaign outreach dates back to the 2008 presidential contest. That year, Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook’s CEO, traveled to both the Democratic and Republican conventions to pitch the political utility of the then-4-year-old social network. Around that same time, the company began offering congressional offices one-on-one guidance on how to use Facebook.

    The outreach didn’t always work at first. “I was, like, begging people to meet with us,” Randi Zuckerberg said of the GOP’s 2008 convention. But as political spending on Facebook’s ad products and elected leaders’ dependence on the platform skyrocketed over the years, so too did the company’s close work with politicians.

    One constant in the dynamic: The companies break down their political outreach teams along party lines. Facebook’s point of contact to Clinton’s 2016 White House run, Crystal Patterson, was a veteran of Democratic politics, and Henke — Google’s liaison to the Trump operation and other 2016 Republican bids — was once the director of operations for the Western Republican Leadership Conference.

    That partisan matching is needed, company representatives say, to allow all involved to speak freely when providing advice. Caroline McCain, social media manager for Rubio’s White House bid, is quoted in the paper saying that when tech company staffers have a similar political background as the campaign they’re assigned to, it raises the campaign’s comfort level in working with them.

    “When you realize, ‘Oh yeah, the person I’m working with at Google, they actually worked on Romney back in 2012,’ like, ‘Oh, okay, they actually might have our best interest at heart,’” McCain said. After the campaign, McCain took a position at Facebook.

    Kreiss, the paper’s co-author, said the symbiotic relationship between Silicon Valley and political campaigns demands further examination.

    “It raises the larger question of what should be the transparency around this, given that it’s taking place in the context of a democratic election,” he said.

    ———-

    “How Facebook, Google and Twitter ’embeds’ helped Trump in 2016” by NANCY SCOLA; Politico; 10/26/2017

    “While the companies call it standard practice to work hand-in-hand with high-spending advertisers like political campaigns, the new research details how the staffers assigned to the 2016 candidates frequently acted more like political operatives, doing things like suggesting methods to target difficult-to-reach voters online, helping to tee up responses to likely lines of attack during debates, and scanning candidate calendars to recommend ad pushes around upcoming speeches”

    Tech giant ’embed’ political operatives. That’s quite a service:


    “Facebook, Twitter, and Google [went] beyond promoting their services and facilitating digital advertising buys,” the paper concludes, adding that their efforts extended to “actively shaping campaign communications through their close collaboration with political staffers.”

    “The extent to which they were helping candidates online was a surprise to us,” said co-author Daniel Kreiss, from UNC Chapel Hill. He called the assistance “a form of subsidy from technology firms to political candidates.”

    And those services included things like coordinating dark posts on Facebook that would appear only to selected users, analyzing the performances of their tweet-based fundraising pushes and recommending what moves the campaigns should make next, or Google recommending geographically targeted advertisements while the campaign was on the move. Which, again, is one helluva service for the social media giants of our age to be offering candidates:


    As Trump emerged as the likely Republican nominee, staffers from each of the three companies set up shop in a strip-mall office rented by the Trump campaign in San Antonio, Texas, home to the campaign’s lead digital strategist, Brad Parscale, the study reports. It attributes that information to Nu Wexler, a Twitter communications official at the time, who is explicit about the value of the arrangement for Trump.

    “One, they found that they were getting solid advice, and two, it’s cheaper. It’s free labor,” Wexler said in the study.

    While the paper does not detail the specific tasks Facebook carried out for Trump, it describes the sort of work the company did generally for 2016 candidates, including coordinating so-called dark posts that would appear only to selected users and identifying the kinds of photos that perform best on Facebook-owned Instagram. Twitter, meanwhile, would help candidates analyze the performances of their tweet-based fundraising pushes to recommend what moves the campaigns should make next. Google kept tabs on candidates’ travels to recommend geographically targeted advertisements.

    Digital experts interviewed by the researchers concluded that the tech company employees, who would work in San Antonio for days at a time, helped Trump close his staffing gap with Clinton.

    You almost have to wonder if the political consulting industry is excited about these ’embeds’ or fearing they’re going to lose their jobs to them? Although if they do lose their jobs they can presumably go work for one of these tech giants as embed since these embeds were themselves former political operatives:


    One constant in the dynamic: The companies break down their political outreach teams along party lines. Facebook’s point of contact to Clinton’s 2016 White House run, Crystal Patterson, was a veteran of Democratic politics, and Henke — Google’s liaison to the Trump operation and other 2016 Republican bids — was once the director of operations for the Western Republican Leadership Conference.

    So it’s pretty clear why the poltiical parties would love this ‘service’, although it sounds like the Republicans were the only ones to really take them up on the ’embed’ offer. But it’s very unclear why the public at large like this. After all, if there’s one thing offer political consultant ’embed’s


    An intimate relationship between tech companies and candidates has considerable upside for both. The campaign gets high-quality advice and advance notice on cutting-edge products. The company gets national exposure for its products and builds relationships with politicians who might be in a position to regulate it once they get to Washington.

    Kreiss, the paper’s co-author, said the symbiotic relationship between Silicon Valley and political campaigns demands further examination.

    “It raises the larger question of what should be the transparency around this, given that it’s taking place in the context of a democratic election,” he said.

    Heads, Facebook, Google, and Twitter win, because helped the candidate win. Tails, Facebook, Google, and Twitter win, because they backed the other candidate win. And not just donated to both parties. Helped both parties win by working intimately with their campaign. It’s a reminder that offering ’embeds’ to virtually all big-spending campaigns is a great way to get your tech giant company permanently embedded in the halls of power. More so.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | December 21, 2017, 9:24 pm
  9. Here’s a story about Cambridge Analytica and political hacks that should come as no surprise at this point given the reports of Cambridge Analytica’s outreach to Wikileaks during the 2016 campaign to help organized and index what they assumed were Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails. But it’s still quite notable in that it appears to demonstrate that Cambridge Analytica isn’t just willing to accept hacked materials. It was willing to hire teams to obtain it:

    It turns out Cambridge Analytica received a set of hacked political documents a year earlier. But it had nothing to do with the US race. The company was hired by a Nigerian billionaire to help with the reelection of Nigeria’s then-president, Goodluck Johnson. And according to multiple former employees, the company was fully willing to accept hacked documents of Johnson’s rival, opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari.

    Specifically, there was what was known as the “Israeli team” of cybersecurity contractors who provided hacked documents to Cambridge Analytica. According to Cambridge Analytica staff working on the campaign Johnson campaign, in early 2015 they met these Israeli cybersecurity contractors in Cambridge Analytica’s offices in London. Employees say they were told the meeting was arranged by a senior director at the firm. The Israelis brought a laptop and handed employees a USB stick containing what they believed were hacked personal emails. Cambridge Analytica CEP Alexander Nix and other senior directors told staff to search for incriminating material that could be used to damage opposition candidates, including Buhari.

    In addition, the Guardian was shown an email from Nix from January 26, 2015, that refers to the “Israeli team”. “Although it is outside of our remit, I have asked for an update on what the Israeli team has been working on and what they will be delivering between now and the election,” Nix wrote. So it’s not like some Israeli hackers showed up out of the blue to offer this hacked data because that email sure sounds like they hired these hackers for the expressed purpose of hacking Johnson’s opponents.

    Beyond that, this same “Israeli team” also somehow obtained private information of the St Kitts and Nevis politician Timothy Harris in 2015. Harris was an opposition leader at the time and is now prime minister.

    So we have two separate politicians in two countries getting hacked by contractors who appear to have been hired by Cambridge Analytica: surprise, surprise:

    The Guardian

    Cambridge Analytica was offered politicians’ hacked emails, say witnesses

    Hackers offered personal data about future Nigerian president and future PM of St Kitts and Nevis, sources say

    Carole Cadwalladr

    Wed 21 Mar 2018 14.59 EDT
    Last modified on Sat 24 Mar 2018 22.56 EDT

    The data analytics firm that worked on the Donald Trump election campaign was offered material from Israeli hackers who had accessed the private emails of two politicians who are now heads of state, witnesses have told the Guardian.

    Multiple sources have described how senior directors of Cambridge Analytica – including its chief executive, Alexander Nix – gave staff instructions to handle material provided by computer hackers in election campaigns in Nigeria and St Kitts and Nevis.

    They claim there were two episodes in 2015 that alarmed members of staff and led them to refuse to handle the data, which they assumed would have been obtained illegally.

    SCL Elections, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, denied taking possession of or using hacked or stolen personal information from such individuals for any purpose in either campaign.

    The revelations are the latest to focus attention on Cambridge Analytica, whose activities are being investigated in the US by the special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his inquiry into possible Russian collusion in the 2016 US presidential election.

    The firm is under pressure to explain how it came to have unauthorised access to millions of Facebook profiles. Politicians in the US and UK have accused it of giving misleading statements about its work, and the information commissioner has demanded access to the company’s databases.

    In all, the Guardian and Observer has spoken to seven individuals with knowledge of Cambridge Analytica and its campaign in Nigeria in early 2015.

    Hired by a Nigerian billionaire to support the re-election of Goodluck Jonathan, Cambridge Analytica was paid an estimated £2m to orchestrate a ferocious campaign against his rival, the opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan lost out to Buhari in the presidential race. There is no suggestion Jonathan knew of the covert operation.

    Staff working on the campaign say in early 2015 they met Israeli cybersecurity contractors in Cambridge Analytica’s offices in Mayfair, London. Employees say they were told the meeting was arranged by Brittany Kaiser, a senior director at the firm.

    The Guardian and Observer have been told the Israelis brought a laptop from their office in Tel Aviv and handed employees a USB stick containing what they believed were hacked personal emails.

    Sources said Nix, who was suspended on Tuesday, and other senior directors told staff to search for incriminating material that could be used to damage opposition candidates, including Buhari.

    “It made everyone feel really uncomfortable,” said one source. “They wanted people to load it into their email programs.”

    People “freaked out”, another employee said. “They wanted to have nothing to do with it.”

    One member of the campaign team told the Guardian and Observer that the material they believed had been hacked included Buhari’s medical records. “I’m 99% sure of that. Or if they didn’t have his medical records they at least had emails that referred to what was going on.”

    When news of the London meeting filtered back to Cambridge Analytica staff working on the ground in Nigeria, it caused panic, the source said. Local security advisers told the firm’s team to leave the country immediately because if opposition supporters found out, they could turn on them.

    “What is clear is that the security of their employees didn’t even seem to have occurred to them,” said one former employee. “It was a very serious situation and they had to evacuate immediately.”

    An SCL Elections spokesperson said team members working on the Nigeria campaign remained in the country throughout the original campaigning period, and left in accordance with the company’s campaign plan.

    The Guardian has seen an email from Nix dated 26 January 2015, referring to the “Israeli team”.

    It says: “Although it is outside of our remit, I have asked for an update on what the Israeli team has been working on and what they will be delivering between now and the election.”

    In a second episode in early 2015, sources said the same Israeli team that had worked on the Nigeria campaign obtained private information of the St Kitts and Nevis politician Timothy Harris. At the time he was an opposition leader, and is now prime minister.

    Sources have said staff did not want to handle what appeared to be stolen material. “Nobody wanted to have anything to do with it,” one employee said.

    A statement from SCL Elections said: “During an election campaign, it is normal for SCL Elections to meet with vendors seeking to provide services as a subcontractor. SCL Elections did not take possession of or use any personal information from such individuals for any purposes. SCL Elections does not use ‘hacked’ or ‘stolen’ data.”

    The statement added: “Members of the SCL Elections team that worked on the Nigeria campaign remained in country throughout the original campaigning period, although the election was rescheduled and SCL was not retained for the entirety of the extended campaign period.

    “Team members left in accordance with the company’s campaign plan. Team members were regularly briefed about security concerns prior to and during deployment and measures were taken to ensure the team’s safety throughout.”

    ———-

    “Cambridge Analytica was offered politicians’ hacked emails, say witnesses” by Carole Cadwalladr; The Guardian; 03/21/2018

    Multiple sources have described how senior directors of Cambridge Analytica – including its chief executive, Alexander Nix – gave staff instructions to handle material provided by computer hackers in election campaigns in Nigeria and St Kitts and Nevis.”

    Yep, Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica and not some lower level manager, is the guy who instructed employees to handle these hacked documents to search for content on opposition figures.

    There was two distinct episodes 2015, both of which reportedly alarmed employees because these employees were being asked to handle what they assumed were stolen documents. In early 2015, these employees met Israeli cybersecurity contractors in Cambridge Analytica’s offices in London, where they were given a USB stick of what they believed were hacked personal emails. And Nix then asked the employees to look through the documents:


    They claim there were two episodes in 2015 that alarmed members of staff and led them to refuse to handle the data, which they assumed would have been obtained illegally.

    Hired by a Nigerian billionaire to support the re-election of Goodluck Jonathan, Cambridge Analytica was paid an estimated £2m to orchestrate a ferocious campaign against his rival, the opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan lost out to Buhari in the presidential race. There is no suggestion Jonathan knew of the covert operation.

    Staff working on the campaign say in early 2015 they met Israeli cybersecurity contractors in Cambridge Analytica’s offices in Mayfair, London. Employees say they were told the meeting was arranged by Brittany Kaiser, a senior director at the firm.

    The Guardian and Observer have been told the Israelis brought a laptop from their office in Tel Aviv and handed employees a USB stick containing what they believed were hacked personal emails.

    Sources said Nix, who was suspended on Tuesday, and other senior directors told staff to search for incriminating material that could be used to damage opposition candidates, including Buhari.

    “It made everyone feel really uncomfortable,” said one source. “They wanted people to load it into their email programs.”

    People “freaked out”, another employee said. “They wanted to have nothing to do with it.”

    One member of the campaign team told the Guardian and Observer that the material they believed had been hacked included Buhari’s medical records. “I’m 99% sure of that. Or if they didn’t have his medical records they at least had emails that referred to what was going on.”

    And then there was a second episode in early 2015 where the same Israeli team somehow obtained private information on Timothy Harris, an opposition leader of St Kitts and Nevis:


    In a second episode in early 2015, sources said the same Israeli team that had worked on the Nigeria campaign obtained private information of the St Kitts and Nevis politician Timothy Harris. At the time he was an opposition leader, and is now prime minister.

    Sources have said staff did not want to handle what appeared to be stolen material. “Nobody wanted to have anything to do with it,” one employee said.

    And based on a January 26, 2015, email from Nix, it sure sounds like the “Israeli team” was hired by Cambridge Analytica to “deliver” something before the Nigerian election:


    The Guardian has seen an email from Nix dated 26 January 2015, referring to the “Israeli team”.

    It says: “Although it is outside of our remit, I have asked for an update on what the Israeli team has been working on and what they will be delivering between now and the election.”

    So there was have it: we already knew Cambridge Analytica was willing to work with hacked emails. The outreach to Wikileaks made that clear. But now we have pretty compelling evidence that Cambridge Analytica was willing to hire hackers to do the hacking in the first place. Cambridge Analytica was clearly trying to be a ‘full service’ elections operation, and those services appear to include ordering the hacks too. Or at least ordering people to track down and obtain material that had been hacked by others and was available for sale.

    And both of those possibilities are worth keeping in mind regarding the story of Republican financier/opposition researcher Peter Smith and how he and figures like Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon (a Cambridge Analytica officer) set up a separate LLC in Delaware for the purpose of hunting down Hillary’s hacked emails over the dark web (which led to calls for them to contact Andrew “weev” Anuernheimer). Were they trying to contact and hunt down hackers Cambridge Analytica previously hired or just searching for emails they assumed were already hacked by some third party and available for sale? Who knows, but based on the totality of information we have about this Cambridge Analytica and how it operates it’s hard to imagine that the company would have any a problem at all with either situation if the opportunity arose. Sure, some of the employees tasked with sifting through the hacked documents would have had a problem with that, but not the people actually running the company, as we just saw.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 2, 2018, 1:17 pm
  10. Here’s of those “look how quirky Robert Mercer is” kinds of stories that is both interesting and also quit alarming. Because this particular instance of Mercer’s quirkiness is directly tied to an apparent gun obsession the guy has. A gun obsession that includes possessing a massive bunker of arms and owning a firearms manufacturing company:

    So it turns out Robert Mercer has an unexpected hobby. He was a reserve police officer for the town of Lake Arthur, New Mexico from 2011 until last September. And he was lavishing the Lake Arthur And it’s not because of a love of policing. Obviously. Mercer was clearly doing it to exploit a loophole in federal law that said off-duty police officers could carried concealed weapons anywhere in the US. He even started a non-profit, the Law Enforcement Education Organization, that is dedicated to educating people about the fact that off-duty police get concealed carry rights. That’s how desperately Robert Mercer is to carry a gun.

    But that’s where the quirkiness ends and the scariness begins. Because Mercer’s gun fetish isn’t limited to getting the right to concealed carry a pistol or something like that. No, it turns out Mercer literally bought a massive private gun collection. And also appears to own a gun manufacturing company. And these don’t appear to be purchases based on the profit potential of these investments. He just wants guns. Lots and lots of guns

    Bloomberg Businessweek

    Robert Mercer’s Secret Adventure as a New Mexico Cop
    Why was the fabulously wealthy Trump donor wearing a badge and a gun in a tiny desert town? To obtain something that’s impossible to buy.

    By Zachary Mider
    March 28, 2018, 3:00 AM CDT

    Robert Mercer probably would have flown into Roswell. From there—1,800 miles from home—he would’ve traveled south through the high desert plains of southeast New Mexico, flat as a tortilla, past abandoned homesteads and irrigation machines moving in slow circles.

    His phone reception would’ve gotten spotty when he turned left off Highway 285. He would’ve seen the bare limbs of a pecan orchard and a graveyard decked in plastic flowers. At the town hall in Lake Arthur, population 433, he would’ve met Police Chief William Norwood, the department’s sole full-time employee, a barrel-chested man with two spare rifle magazines on his belt. There, Mercer, the fabulously wealthy computer scientist who helped bankroll the election of President Donald Trump, would’ve reported for duty as a volunteer policeman.

    For most of the past six years, as Mercer became one of the country’s political kingmakers, he was also periodically policing Lake Arthur, according to the department. If he followed Norwood’s protocols—and Norwood insists no volunteers get special treatment—he would’ve patrolled at least six days a year. He would’ve paid for travel and room and board, and supplied his own body armor and weapon.

    Until a few months ago, Mercer, 71, ran what is arguably the world’s most successful hedge fund. He employs a phalanx of servants and bodyguards and owns a 203-foot yacht named Sea Owl. He was the money behind Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, whose fiery populism helped propel Trump to the White House, as well as the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which shaped the campaign’s messages. Shortly after the election, Mercer donned a top hat and welcomed the president-elect to a costume party at his seaside mansion on Long Island. What was a guy like that doing in the desert, wearing a gun and a shiny badge?

    I was surprised when I first heard about Mercer’s sojourns in Lake Arthur, but then I’m used to his surprises. During the two and a half years I’ve covered Mercer, I’ve come to think of him as a hard-right version of that guy in the beer commercials, the Most Interesting Man in the World. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of incredible-but-true Mercer stories, including his pioneering research that begat Google Translate, his funding of a stockpile of human urine in the Oregon mountains, his million-dollar model train set, and his habit of whistling constantly, even during work meetings. The common threads in these stories are a fierce intelligence, a wide-ranging curiosity, and an utter indifference to the judgment of others. The story of his adventures in Lake Arthur, which hasn’t been previously reported, adds yet another strand. It shows just how far a man of means will go to get something he can’t buy: the right to carry a concealed firearm anywhere in America.

    The Mercers don’t talk to the press, and Robert Mercer wouldn’t tell me why he started volunteering for the Lake Arthur police. When I went there to see for myself, I found that it was unlike any police department I’d come across. Norwood and three part-timers are buttressed by 84 reserve officers, most of whom live hundreds or even thousands of miles away. There are Lake Arthur reservists in San Diego and Virginia Beach. Several are among the most elite soldiers on Earth—former U.S. Navy SEALs. Many are high-dollar bodyguards or firearms instructors, and almost all of them are serious gun enthusiasts. On that count, Mercer fits right in. He once built a personal pistol range in his basement. Through a company he co-owns, Centre Firearms Co., he has a vast collection of machine guns and other weapons of war, as well as a factory in South Carolina that makes assault-style rifles.

    Over our own lunch at Piccolino, the Italian place, Chief Norwood passed me a copy of his department’s newsletter, the Blue Heeler. One picture shows reservists training in a two-man sniper-spotter team. The sniper is kitted out in a mesh veil for camouflage and appears to be firing from inside a kitchen. Another shows a door with a hole blasted through it, the result of an exercise in “explosive breaching.” The newsletter gave the impression that Norwood was running his department as a sort of high-octane club for guys who subscribe to Guns & Ammo. It was hard to imagine these skills being put to heavy use in Lake Arthur, where reservists’ official duties include finding lost pets.

    Even the coolest drills wouldn’t explain why Mercer would go to the trouble of getting a Lake Arthur badge. With his connections in the gun world, he wouldn’t need to travel all the way from Long Island to have some weekend fun on the range. And if he just wanted to serve the public and wear a uniform, he could choose from several police auxiliary programs without leaving his home county.

    Then I learned that in 2012 several of Mercer’s associates had set up a nonprofit in Georgia blandly named the Law Enforcement Education Organization. Among the founders were Mercer’s son-in-law George Wells and Wells’s longtime friend Peter Pukish—both of whom were also Lake Arthur volunteers. Chairing the group was former Georgia Representative Robert Barr, a Mercer lawyer and National Rifle Association board member who got pranked in the 2006 mockumentary Borat. (The movie captures his sour expression when he’s told the cheese he just ate was made from a woman’s breast milk.) Tax records suggest Mercer gave the group’s sister foundation more than $400,000, and his gun company became a sponsor (see note 1, below) . The purpose: to educate local authorities across the country about the rights of off-duty police officers to carry concealed weapons. The group showed up at police conferences and handed out brochures and moon pies.

    States vary widely in their approaches to regulating concealed weapons. But in 2004, Congress passed the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, declaring that police officers can carry concealed guns in any state with no need of a local license. The law applies to officers who are off-duty and out of their jurisdiction—and includes volunteer reservists.

    The law made a police badge an immeasurably valuable item in places such as Suffolk County, N.Y., where Mercer lives, and where concealed-carry permits are granted only rarely. Applicants must prove they face “extraordinary personal danger”; in 2016 the county rejected the request of a man who had helped the FBI take down an outlaw biker gang. Even if Mercer did get a local permit, it wouldn’t be valid if he traveled to New York City or to most other states. For people in Suffolk who want to carry, the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act is a tantalizing way to cut through all of that—if they can find a police force that will grant them its tin.

    Since the law took effect, a few police and sheriff’s departments around the country have been rumored to hand out badges to buddies or in exchange for cash. The gun community calls them “badge factories.” Questions about whether Lake Arthur was such a place swirled last year on a popular gun chat room, after a noted firearms expert from North Carolina who was also a reservist got drunk and accidentally shot his brother-in-law in the leg. (Norwood quickly stripped him of his badge.) It’s not clear exactly when or how Mercer became aware of Lake Arthur’s reserve corps. But he became an officer on Dec. 10, 2011, and since then, Mercer and his son-in-law have supported the town generously. Their foundation underwrote a grant for some Lake Arthur officers to get SWAT training in Las Vegas. Separately, Wells helped start a reserve officers’ association that apparently directed tens of thousands of dollars to the department. (2)

    At lunch, Norwood ordered a salad and insisted that his department was no badge factory. “It’s a big help to me, I’ll tell you that,” he said of the reserve program. “It’s better than going out to a domestic violence call way out in the county all by yourself.” Norwood’s head was closely shaved, and he had a hint of reddish stubble on his cheeks. He was dressed from head to toe in black tactical gear, and a patch on his chest gave his blood type as O+. Norwood refused to discuss Mercer or any other individual reservist but said that if a person simply wanted concealed-carry rights, volunteering for his squad wouldn’t be worth the trouble: Department rules require 96 hours of patrol work and 20 hours of training a year. He added that while reservists are encouraged to carry their weapons off-duty for protection, they’re not allowed to use their concealed-carry privileges for outside work. (Later, after I showed Norwood the LinkedIn accounts of two men who seemed to be doing just that—security contractors touting their ability to carry guns anywhere—the men faced “severe” disciplinary action, a department spokesman said.)

    Norwood formed the reserve program in 2005, not long after he joined the department. With the nearest backup a half-hour or more away, he didn’t like the idea of patrolling solo, so he turned to a couple of Army buddies for volunteer help. The program expanded by word of mouth. At one point a few years ago, there were almost 150 reserve officers—that’d be a ratio of one to every 2.9 residents—and Norwood, who prefers patrolling to paperwork, acknowledged he wasn’t giving the program the oversight it needed. In 2016 a reserve captain took over administrative duties, tightened up policies, and cut the number of reservists almost in half. Last year, Norwood stopped accepting new members altogether. But even this smaller force is enough to provide him with a visiting reservist or two on any given day, free of charge.

    “There may have been some abuses in the past,” said the administrator, Oliver Brooks, who lives 200 miles away and joined us for lunch. “But whenever we find out about them, we take action.”

    After a formal request under New Mexico’s open-records law, Norwood sent me documents showing that Mercer, Wells, and Pukish joined on the same day in 2011. Mercer and Wells left the department last September, and Pukish stayed on until February. Brooks said he didn’t know why they left; Pukish declined to comment, and Wells didn’t respond to inquiries.

    Many of Mercer’s links to the gun world flow through Wells, who’s married to the youngest of Mercer’s three daughters, Heather Sue. She deserves a beer commercial of her own. A talented placekicker, she made Duke University’s football team in 1995 and then sued the coach for sex discrimination when he refused to let her suit up. She won. Later, after running a bakery in New York with her sisters, Heather Sue moved to Las Vegas and gambled for high stakes. She played $25,000 no-limit hold ’em six-handed at the 2010 World Series of Poker, placing 15th. She married Wells, one of the family’s bodyguards, the next year.

    Wells had previously worked as a firearms trainer and a security contractor in Iraq, and he once had a sideline making concealed-carry holsters out of elephant and ostrich skin. Soon after the marriage, he got a new job: Wells and Mercer joined with other investors to acquire Centre Firearms (3), a longtime Manhattan dealer that specialized in outfitting movies and TV shows, and Wells became its president.

    Mercer and Wells wanted to expand beyond props, and they soon entered talks with Daniel Shea, a Nevada arms dealer who had a world-class collection of machine guns. His wares included 19th century antiques, a Stinger antiaircraft missile launcher, and the fake grenade launcher that Al Pacino wielded in Scarface, according to documents filed in subsequent litigation. He also rented guns to video game makers. If you play certain Call of Duty titles, you hear their thunder. But Shea was far more than a mere collector: He had brokered arms deals in Jordan and Serbia and trained U.S. commandos on obscure weapons they might face in the field.

    Centre agreed to buy the assets of Shea’s company, Long Mountain Outfitters, for as much as $8 million, with Mercer providing the cash, court documents show. Shea stuck around to introduce the new owners to his contacts in the U.S. government and foreign militaries. In a November 2013 business plan, Centre executives described their aim to become “the leading international supplier of arms and training.” As part of their strategy, they wrote, they would “use our relations with government contacts and politicians.”

    Wells put his friend Pukish in charge of the Nevada operations, located in an industrial park in a Las Vegas suburb. Pukish is a martial-arts master who once ran a dojo, as well as a training business called Chaos International. In online profiles he claims to be expert in jiujitsu, kuntao knife fighting, and the Japanese healing art of reiki. Meanwhile, in early 2014, Mercer and his partners acquired a warehouse in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., and moved much of Centre’s East Coast inventory there. (Ed Leiter, a former owner of Centre who visited the site recently, said the stash includes an Mk 19 belt-fed grenade launcher, capable of hurling 60 explosives per minute. Leiter said he thinks it’s used for training.)

    But Centre’s partnership with Shea quickly collapsed. In November 2014, Centre sued Long Mountain Outfitters in Nevada, accusing Shea of keeping guns he was supposed to hand over. Shea denied that and countersued, alleging Pukish was running the business into the ground and that sales trips the two of them had taken to Washington, D.C., Israel, and Jordan had been a disaster. The parties settled the lawsuit on undisclosed terms. Shea left the company, and Centre kept most of his armory. (Through his lawyer, Shea declined to comment.)

    While Mercer’s foray into international arms dealing struggled, he moved in another direction: manufacturing guns himself. In 2016, Centre acquired South Carolina’s PTR Industries Inc., the maker of a civilian version of a Cold War-era German battle rifle called the G3. PTR hasn’t disclosed its investors and declined to comment for this story. But according to a person with knowledge of the matter, Mercer appeared at the plant one day in early 2016 and went on an hourslong tour, flanked by Centre executives and a woman said to be Mercer’s nurse. He asked a few questions about the production process but was otherwise silent, the person said. Around plant employees, PTR’s chief executive took to calling the visitor “Mr. M.” (4)

    Trump’s victory seemed to vault Mercer to the center of American political power. His two closest political advisers, Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, helped lead the campaign and then moved to the White House, and his daughter Rebekah, who oversees his political and charitable spending, won a leadership role on the transition team. But Bannon has since been cast out of the president’s circle, and Rebekah tossed him from Breitbart News. Liberal activists hounded investors in Mercer’s hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, until he announced in November that he would step down as co-CEO. And Cambridge Analytica is at the center of a tech and political firestorm after revelations that it improperly harvested the personal data of 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge.

    Trump’s win appears to be, at best, a mixed blessing for Mercer’s gun interests. The president supports a House measure requiring states to recognize concealed-carry permits regardless of where they were issued—essentially offering civilians the same workaround Mercer got from Lake Arthur—but after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the measure’s chances in the Senate grew dimmer. On the corporate front, it’s unclear if Mercer’s gun company has won any government contracts. And with a gun-rights supporter in the White House, civilian purchases of assault-style rifles have plummeted from Obama-era highs. Remington Outdoor Co., among the nation’s largest gunmakers, declared bankruptcy on March 25.

    Mercer didn’t get into the gun business to get rich; the Bloomberg Billionaires Index values his wealth at almost $1 billion. But his family seems to be having fun. They’ve shown off their guns to political allies, taking them to a vault deep under the streets of Manhattan or to the warehouse near Las Vegas and pointing out some of the more remarkable weapons. Visitors, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the spaces are laid out like high-end clubhouses, with fully stocked bars. And in January, Mercer’s manufacturer rolled out a new product: a civilian version of the German submachine gun known as the MP5. It offers a 30-round magazine and an optional threaded barrel for attaching a silencer. It retails for $1,899.

    Mercer would’ve used a more modest gun at the marksmanship tests he was required to pass annually to keep his Lake Arthur badge valid. To qualify, he might’ve headed to the local range, in a desolate part of Hagerman, where a bulldozer has piled up berms of earth on three sides. A fellow reservist would’ve planted a man-shaped paper target at a distance and called out instructions, timer and clipboard in hand: “Two rounds, kneeling position.” Mercer would’ve dropped to a knee and fired. “Two rounds, center mass.” Mercer would’ve taken aim, felt the trigger against his finger, and sent two more bullets out into the desert. —With Joshua Green

    1. The Mercer Family Foundation reported donations in its 2015 and 2016 tax returns totaling $436,437 to a nonprofit identified as the Law Enforcement Education Fund, located on East Big Beaver Road in Troy, Michigan. There’s no such nonprofit at that address, but there is one with a similar name, the Law Enforcement Education Program. John Walsh, an accountant for that organization, said it has never received money from Mercer’s foundation. The donations appear to have gone instead to the Law Enforcement Education Foundation, a sister organization to the Law Enforcement Education Organization. Both of these groups are based in Georgia and have links to Mercer son-in-law George Wells and Bob Barr, a lawyer who has represented Mercer.

    2. Wells was one of the original directors of the Southeast New Mexico Police Reserve Foundation, set up in 2013. The foundation reported raising $93,000 over two years. Under its bylaws, at least half the foundation’s net dues were required to be paid to police departments whose reservists were members. At the time of its founding, all the members were Lake Arthur reservists.

    3. A property document filed in New York City in 2014 shows that Mercer and Wells together owned 40 percent of Centre, with the balance owned by theatrical-firearms entrepreneurs Rick and Ryder Washburn, and by Mark Barnes, a firearms lawyer. Mercer and Wells also owned 50 percent of the Queens site.

    4. Records on file in South Carolina provide further evidence that Centre Firearms is the new owner of PTR. A vendor to Centre filed a financing statement there in 2016 listing Centre as a debtor, and identifying its address as the site of the PTR plant in Aynor, S.C. In 2017, the same vendor filed another financing statement identifying the debtor as “Centre Firearms Co. (PTR).”
    ———-

    “Robert Mercer’s Secret Adventure as a New Mexico Cop” by Zachary Mider; Bloomberg Businessweek; 03/28/2018

    “The Mercers don’t talk to the press, and Robert Mercer wouldn’t tell me why he started volunteering for the Lake Arthur police. When I went there to see for myself, I found that it was unlike any police department I’d come across. Norwood and three part-timers are buttressed by 84 reserve officers, most of whom live hundreds or even thousands of miles away. There are Lake Arthur reservists in San Diego and Virginia Beach. Several are among the most elite soldiers on Earth—former U.S. Navy SEALs. Many are high-dollar bodyguards or firearms instructors, and almost all of them are serious gun enthusiasts. On that count, Mercer fits right in. He once built a personal pistol range in his basement. Through a company he co-owns, Centre Firearms Co., he has a vast collection of machine guns and other weapons of war, as well as a factory in South Carolina that makes assault-style rifles.

    As we can see, Robert Mercer really, really, really wants guns. All the time. In 2011, he joins the Lake Arthur reserve police program, and then a year later several of his associates, including his son-in-law George Wells, set up a a non-profit for the expressed purpose of teaching people about the right of off-duty police officers to carry concealed weapons. That’s how much this guy want the right to have a concealed gun on hand:


    Over our own lunch at Piccolino, the Italian place, Chief Norwood passed me a copy of his department’s newsletter, the Blue Heeler. One picture shows reservists training in a two-man sniper-spotter team. The sniper is kitted out in a mesh veil for camouflage and appears to be firing from inside a kitchen. Another shows a door with a hole blasted through it, the result of an exercise in “explosive breaching.” The newsletter gave the impression that Norwood was running his department as a sort of high-octane club for guys who subscribe to Guns & Ammo. It was hard to imagine these skills being put to heavy use in Lake Arthur, where reservists’ official duties include finding lost pets.

    Even the coolest drills wouldn’t explain why Mercer would go to the trouble of getting a Lake Arthur badge. With his connections in the gun world, he wouldn’t need to travel all the way from Long Island to have some weekend fun on the range. And if he just wanted to serve the public and wear a uniform, he could choose from several police auxiliary programs without leaving his home county.

    Then I learned that in 2012 several of Mercer’s associates had set up a nonprofit in Georgia blandly named the Law Enforcement Education Organization. Among the founders were Mercer’s son-in-law George Wells and Wells’s longtime friend Peter Pukish—both of whom were also Lake Arthur volunteers. Chairing the group was former Georgia Representative Robert Barr, a Mercer lawyer and National Rifle Association board member who got pranked in the 2006 mockumentary Borat. (The movie captures his sour expression when he’s told the cheese he just ate was made from a woman’s breast milk.) Tax records suggest Mercer gave the group’s sister foundation more than $400,000, and his gun company became a sponsor (see note 1, below) . The purpose: to educate local authorities across the country about the rights of off-duty police officers to carry concealed weapons. The group showed up at police conferences and handed out brochures and moon pies.

    States vary widely in their approaches to regulating concealed weapons. But in 2004, Congress passed the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, declaring that police officers can carry concealed guns in any state with no need of a local license. The law applies to officers who are off-duty and out of their jurisdiction—and includes volunteer reservists.

    The law made a police badge an immeasurably valuable item in places such as Suffolk County, N.Y., where Mercer lives, and where concealed-carry permits are granted only rarely. Applicants must prove they face “extraordinary personal danger”; in 2016 the county rejected the request of a man who had helped the FBI take down an outlaw biker gang. Even if Mercer did get a local permit, it wouldn’t be valid if he traveled to New York City or to most other states. For people in Suffolk who want to carry, the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act is a tantalizing way to cut through all of that—if they can find a police force that will grant them its tin.

    That said, he appears to have ended his sham reserve police officer relationship with the Lake Arthur program last Fall. Although given all the negative attention he’s received over the last couple of years it’s not surprising that he would have decided to end his obviously scammy relationship with this program:


    After a formal request under New Mexico’s open-records law, Norwood sent me documents showing that Mercer, Wells, and Pukish joined on the same day in 2011. Mercer and Wells left the department last September, and Pukish stayed on until February. Brooks said he didn’t know why they left; Pukish declined to comment, and Wells didn’t respond to inquiries.

    And during this same 2011-2017 period that Mercer was playing cop he was also acquiring a massive private gun collection via his Centre Firearms company. Centre Firearms was a longtime Manhattan dealer that specialized in outfitting movies and TV shows, and after Mercer acquired it he decided to expand beyond prop guns. So they proceeded to buy the company of Nevada arms deal Daniel Shea, who owns a world-class collection of machine guns. And a Stinger antiaircraft missile launcher (let’s hope he doesn’t own any missiles too):


    Many of Mercer’s links to the gun world flow through Wells, who’s married to the youngest of Mercer’s three daughters, Heather Sue. She deserves a beer commercial of her own. A talented placekicker, she made Duke University’s football team in 1995 and then sued the coach for sex discrimination when he refused to let her suit up. She won. Later, after running a bakery in New York with her sisters, Heather Sue moved to Las Vegas and gambled for high stakes. She played $25,000 no-limit hold ’em six-handed at the 2010 World Series of Poker, placing 15th. She married Wells, one of the family’s bodyguards, the next year.

    Wells had previously worked as a firearms trainer and a security contractor in Iraq, and he once had a sideline making concealed-carry holsters out of elephant and ostrich skin. Soon after the marriage, he got a new job: Wells and Mercer joined with other investors to acquire Centre Firearms (3), a longtime Manhattan dealer that specialized in outfitting movies and TV shows, and Wells became its president.

    Mercer and Wells wanted to expand beyond props, and they soon entered talks with Daniel Shea, a Nevada arms dealer who had a world-class collection of machine guns. His wares included 19th century antiques, a Stinger antiaircraft missile launcher, and the fake grenade launcher that Al Pacino wielded in Scarface, according to documents filed in subsequent litigation. He also rented guns to video game makers. If you play certain Call of Duty titles, you hear their thunder. But Shea was far more than a mere collector: He had brokered arms deals in Jordan and Serbia and trained U.S. commandos on obscure weapons they might face in the field.

    Centre agreed to buy the assets of Shea’s company, Long Mountain Outfitters, for as much as $8 million, with Mercer providing the cash, court documents show. Shea stuck around to introduce the new owners to his contacts in the U.S. government and foreign militaries. In a November 2013 business plan, Centre executives described their aim to become “the leading international supplier of arms and training.” As part of their strategy, they wrote, they would “use our relations with government contacts and politicians.”

    Alas, Mercer and Shea had a falling out. Shea left the company, and Centre Firearms got to keep most of Shea’s armory. Much of that armory was moved to a warehouse in Queens, NY:


    Wells put his friend Pukish in charge of the Nevada operations, located in an industrial park in a Las Vegas suburb. Pukish is a martial-arts master who once ran a dojo, as well as a training business called Chaos International. In online profiles he claims to be expert in jiujitsu, kuntao knife fighting, and the Japanese healing art of reiki. Meanwhile, in early 2014, Mercer and his partners acquired a warehouse in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., and moved much of Centre’s East Coast inventory there. (Ed Leiter, a former owner of Centre who visited the site recently, said the stash includes an Mk 19 belt-fed grenade launcher, capable of hurling 60 explosives per minute. Leiter said he thinks it’s used for training.)

    But Centre’s partnership with Shea quickly collapsed. In November 2014, Centre sued Long Mountain Outfitters in Nevada, accusing Shea of keeping guns he was supposed to hand over. Shea denied that and countersued, alleging Pukish was running the business into the ground and that sales trips the two of them had taken to Washington, D.C., Israel, and Jordan had been a disaster. The parties settled the lawsuit on undisclosed terms. Shea left the company, and Centre kept most of his armory. (Through his lawyer, Shea declined to comment.)

    Then, in 2016, Centre Firearms acquired PTR Industries, the maker of a civilian version of a Cold War-era German battle rifle called the G3. In January, PTR rolled out a civilian version of the German submachine gun known as the MP5 with a 30-round magazine and an optional threaded barrel for attaching a silencer.


    While Mercer’s foray into international arms dealing struggled, he moved in another direction: manufacturing guns himself. In 2016, Centre acquired South Carolina’s PTR Industries Inc., the maker of a civilian version of a Cold War-era German battle rifle called the G3. PTR hasn’t disclosed its investors and declined to comment for this story. But according to a person with knowledge of the matter, Mercer appeared at the plant one day in early 2016 and went on an hourslong tour, flanked by Centre executives and a woman said to be Mercer’s nurse. He asked a few questions about the production process but was otherwise silent, the person said. Around plant employees, PTR’s chief executive took to calling the visitor “Mr. M.” (4)

    Mercer didn’t get into the gun business to get rich; the Bloomberg Billionaires Index values his wealth at almost $1 billion. But his family seems to be having fun. They’ve shown off their guns to political allies, taking them to a vault deep under the streets of Manhattan or to the warehouse near Las Vegas and pointing out some of the more remarkable weapons. Visitors, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the spaces are laid out like high-end clubhouses, with fully stocked bars. And in January, Mercer’s manufacturer rolled out a new product: a civilian version of the German submachine gun known as the MP5. It offers a 30-round magazine and an optional threaded barrel for attaching a silencer. It retails for $1,899.

    “Mercer didn’t get into the gun business to get rich.”

    And that’s perhaps the most disturbing part of this story: it’s NOT about the money. It’s about Robert Mercer’s apparent desire to possess a personal military-grade arsenal. And the fact that he’s a powerful fascist who clearly wants to see a far right takeover of society and is clearly willing to make major investments to make that happen. That’s what’s so extra disturbing about this story.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 3, 2018, 2:36 pm
  11. Check out the announcement Facebook made one day before Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify before the US congress over the ever-growing list of Facebook scandals: Facebook is starting a new academic initiative to “provide independent, credible research about the role of social media in elections, as well as democracy more generally.”

    Sounds largely helpful, right? Well, it probably would be largely helpful if Facebook had actually found a high quality group of academics to study the topic. This this is Facebook we’re talking about, so instead their “academic initiative” is going to run by seven large philanthropic foundations. Including the Charles Koch Foundation, the John and Laura Arnold Foundation (also very conservative), and two foundations created by Pierre Omidyar. That’s who is going to be carrying out Facebook’s “academic initiative” to study the impact of social media:

    Crooks and Liars

    Facebook Hands Off Elections Research To A Cabal Of Foundations, Including Charles Koch’s

    By Karoli Kuns
    4/09/18 9:17am — UPDATED: 4/09/18 2:23pm

    As Mark Zuckerberg takes up his cross and trudges to Capitol Hill this week, Facebook is on an extreme apology tour, rushing to put all sorts of initiatives in place which will have no impact on the midterms but will likely impact the 2020 election.

    This one defies all logic. In an announcement today, Facebook announced a new academic initiative to “provide independent, credible research about the role of social media in elections, as well as democracy more generally.”

    Instead of hiring independent researchers for the project, they’re handing it off to a cabal of foundations. Here is the list:

    John and Laura Arnold Foundation
    Democracy Fund (created by Pierre Omidyar)
    William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
    John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
    Charles Koch Foundation
    Omidyar Network
    Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

    Yes, that’s right. There are at least three right-wing libertarian anti-regulation foundations on that list: Omidyar, Koch, and Arnold. (Note: Though I have been told that Omidyar is not right- wing, I beg to differ. He is not a social conservative, but still fiercely libertarian with regard to right-wing priorities like taxes, and economic policy, which includes the social safety net.)

    Enron beneficiaries John and Laura Arnold are now interested in officially corrupting social media, having already succeeded with public broadcasting, public schools, and public pensions.

    Charles Koch is virulently anti-government and anti-regulation, He has spent millions — possibly billions — building a robust right-wing network and infrastructure to tear down regulations and indeed, the entire federal government. Who better to help fund an initiative and accept data for said initiative than the guy who wants to kill Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, and any other social safety net for which he might have to give up an extra penny in taxes?

    Finally, there is Pierre Omidyar, who is less of an idealogue but no less libertarian than the rest of them. He has invested in and promoted online journalism with his megabucks from the sale of eBay.

    The Hewlett, Sloan and Knight Foundations are corporate-funded non-profits with links to technology and journalism but which are not particularly ideological. Hewlett is a family foundation, again not especially ideological.

    Facebook and other tech companies do not want to be regulated. They do not want the government to oversee the way they sell and profit from users’ data. I can see no better way for them to pretend they are doing something about how their users’ privacy was violated than to hand off all the data to a cabal of nonprofits which are intended to give the appearance of a non-partisan blend of interests.

    Any time you put the Kochs and the Arnolds in the mix, partisanship will result. They make no bones out of the fact that they exist to fight all regulation, tooth and nail.

    Worse yet, the Kochs funded much of the astroturf efforts to game social media toward right-wing interests in the name of defeating any liberal initiatives. Now they want to STUDY it? Sure thing.

    ———-

    “Facebook Hands Off Elections Research To A Cabal Of Foundations, Including Charles Koch’s” by Karoli Kuns; Crooks and Liars; 4/09/2018

    Facebook and other tech companies do not want to be regulated. They do not want the government to oversee the way they sell and profit from users’ data. I can see no better way for them to pretend they are doing something about how their users’ privacy was violated than to hand off all the data to a cabal of nonprofits which are intended to give the appearance of a non-partisan blend of interests.”

    And that’s the key point to keep in mind with Facebook’s new “academic initiative”: Facebook does not want to be regulated. And that desire to avoid any hint at suggesting Facebook should be regulated is inevitably s going to permeate the decisions Facebook makes when it does things like set up “academic initiatives” to study the public impact of social media. And that’s why this shockingly laughable list of philanthropic foundations with conservative and hyper-libertarian leanings is only shocking in how transparently rigged it is. It’s not shocking that Facebook would like to prefer to have groups like the Charles Koch Foundation or two separate Omidyar foundations carry out this research because its obvious that such organizations will be highly inclined to arrive at findings that don’t point towards a need for greater government regulation:


    This one defies all logic. In an announcement today, Facebook announced a new academic initiative to “provide independent, credible research about the role of social media in elections, as well as democracy more generally.”

    Instead of hiring independent researchers for the project, they’re handing it off to a cabal of foundations. Here is the list:

    John and Laura Arnold Foundation
    Democracy Fund (created by Pierre Omidyar)
    William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
    John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
    Charles Koch Foundation
    Omidyar Network
    Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

    Yes, that’s right. There are at least three right-wing libertarian anti-regulation foundations on that list: Omidyar, Koch, and Arnold. (Note: Though I have been told that Omidyar is not right- wing, I beg to differ. He is not a social conservative, but still fiercely libertarian with regard to right-wing priorities like taxes, and economic policy, which includes the social safety net.)

    Any time you put the Kochs and the Arnolds in the mix, partisanship will result. They make no bones out of the fact that they exist to fight all regulation, tooth and nail.

    And don’t forget that the Koch brothers have been engaged in a drive to corrupt academic research for years, notably at Florida State University where they tried to use their philanthropic donations through the Charles Koch Foundation as an excuse to get hard-right economics professors appointed to the school. More recently, professors and students in Arizona have had to warn the public of a Koch-led influence campaign at the University of Arizona and local high schools to inject far right content into the education system via a new “Freedom Center” financed by the Kochs and a host of other hard right donors. Meddling in academic research is long-running Koch hobby.

    And that’s just the Kochs. Pierre Omidyar is so dedicated to libertarian/free-market paradigms that he’s trying to turn education for the poorest people on the planet into a for-profit initiative. At this point we should basically expect Facebook’s “academic initiative” to come back with the finding that social media is overly regulated and not profitable enough.

    Ok, hopefully the research that emerges from this initiative won’t be that obviously biases. But to get a sense of what we can expect, here’s a recent piece from last October n the dangers of social media written by the Pierre Omidyar himself. The piece summarizes the findings of a Omidyar Network research team that looked into exactly the kind of topic Facebook is asking its new “academic initiative” to look into: the impact of social media on democracy.

    Unlike a 2014 piece published by Omidyar – where he calls social media one of the most important and liberating inventions ever created – this 2017 piece does actually have a set of complaints about the impact of social media on democracy. They were exactly the same complaints we’ve heard numerous times elsewhere since the 2016 election (fake news, polarization, etc). And what did the Omidyar Network researchers conclude about what to do about this? Well, he concluded that it was a bigger problem than any one government or entity could deal with alone, and that the social media giants themselves should be leading the way on making the required changes. In other words, better self-regulation by the industry. That was the Omidyar Network’s big recommendation (surprise!):

    The Washington Post

    Pierre Omidyar: 6 ways social media has become a direct threat to democracy

    By Pierre Omidyar
    October 9, 2017

    Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, is a philanthropist, technologist and humanitarian. He is a member of The WorldPost editorial board.

    While it’s hard to believe that helping strangers connect through the Internet was ever a radical idea, when I started eBay 22 years ago, it felt more like a social experiment than a business endeavor. And in many ways, it was.

    Back then, online commerce was a new and wild frontier. I believed in our mission to empower people to conduct private trade on the Internet, but there were unforeseeable challenges lurking deep in those uncharted waters. I had a lot to learn, and I felt a deep responsibility to help build an accountable and sustainable new industry — a weight that the leaders of today’s evolving social media industry shoulder as well.

    For all the ways this technology brings us together, the monetization and manipulation of information is swiftly tearing us apart. From foreign interference in our elections to targeted campaigns designed to confuse and divide on important social issues, groups looking for an effective way to infiltrate and influence our democracy have found generous hosts in the world of social media.

    But the time has come for these unwelcome guests to leave the party.

    For years, Facebook has been paid to distribute ads known as “dark posts,” which are only shared with highly targeted users selected by advertisers. When these ads are political or divisive in nature, their secrecy deprives those affected by the ads the opportunity to respond in a timely manner — say, before an election concludes. It also allows outsiders, such as the Russian government, to influence and manipulate U.S. citizens from the shadows.

    Facebook has since shared its plan to protect the integrity of future elections and increase transparency and monitoring of its advertising. It’s an aggressive effort, and I am cautiously optimistic about the company’s dedication to addressing the vulnerabilities of its platform. But even if these safeguards are successful, we’re still just beginning to address how social media across all platforms is being used to undermine transparency, accountability and trust in our democracy.

    The Omidyar Group works to address, in part, how to support and protect our democratic values. Recently, a team from two of our organizations, Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network, assembled to investigate the relationship between social media and democracy. The initial findings are detailed in a paper that identifies six key areas where social media has become a direct threat to our democratic ideals:

    1. Echo chambers, polarization and hyper-partisanship.

    In many ways, the design of certain social media platforms mirrors the growing volume of partisan media in traditional channels. As they increasingly become a primary distribution channel, social media platforms create bubbles of one-sided information and opinions, perpetuating biased views and diminishing opportunities for healthy discourse.

    2. Spread of false or misleading information

    Viral disinformation or misinformation, commonly dubbed “fake news,” runs rampant across social media channels, disseminated by both state and private actors. These false and distorted pieces of information can intensify divisiveness and make it difficult for people to trust both what they read as well as the people and institutions they are reading about.

    3. Conflation of popularity with legitimacy

    The idea that likes or retweets can be used to measure validity or mass support for a person, message or organization creates a distorted system of evaluating information and provides a false pulse on the popularity of certain views. This is compounded by how challenging it is to distinguish legitimately expressed opinions from those generated by trolls and bots.

    4. Political manipulation

    Such trolls and bots, disguised as ordinary citizens, have become a weapon of choice for governments and political leaders to shape online conversations. Governments in Turkey, China, Israel, Russia and the United Kingdom are known to have deployed thousands of hired social media operatives who run multiple accounts to shift or control public opinion.

    5. Manipulation, micro-targeting and behavior change

    Advertisers and their sophisticated targeting mechanisms drive the attention economy. Not all of these messages look like ads or are visible to anyone outside the target population, as was the case with Facebook’s recent admissions surrounding Russian-sponsored ads purchased during the U.S. election. This model further widens the gap between publishers and journalists and erodes the revenue and sustainability of traditional news organizations charged with holding the powerful accountable.

    6. Intolerance, exclusion and hate speech

    Various policies and features of these platforms can amplify hate speech, terrorist appeals, and racial and sexual harassment. These environments can deter those targeted by hate speech from engaging in the conversation.

    Our hope is that this research will serve as a starting point for social media leaders, policymakers, government officials and other key stakeholders to delve deeper into the impact this technology is having on our nation and, ultimately, to identify tangible solutions. This isn’t a partisan problem, and it’s not something any one person, company or government can fix. But someone must lead the charge, and I respectfully call upon the social media companies at the center of this issue to drive this critical dialogue.

    Just as new regulations and policies had to be established for the evolving online commerce sector, social media companies must now help navigate the serious threats posed by their platforms and help lead the development and enforcement of clear industry safeguards. Change won’t happen overnight, and these issues will require ongoing examination, collaboration and vigilance to effectively turn the tide.

    ———-

    “Pierre Omidyar: 6 ways social media has become a direct threat to democracy” by Pierre Omidyar; The Washington Post; 10/09/2017

    The Omidyar Group works to address, in part, how to support and protect our democratic values. Recently, a team from two of our organizations, Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network, assembled to investigate the relationship between social media and democracy. The initial findings are detailed in a paper that identifies six key areas where social media has become a direct threat to our democratic ideals”

    As we can see, the Omidyar Network has already been thinking about this topic and has already made its thoughts on the matter available. And Facebook no doubt read those thoughts before they selected not one, but two Omidyar-backed philanthropic organizations to join their new “academic initiative”.

    And as we can also see, it’s no surprise that Facebook would choose the Omidyar-backed organizations because the grand policy approach the Omidyar Network team arrived at with “the development and enforcement clear industry safeguards”. In other words, industry self-regulation. In other, other words, music to Facebook’s ear:


    Our hope is that this research will serve as a starting point for social media leaders, policymakers, government officials and other key stakeholders to delve deeper into the impact this technology is having on our nation and, ultimately, to identify tangible solutions. This isn’t a partisan problem, and it’s not something any one person, company or government can fix. But someone must lead the charge, and I respectfully call upon the social media companies at the center of this issue to drive this critical dialogue.

    Just as new regulations and policies had to be established for the evolving online commerce sector, social media companies must now help navigate the serious threats posed by their platforms and help lead the development and enforcement of clear industry safeguards. Change won’t happen overnight, and these issues will require ongoing examination, collaboration and vigilance to effectively turn the tide.

    And that’s just what the Omidyar Network came up. Now imagine the conclusions the Charles Koch or Arnold foundation teams are going to come up with.

    It’s all a reminder that, while the topic of the impact of social media on democracy is an important topic that needs to be studied and addressed, there’s a larger parallel topic that also needs to be addressed: the impact of extremely wealthy and powerful far right ideologues on society’s understanding of itself in general. Facebook’s team of “academics” probably isn’t the best entity to tackle that issue.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 10, 2018, 1:06 pm
  12. Well, this was basically inevitable: Facebook just announced they are submitted themselves to set of audits.

    One set of audits actually seems quite reasonable and intended to address civil rights concerns over the potentially abuses of Facebook’s ad targeting tools. Like employers or landlords excluding minorities from seeing ads or the discovery of target categories like “Jew haters”. Not a bad set of topics for Facebook to conduct an audit over.

    And then there’s the other audit. The ‘is Facebook discriminating against conservatives?’ audit. This is the consequence of the endless claims of victimization by right-wing groups that started in 2016 after some conservative Facebook employees claimed that the company was routinely pulling articles from right-wing news sources from its “trending news” section, with stories from outlets like Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax not making it onto trending news. This complaint, of course, ignores the fact that outlets like Breitbart and Newsmax are notorious for pushing deceptive articles. The real ‘fake news’. But Facebook relented and subsequently changed its trending news policies, making it algorithmically generated instead of curated, thus ensuring that Facebook became the premier outlet for promoting right-wing misinformation during the 2016 US election.

    And, of course, these claims of an anti-conservative bias ignore the reality that Facebook worked closely with Trump campaign in order to maximize the effectiveness of their microtargeting. And also ignores that much of the Trump campaign’s microtargeting was done using the data gathered on Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica and that data was collected because Facebook gave Cambridge Analytica preferential treatment and allowed them to scrape Facebook profiles after most app developers lost that privilege.

    And let’s not forget about the recent story about Facebook selected two Republicans to head up its DC lobbying efforts.

    So how is Facebook planning on addressing its alleged anti-conservative bias? By having the Heritage Foundation and former GOP Senator Jon Kyl conduct the audit and tell Facebook what to do to fix this perceived bias. And this will no doubt result on calls for Facebook to ensure that notorious disinformation sites like Breitbart and InfoWars are free to promote as much disinformation as possible. In other words, we have Facebook conducting one audit to ensure its tools aren’t used to promote hate and bigotry and another audit to ensure that the forces of hate and bigotry don’t feel like they’re being censored:

    Axios

    Exclusive: Facebook commits to civil rights audit, political bias review

    Sara Fischer
    May 2, 2018

    To address allegations of bias, Facebook is bringing in two outside advisors — one to conduct a legal audit of its impact on underrepresented communities and communities of color, and another to advise the company on potential bias against conservative voices.

    Why it matters: The efforts are happening in response to allegations that the tech giant censors conservative voices and discriminates against minority groups. Facebook hopes the independent audit and formal advising partnership will show it takes these issues very seriously.

    The civil rights audit will be guided by Laura Murphy, a national civil liberties and civil rights leader. Murphy will take feedback from civil rights groups, like The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and advise Facebook on the best path forward.

    * Relman, Dane & Colfax, a prominent law firm based in Washington, will carry out a comprehensive civil rights audit of Facebook’s services and internal operations. The firm has litigated some of the most pivotal cases relating to housing, employment and public accommodation discrimination over the past two decades.

    * The Leadership Conference, along with other organizations, had called for such a review last year.

    “We are encouraged by Facebook’s commitment to conduct a civil rights audit of the company and its products, and the team they have selected to do it….We will remain vigilant until Facebook does everything in its power to reduce the civil rights harm its platform enables.”
    — Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights:

    The conservative bias advising partnership will be led by former Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, along with his team at Covington and Burling, a Washington law firm.

    * Kyl will examine concerns about alleged liberal bias on Facebook, internally and on its services. They will get feedback directly from conservative groups and advise Facebook on the best way to work with these groups moving forward.

    * The Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank, will convene meetings on these issues with Facebook executives. Last week the group brought in tech policy expert Klon Kitchen to host an event with Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert.

    “From what I’ve heard, it sounds encouraging that Facebook is taking steps to evaluate where things stand in the marketplace and hear concerns.”
    — Rob Bluey, VP Communications, Heritage and Editor-in-chief of The Daily Signal

    Conservatives have alleged Facebook bias for years, with the narrative building after reports that Facebook’s content reviewers were suppressing conservative content via its “Trending Topics” feature led to an inquiry by the Senate Commerce committee in 2016.

    * Most recently, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing featuring two conservative video personalities, Diamond and Silk, who have accused the social platform of limiting the reach of their videos.

    * Minorities, including Jews, African Americans, Hispanic Americans and others have voiced concerns over Facebook’s ad tools allowing users to target ads to “Jew Haters” and exclude some minority groups from housing ads.

    Allegations of bias by conservative lawmakers is especially troublesome for the company, which relies on Republicans to advocate for minimal regulation.

    ———-

    “Exclusive: Facebook commits to civil rights audit, political bias review” by Sara Fischer; Axios; 05/02/2018

    “To address allegations of bias, Facebook is bringing in two outside advisors — one to conduct a legal audit of its impact on underrepresented communities and communities of color, and another to advise the company on potential bias against conservative voices

    The Alt Right doesn’t get enough respect. That’s more or less what the conservative audit is going to conclude, although they won’t put it quite that way. And it’s going to be Jon Kyl and the Heritage Foundation leading the way on this festival of faux-grievances:


    The conservative bias advising partnership will be led by former Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, along with his team at Covington and Burling, a Washington law firm.

    * Kyl will examine concerns about alleged liberal bias on Facebook, internally and on its services. They will get feedback directly from conservative groups and advise Facebook on the best way to work with these groups moving forward.

    * The Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank, will convene meetings on these issues with Facebook executives. Last week the group brought in tech policy expert Klon Kitchen to host an event with Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert.

    “From what I’ve heard, it sounds encouraging that Facebook is taking steps to evaluate where things stand in the marketplace and hear concerns.”
    — Rob Bluey, VP Communications, Heritage and Editor-in-chief of The Daily Signal

    Conservatives have alleged Facebook bias for years, with the narrative building after reports that Facebook’s content reviewers were suppressing conservative content via its “Trending Topics” feature led to an inquiry by the Senate Commerce committee in 2016.

    * Most recently, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing featuring two conservative video personalities, Diamond and Silk, who have accused the social platform of limiting the reach of their videos.

    And to get a sense of where they’re heading with this, note that “Diamond and Silk”, the two right-wing sister accusing Facebook of limiting the reach of their videos, recently tweeted out that radio stations who decided to stop playing Kanye West songs after West’s embrace of Trump and bizarre comments on slavery are violating West’s Frist Amendment rights:

    For a Radio Station to stop playing @kanyewest music because of his views is a violation of his First Amendment Rights. You can't just silence someone because you don't like their Free Speech. Thoughts?— Diamond and Silk® (@DiamondandSilk) May 4, 2018

    Now, if the government pulled Kanye West’s songs from the radio, that would indeed be a violation of his First Amendment rights. Not when a radio station does it. But that appears to be the general sentiment right that’s driving this.

    So what should we expect Facebook to do when it receives its set of recommendations for its right-wing auditors? Well, as the following article reminds us, we should probably expect Facebook to take it very, very seriously:

    The New Republic

    Why Facebook Is Desperate for Conservative Allies
    Does Mark Zuckerberg care about stopping the spread of fake news? Or is he shoring up his support in Washington?

    By Alex Shephard
    May 4, 2018

    There is no one in the world more important to the future of journalism than Mark Zuckerberg. That should make anyone who cares about journalism very afraid.

    Speaking to a group of reporters on Tuesday, Zuckerberg laid out a new program in which users would rank news outlets by trustworthiness. Facebook will then use that data to make changes to its News Feed, which has been overwhelmed by fake news in recent years. Back in January, Zuckerberg had said such a program was necessary because Facebook “struggled with … how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division.”

    Facebook is, in other words, laying the responsibility on users for what appears on the News Feed. Combined with a recently announced “audit” that will address criticism that the social network suppresses conservative voices, Facebook’s latest moves point to a larger problem that’s bigger than fake news: Zuckerberg, desperate for conservative allies, has bought into the argument that mainstream news is fundamentally biased.

    “I do think that in general, within a news organization, there is an opinion,” Zuckerberg told reporters. “I do think that a lot of what you all do, is have an opinion and have a view.” Zuckerberg, according to The Atlantic’s Adrianne LaFrance, said Facebook was a platform with “more opinions.” These opinions allow users to select those they find to be the most convincing. “It’s not about saying here’s one view; here’s the other side. You should decide where you want to be.”

    As LaFrance writes, this is an argument that’s hostile to the idea of professional journalism: Zuckerberg is close to saying that The New York Times and your InfoWars-linking uncle are roughly analogous. He has consistently argued that Facebook is intent on knocking down the kinds of barriers that were once enforced by gatekeepers like the Times, all in a bid to connect people—an inherently good thing, in his view.

    Furthermore, Facebook doesn’t really make people connect with one another across once-impermeable borders. Instead, they sort themselves into groups that reinforce their own narrow viewpoints—sometimes doing so with the aid of fake news that panders to them. Given this dynamic, there’s no reason to believe that users will be able to discern what’s “trustworthy,” but instead will rate sites that reinforce their priors. Zuckerberg is finally acknowledging that Facebook is, at least in part, a media company, but there is nothing in this pilot program that would actually elevate important, fact-based stories.

    That’s because Facebook has been skittish ever since a 2016 Gizmodo report revealed that Facebook employees curating its “Trending Topics” suppressed conservative sites like The Daily Caller and Breitbart. Conservatives screamed bloody murder and Facebook ended up firing all of the curators who worked on “Trending Topics” and replacing them with algorithms—a move that had disastrous consequences. Republicans have since turned this issue into something of a crusade, arguing that tech companies are biased against them—the farce that was last week’s Diamond and Silk testimony before the House Judicial Committee was, in some ways, a culmination of this argument.

    In truth, Facebook’s news curators were doing their job by suppressing these stories, which are often poorly sourced or reliant on partisan spin. Suppressing Breitbart, which is sloppy and racist and often flirts with fake news, is a good thing if you really care about highlighting stories that will make your users more informed about the world.

    But that’s not what Zuckerberg cares about. The decision to allow users to rank news sites by trustworthiness proves that. And this general apathy about journalism is underlined by Facebook hiring former Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican, to lead a group that would “examine concerns about alleged liberal bias on Facebook, internally and on its services.” The group would be tasked with gathering feedback from conservative groups and to “advise Facebook on working with these groups going forward.” The group is entirely made up of conservatives, including members of the Heritage Foundation.

    Inviting a bunch of mainstream media–hating ideologues into the room is generally not a very good way to investigate a problem. Facebook is punting, encouraging its critics to set policies for it. These policies will have wide-ranging implications, and not just for news. When conservatives have been reprimanded or suspended from social media services it has often been for spreading misinformation or for harassment. Diamond and Silk have turned these incidents into branding opportunities, claiming they were censored. If these changes mean that Facebook will be even more lenient to conservatives, particularly those who abuse the service to spread misinformation, its fake news problem will get even worse.

    There are two reasons why Facebook would expend so much time and energy catering to conservatives. The first is that it very much wants to be a site for people of all political persuasions—for everyone on earth, for that matter. Conservatives whining about their treatment on the site is a real threat to the company. But more importantly, Facebook feels that it needs Republicans to head off regulatory fights. It dodged a bullet in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but there’s no reason to believe that it will next time, given that Democrats are increasingly embracing antitrust policies and are more broadly concerned with Big Tech’s pernicious cultural and economic effects. By getting the Heritage Foundation to write up a bunch of policies, Facebook is hoping to win friends that can help Zuckerberg out the next time he is hauled before Congress.

    Facebook is skirting the fundamental question before it, which is just how it should deal with the fact that it has become the easiest place to widely share misinformation on the internet. Real work on that subject would require expertise—and input from across the political spectrum. But real work isn’t what Zuckerberg is interested in.

    ———-

    “Why Facebook Is Desperate for Conservative Allies” by Alex Shephard; The New Republic; 05/04/2018

    “Facebook is skirting the fundamental question before it, which is just how it should deal with the fact that it has become the easiest place to widely share misinformation on the internet. Real work on that subject would require expertise—and input from across the political spectrum. But real work isn’t what Zuckerberg is interested in.”

    That’s the meta-problem Facebook is trying to deal with: how to address the fact that it has become the easiest place to widely share misinformation on the internet.

    And the solution Facebook is clearly embracing is to buy into the right-wing argument that mainstream news is fundamentally biased against conservatives and and come up with gimmicks that effectively validates the misinformation and redefines it as just ‘another opinion’:


    Speaking to a group of reporters on Tuesday, Zuckerberg laid out a new program in which users would rank news outlets by trustworthiness. Facebook will then use that data to make changes to its News Feed, which has been overwhelmed by fake news in recent years. Back in January, Zuckerberg had said such a program was necessary because Facebook “struggled with … how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division.”

    Facebook is, in other words, laying the responsibility on users for what appears on the News Feed. Combined with a recently announced “audit” that will address criticism that the social network suppresses conservative voices, Facebook’s latest moves point to a larger problem that’s bigger than fake news: Zuckerberg, desperate for conservative allies, has bought into the argument that mainstream news is fundamentally biased.

    “I do think that in general, within a news organization, there is an opinion,” Zuckerberg told reporters. “I do think that a lot of what you all do, is have an opinion and have a view.” Zuckerberg, according to The Atlantic’s Adrianne LaFrance, said Facebook was a platform with “more opinions.” These opinions allow users to select those they find to be the most convincing. “It’s not about saying here’s one view; here’s the other side. You should decide where you want to be.”

    As LaFrance writes, this is an argument that’s hostile to the idea of professional journalism: Zuckerberg is close to saying that The New York Times and your InfoWars-linking uncle are roughly analogous. He has consistently argued that Facebook is intent on knocking down the kinds of barriers that were once enforced by gatekeepers like the Times, all in a bid to connect people—an inherently good thing, in his view.

    “As LaFrance writes, this is an argument that’s hostile to the idea of professional journalism: Zuckerberg is close to saying that The New York Times and your InfoWars-linking uncle are roughly analogous.”

    So now Facebook users themselves will collectively rank and determine which news sites are ‘trustworthy’, thus ensuring the Alt Right online troll army – skilled at gaming online algorithms – will have even more influence online:


    Furthermore, Facebook doesn’t really make people connect with one another across once-impermeable borders. Instead, they sort themselves into groups that reinforce their own narrow viewpoints—sometimes doing so with the aid of fake news that panders to them. Given this dynamic, there’s no reason to believe that users will be able to discern what’s “trustworthy,” but instead will rate sites that reinforce their priors. Zuckerberg is finally acknowledging that Facebook is, at least in part, a media company, but there is nothing in this pilot program that would actually elevate important, fact-based stories.

    And this is all the predictable consequence of the conservative outrage machine acting like Facebook’s alleged censorship of its trending news was an act of ideological bias as opposed to simply pulling right-wing misinformation out of its news feed:


    That’s because Facebook has been skittish ever since a 2016 Gizmodo report revealed that Facebook employees curating its “Trending Topics” suppressed conservative sites like The Daily Caller and Breitbart. Conservatives screamed bloody murder and Facebook ended up firing all of the curators who worked on “Trending Topics” and replacing them with algorithms—a move that had disastrous consequences. Republicans have since turned this issue into something of a crusade, arguing that tech companies are biased against them—the farce that was last week’s Diamond and Silk testimony before the House Judicial Committee was, in some ways, a culmination of this argument.

    In truth, Facebook’s news curators were doing their job by suppressing these stories, which are often poorly sourced or reliant on partisan spin. Suppressing Breitbart, which is sloppy and racist and often flirts with fake news, is a good thing if you really care about highlighting stories that will make your users more informed about the world.

    But, of course, it’s also a result of unified GOP control of the US federal government:


    But that’s not what Zuckerberg cares about. The decision to allow users to rank news sites by trustworthiness proves that. And this general apathy about journalism is underlined by Facebook hiring former Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican, to lead a group that would “examine concerns about alleged liberal bias on Facebook, internally and on its services.” The group would be tasked with gathering feedback from conservative groups and to “advise Facebook on working with these groups going forward.” The group is entirely made up of conservatives, including members of the Heritage Foundation.

    Inviting a bunch of mainstream media–hating ideologues into the room is generally not a very good way to investigate a problem. Facebook is punting, encouraging its critics to set policies for it. These policies will have wide-ranging implications, and not just for news. When conservatives have been reprimanded or suspended from social media services it has often been for spreading misinformation or for harassment. Diamond and Silk have turned these incidents into branding opportunities, claiming they were censored. If these changes mean that Facebook will be even more lenient to conservatives, particularly those who abuse the service to spread misinformation, its fake news problem will get even worse.

    There are two reasons why Facebook would expend so much time and energy catering to conservatives. The first is that it very much wants to be a site for people of all political persuasions—for everyone on earth, for that matter. Conservatives whining about their treatment on the site is a real threat to the company. But more importantly, Facebook feels that it needs Republicans to head off regulatory fights. It dodged a bullet in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but there’s no reason to believe that it will next time, given that Democrats are increasingly embracing antitrust policies and are more broadly concerned with Big Tech’s pernicious cultural and economic effects. By getting the Heritage Foundation to write up a bunch of policies, Facebook is hoping to win friends that can help Zuckerberg out the next time he is hauled before Congress.

    So get ready for Facebook to pretty much do whatever the Jon Kyl and the Heritage Foundation asks of it. And when Facebook does everything asked of it, get ready for the right-wing to ask for some more. After all, this isn’t about real grievances and biases. It’s about grievance theater and that’s the kind of show never ends.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 4, 2018, 2:46 pm
  13. Now that President Trump just pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, the story of “Black Cube” – an Israeli private intelligence firm reportedly hired by the Trump team to dig up discrediting information on two form Obama staffers involved with boosting support for the deal and their families – has suddenly become much more topical. It was already topical due to the fact that Black Cube is the same private intelligence firm hired by Harvey Weinstein to gather information on the women who accused him of sexual harassment. But learning that the Trump team hired Black Cube to investigate Benjamin J. Rhodes, a top national security aide to President Barack Obama, and Colin Kahl, the national security adviser to Vice President Biden, and their families after Obama left office and learning this just days before Trump suddenly announces the US pull out of the Iran nuclear treaty makes this a much more topical story. Topical in a ‘getting a peak at how the people who are going to blow up the world operate’ kind of way:

    The New York Times

    Opponents of Iran Deal Hired Investigators to Dig Up Dirt on Obama Aide

    By Michael D. Shear and Ronen Bergman
    May 7, 2018

    WASHINGTON — For years, opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran have accused Benjamin J. Rhodes, a top national security aide to President Barack Obama, of scheming to sell the diplomatic agreement on false pretenses to the American people.

    Now, just as President Trump appears likely to announce his decision to withdraw from the deal, evidence has surfaced that the agreement’s opponents engaged in a sophisticated effort to dig up dirt on Mr. Rhodes and his family that continued well after the Obama administration left office.

    A detailed report about Mr. Rhodes, compiled by Black Cube, a private investigations firm established by former intelligence analysts from the Israel Defense Forces, contains pictures of his apartment in Washington, telephone numbers and email addresses of members of his family, as well as unsubstantiated allegations of personal and ethical transgressions.

    In a separate case in 2017, the same firm was hired to gather dirt on women accusing Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul, of multiple instances of sexual misconduct.

    It is unclear who hired Black Cube to prepare the report on Mr. Rhodes and a similar report on Colin Kahl, the national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., which were obtained by The New York Times from a source with knowledge of their provenance.

    The Guardian, which first published the existence of the reports on Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Kahl, said aides to Mr. Trump hired the firm, but there is no evidence in the documents that indicate any connection to anyone in Mr. Trump’s administration. A spokesman for the company vehemently denied any connection to the president.

    “Black Cube has no relation whatsoever to the Trump administration, to Trump aides, to anyone close to the administration or to the Iran nuclear deal,” said Ido Minkowski, the company’s spokesman. “Anyone who claims otherwise is misleading their readers and viewers.”

    One person with knowledge of the reports suggested that the company had been hired by a commercial client with an interest in opposing the nuclear deal.

    The reports appear to be aimed at undermining public support for the agreement by finding ways to discredit Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Kahl, who have been staunch advocates of the deal on social media and in television appearances. In an interview on Monday, Mr. Rhodes said he was surprised that ferocious criticism directed at him continued after he left government.

    “I never imagined that upon leaving government, that not only would that information campaign continue, but that it would be supplemented by investigations into me and my family by shadowy international operations, involving foreign entities,” Mr. Rhodes said.

    The deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program was signed by the United States, Iran and several European countries in 2015. Its critics, including Mr. Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, have said it does nothing to curtail the danger posed by Iran and will not curtail Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. The president said Monday that he will announce on Tuesday whether he will formally withdraw the United States from the deal, as he has repeatedly signaled he would.

    While there is no evidence directly linking Trump officials to the preparation of the reports, several current or former members of the Trump White House have repeatedly attacked Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Kahl for their support of the Iran agreement.

    Sebastian Gorka, a Trump supporter who served briefly in the White House as an adviser, has repeatedly attacked both men on social media and in conservative news outlets, accusing Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Kahl of working to undermine Mr. Trump and defend the Iran deal from its critics.

    Current and former Trump administration officials have also targeted John Kerry, the former secretary of state who negotiated the Iran deal for the United States. Even Mr. Trump himself said in a Twitter post on Monday that recent efforts by Mr. Kerry to save the deal amounted to “possibly illegal Shadow Diplomacy.”

    Unlike Mr. Kerry, Mr. Kahl and Mr. Rhodes were not part of the nuclear deal negotiating team for the United States. But even before he left the White House, Mr. Rhodes was the target of criticism for his efforts to help build support for its approval.

    “Why did whoever did this conjoin Ben and me? Why the two of us?” Mr. Kahl said. “Being vocal on Twitter would make me a target. But why would it bring down the Iran deal?”

    A New York Times Magazine profile of Mr. Rhodes in May 2016 described a White House “war room” in which he tried to manage news coverage of the Iran nuclear negotiations. In the article, Mr. Rhodes was quoted as saying: “We created an echo chamber. They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

    Critics of the Iran deal have seized on the article to insist that Mr. Rhodes — and by extension, the entire Obama administration — were secretly manipulating public opinion by misrepresenting the implications of the nuclear deal.

    The report on Mr. Rhodes by Black Cube notes that “in the article, he boasts about the creation of an ‘echo chamber’ in which he told journalists what to say and they repeated it back over and over as original thoughts.”

    The reports also provide a list of several Washington journalists who have had “extensive contact” with Mr. Rhodes. Among those listed under the heading “contacts to investigate” are Jeffrey Goldberg, now the editor of The Atlantic; Mark Landler, a White House correspondent for The Times who often writes about foreign policy; Andrea Mitchell, now NBC News’s chief foreign affairs correspondent; and Glenn Thrush, a Times reporter who covered the Obama White House for Politico.

    ———-

    “Opponents of Iran Deal Hired Investigators to Dig Up Dirt on Obama Aide” by Michael D. Shear and Ronen Bergman; The New York Times; 05/07/2018

    “Now, just as President Trump appears likely to announce his decision to withdraw from the deal, evidence has surfaced that the agreement’s opponents engaged in a sophisticated effort to dig up dirt on Mr. Rhodes and his family that continued well after the Obama administration left office.”

    Yep, there was something about Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl and their involvement in the Iran deal that was of such interest to the opponents of the deal that the Trump team apparently paid Black Cube to investigate them and their families and this monitoring continued well after Obama left office. It was apparently a ‘kill the messenger’ strategy based on discrediting Rhodes and Kahl:


    The reports appear to be aimed at undermining public support for the agreement by finding ways to discredit Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Kahl, who have been staunch advocates of the deal on social media and in television appearances. In an interview on Monday, Mr. Rhodes said he was surprised that ferocious criticism directed at him continued after he left government.

    “I never imagined that upon leaving government, that not only would that information campaign continue, but that it would be supplemented by investigations into me and my family by shadowy international operations, involving foreign entities,” Mr. Rhodes said.

    So why, of all the people involved in the Iran deal, did they focus their ‘kill the messenger’ strategy on Rhodes and Kahl? That’s unclear at this point, but the fact that Trump supporters in the media, like the far right Sebastian Gorka, have been repeatedly attacking both of those men on social media and conservative outlets gives us a big hint: the right-wing media had already decided to make Rhodes and Kahl into boogeymen who will therefore need to be demonized in order to propel whatever narratives people like Gorka choose to promote:


    While there is no evidence directly linking Trump officials to the preparation of the reports, several current or former members of the Trump White House have repeatedly attacked Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Kahl for their support of the Iran agreement.

    Sebastian Gorka, a Trump supporter who served briefly in the White House as an adviser, has repeatedly attacked both men on social media and in conservative news outlets, accusing Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Kahl of working to undermine Mr. Trump and defend the Iran deal from its critics.

    Current and former Trump administration officials have also targeted John Kerry, the former secretary of state who negotiated the Iran deal for the United States. Even Mr. Trump himself said in a Twitter post on Monday that recent efforts by Mr. Kerry to save the deal amounted to “possibly illegal Shadow Diplomacy.”

    Unlike Mr. Kerry, Mr. Kahl and Mr. Rhodes were not part of the nuclear deal negotiating team for the United States. But even before he left the White House, Mr. Rhodes was the target of criticism for his efforts to help build support for its approval.

    “Why did whoever did this conjoin Ben and me? Why the two of us?” Mr. Kahl said. “Being vocal on Twitter would make me a target. But why would it bring down the Iran deal?”

    A New York Times Magazine profile of Mr. Rhodes in May 2016 described a White House “war room” in which he tried to manage news coverage of the Iran nuclear negotiations. In the article, Mr. Rhodes was quoted as saying: “We created an echo chamber. They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

    Critics of the Iran deal have seized on the article to insist that Mr. Rhodes — and by extension, the entire Obama administration — were secretly manipulating public opinion by misrepresenting the implications of the nuclear deal.

    The report on Mr. Rhodes by Black Cube notes that “in the article, he boasts about the creation of an ‘echo chamber’ in which he told journalists what to say and they repeated it back over and over as original thoughts.”

    Although the Trump team is denying they have anything to do at all with Black Cube at this point. And people involved are suggesting that this was actually being done at the behest of a commercial client with an interest in opposing the nuclear deal:


    A detailed report about Mr. Rhodes, compiled by Black Cube, a private investigations firm established by former intelligence analysts from the Israel Defense Forces, contains pictures of his apartment in Washington, telephone numbers and email addresses of members of his family, as well as unsubstantiated allegations of personal and ethical transgressions.

    It is unclear who hired Black Cube to prepare the report on Mr. Rhodes and a similar report on Colin Kahl, the national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., which were obtained by The New York Times from a source with knowledge of their provenance.

    The Guardian, which first published the existence of the reports on Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Kahl, said aides to Mr. Trump hired the firm, but there is no evidence in the documents that indicate any connection to anyone in Mr. Trump’s administration. A spokesman for the company vehemently denied any connection to the president.

    “Black Cube has no relation whatsoever to the Trump administration, to Trump aides, to anyone close to the administration or to the Iran nuclear deal,” said Ido Minkowski, the company’s spokesman. “Anyone who claims otherwise is misleading their readers and viewers.”

    One person with knowledge of the reports suggested that the company had been hired by a commercial client with an interest in opposing the nuclear deal.

    So it sounds like there’s probably a corporate proxy that was used for this operation. And it’s very possible it’s not the Trump team who hired Black Cube but instead some other GOP-connected figure. Sheldon Adelson, perhaps? Whether or not it was a corporation who did the actual hiring of Black Cube, according to Guardian journalist Julian Borger, their sources are telling them that the ultimate client was indeed the Trump team.

    And then there’s the fact that this is the same firm hired by Harvey Weinstein to gather dirt of Weinstein’s accusers over the years:


    In a separate case in 2017, the same firm was hired to gather dirt on women accusing Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul, of multiple instances of sexual misconduct.

    Given the problems Trump has had with accusations of sexual harassment and secret payoffs of mistresses, you have to wonder if the Black Cube has been doing similar services for Trump over the years.

    So we learn about this story of the Trump team hiring Black Cube to discredit Obama administration figures, the same firm used by Weinstein, and then a few days later Trump pulls out of the Iran deal. Again, it’s a disturbingly topical story that just gets more and more disturbingly topical.

    But that’s not all in terms of Black Cube’s topicalness. Because guess which other highly scandalous entity allegedly hired Black Cube to do some dirty work for shady ends: Cambridge Analytica! Of course.

    Remember those stories about Cambridge Analytica hiring an “Israeli team” to hack the documents (or at least obtain hacked documents) of its clients opponents in places like Nigeria and St Kitts? Well, it sure sounds like Cambridge Analytica’s “Israeli team” was actually Black Cube:

    The Daily Dot

    What is Black Cube, the Cambridge Analytica-linked intelligence firm?

    Amrita Khalid—
    Apr 7 at 1:30AM

    Cambridge Analytica, the data firm which was hired by the Trump campaign, has drawn fire for its murky tactics in engaging voters during the U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum. including illegally harvesting information from 87 million Facebook profiles. But an even shadier story is brewing. In his testimony last month to the U.K. Parliament, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie threw an Israeli private intelligence firm known as Black Cube under the bus.

    Wylie claimed that Cambridge Analytica hired Black Cube to hack Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari.

    “Black Cube on the Nigeria project was engaged to hack the now-president Buhari to get access to his medical records and private emails,” said Wylie before a committee of British MPs.

    In the wake of the burgeoning scandal, Cambridge Analytica was banned from Facebook, its CEO has been suspended, and it is currently the subject of multiple government investigations on both sides of the Atlantic.

    The Guardian reported that Cambridge Analytica was paid £2 million pounds by a Nigerian billionaire to organize an opposition campaign against Buhari on behalf of his opponent, Goodluck Jonathan. According to reports, Cambridge Analytica was given Buhari’s medical records and private emails by Israeli hackers. Still, it is unclear whether the hackers are associated with Black Cube.

    Following Wylie’s damning testimony, Black Cube denied any ties to the embattled data firm as well as engaging in any work in Nigeria. The Israeli firm said it plans on investigating why Wylie made the claim and will then proceed to sue any entity involved in its defamation.

    “Additionally, we will file a massive defamation claim against any entity whom we find has defamed Black Cube, including Christopher Wylie, SCL, and Cambridge Analytica, and pursue them for every penny,” said the statement from Black Cube.

    What is Black Cube?

    A look at Black Cube’s website currently reveals that Nigeria is not highlighted on a world map that indicates countries in which the firm has clients. But a simple glance at the Wayback Machine shows that Nigeria was once very clearly highlighted.

    Here’s a screenshot of Black Cube’s current website:

    [see screenshot of Black Cube’s website showing world map of clients without Nigeria highlighted]

    And here’s a screenshot of Black Cube’s website from December 2016, during which Nigeria is very clearly shaded:

    [see screenshot of Black Cube’s website showing world map of clients with Nigeria highlighted]

    But what exactly is Black Cube? Black Cube was founded in 2010 by two former Israeli intelligence officers; Dan Zorella, who currently serves as CEO of the company and Dr. Avi Yanus, who currently serves as director and CFO. Its staff was estimated by Forbes to number 100. This includes prominent former members of Israeli intelligence, attorneys, academics, and psychologists. Meir Dagan, the former director of Mossad, served at the helm of Black Cube’s board until his death in 2016.

    “Meir was not involved in Black Cube’s day-to-day operations, but when you say ‘The president of my company is Meir Dagan,’ there is no better entrance card to any club you choose,” a former Israeli intelligence officer told Forbes Israel.

    What does Black Cube do?

    According to its website, Black Cube’s primary function is litigation and conflict support. In short, it helps companies involved in legal disputes find evidence to strengthen their cases in court. Black Cube’s clients are more often than not multi-billion dollar, multinational companies involved in tricky, foreign legal battles.

    A former British army officer who worked in the Israeli private sector praised the quality of Black Cube’s work in an interview with the Independent in 2013: “Black Cube is at the high end of the market. From what we know they are into analysis and security systems rather than heavy, muscle stuff. They appear to have good connections within the IDF, [but] we don’t know the level of [any] work they carry out for the Israeli state,” said the officer.

    Who are Black Cube’s clients?

    One of Black Cube’s clients was Vincent Tchenguiz, a British real estate tycoon whose businesses took a hit during the 2008 financial crisis. After the British Office of Serious Fraud (SFO) opened an investigation into the collapse of a bank Tchenguiz owned, he tapped Black Cube to help build his defense. Black Cube did such a good job that not only were the charges against Tchenguiz dropped, but SFO was ordered by the court to pay £3 million in damages and issue a formal apology to Tchenguiz.

    Black Cube was also hired by Harvey Weinstein in order to investigate the women that accused the Hollywood film producer of sexual abuse. The Israeli firm compiled extensive psychological profiles of dozens of women, including sexual and personal histories in an effort to intimidate the victims from going public.

    Asher Tishler, a member of Black Cube’s advisory board, apologized for taking on the Weinstein job in an interview on Israeli television.

    “Of course we apologize to whoever was hurt by this,” said Tishler during a TV interview on Israel’s The News. “In retrospect, it’s a shame we took the job.”

    ———-

    “What is Black Cube, the Cambridge Analytica-linked intelligence firm?” by Amrita Khalid; The Daily Dot; 04/07/2018

    “Wylie claimed that Cambridge Analytica hired Black Cube to hack Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari.”

    So that’s the claim Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie made last month: it was Black Cube who hacked its Nigerian client’s opponent to get his medical records and private emails or at least worked with the people who did the actual hacking:


    “Black Cube on the Nigeria project was engaged to hack the now-president Buhari to get access to his medical records and private emails,” said Wylie before a committee of British MPs.

    In the wake of the burgeoning scandal, Cambridge Analytica was banned from Facebook, its CEO has been suspended, and it is currently the subject of multiple government investigations on both sides of the Atlantic.

    The Guardian reported that Cambridge Analytica was paid £2 million pounds by a Nigerian billionaire to organize an opposition campaign against Buhari on behalf of his opponent, Goodluck Jonathan. According to reports, Cambridge Analytica was given Buhari’s medical records and private emails by Israeli hackers. Still, it is unclear whether the hackers are associated with Black Cube.

    So what’s the range of services offered by Black Cube? Well, given that it was led by a former director of the Mossad, Meri Dagan, those services are probably something like ‘anything a spy service might be capable of doing’, although its ostensibly focused on helping companies resolve legal disputes by finding evidence to strengthen their cases in court:


    But what exactly is Black Cube? Black Cube was founded in 2010 by two former Israeli intelligence officers; Dan Zorella, who currently serves as CEO of the company and Dr. Avi Yanus, who currently serves as director and CFO. Its staff was estimated by Forbes to number 100. This includes prominent former members of Israeli intelligence, attorneys, academics, and psychologists. Meir Dagan, the former director of Mossad, served at the helm of Black Cube’s board until his death in 2016.

    “Meir was not involved in Black Cube’s day-to-day operations, but when you say ‘The president of my company is Meir Dagan,’ there is no better entrance card to any club you choose,” a former Israeli intelligence officer told Forbes Israel.

    What does Black Cube do?

    According to its website, Black Cube’s primary function is litigation and conflict support. In short, it helps companies involved in legal disputes find evidence to strengthen their cases in court. Black Cube’s clients are more often than not multi-billion dollar, multinational companies involved in tricky, foreign legal battles.

    A former British army officer who worked in the Israeli private sector praised the quality of Black Cube’s work in an interview with the Independent in 2013: “Black Cube is at the high end of the market. From what we know they are into analysis and security systems rather than heavy, muscle stuff. They appear to have good connections within the IDF, [but] we don’t know the level of [any] work they carry out for the Israeli state,” said the officer.

    And, of course, Black Cube totally denies ever working for Cambridge Analytica or its parent company SCL and pledges to sue everyone making these claims:


    Following Wylie’s damning testimony, Black Cube denied any ties to the embattled data firm as well as engaging in any work in Nigeria. The Israeli firm said it plans on investigating why Wylie made the claim and will then proceed to sue any entity involved in its defamation.

    “Additionally, we will file a massive defamation claim against any entity whom we find has defamed Black Cube, including Christopher Wylie, SCL, and Cambridge Analytica, and pursue them for every penny,” said the statement from Black Cube.

    And yet, despite those denials, it’s hard to ignore that Black Cube’s own website used to list Nigeria on its list of countries in which the firm has clients:


    What is Black Cube?

    A look at Black Cube’s website currently reveals that Nigeria is not highlighted on a world map that indicates countries in which the firm has clients. But a simple glance at the Wayback Machine shows that Nigeria was once very clearly highlighted.

    Here’s a screenshot of Black Cube’s current website:

    [see screenshot of Black Cube’s website showing world map of clients without Nigeria highlighted]

    And here’s a screenshot of Black Cube’s website from December 2016, during which Nigeria is very clearly shaded:

    [see screenshot of Black Cube’s website showing world map of clients with Nigeria highlighted]

    We’ll see if Black Cube ends up suing Christopher Wylie for libel like they pledged to do, but this story is from a month ago and so far we haven’t seen any reports of lawsuits flying out of Black Cube.

    All in all, it sure looks like the Trump team hired the same private intelligence firm for its ‘kill the messenger’ Iran deal dirty tricks operation that Cambridge Analytica used to use for its political hacking operations. It’s the kind of revelation that raises the question of whether or not Cambridge Analytica was going to be part of this anti-Iran deal operation too. Because while Cambridge Analytica may have technically shuttered itself at this point (only to be reborn as “Emerdata”), don’t forget that the Iran deal surveillance apparently began before the end of Obama’s term, a time when the Trump team could have hired Cambridge Analytica without too much public scrutiny. And the pattern for Cambridge Analytica appeared to be that Black Cube gathers the dirty information and then Cambridge Analytica expertly exploits it for public consumption. Now we learn that Black Cube was gathering dirt on two form Obama staffers and their families for the purpose of discrediting them, implying a planned phased of public consumption for the dirt they gather.

    So we have to ask, was Cambridge Analytica in on this anti-Iran deal dirty tricks operation too at some point? Perhaps part of a ‘kill the messenger via psychological warfare services’ planned campaign? Either way, this story is another reminder that even if Cambridge Analytica completely goes away, the demand for its kind of services isn’t going anywhere thanks to an abundance of people who will do anything for power.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 9, 2018, 3:49 pm
  14. Here’s a story users of WhatsApp – the encrypted communications app purchased by Facebook – should probably keep in mind if they’re assuming that Facebook isn’t going to find a way to learn about the contents of your WhatsApp conversions: the CEO of WhatsApp, Jan Koum, recently announced he’s planning on leaving Facebook. And it’s a particularly notable executive departure because Koum was the onoy founder of a company acquired by Facebook to end up serving on its board and only two other Facebook executives, Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, are members of the board. So this is a remarkably high level departure.

    Koum’s WhatsApp co-founder, Brian Acton, left Facebook in November.

    So what’s triggered Koum’s and Acton’s decision to resign and, as Koum put it, focus on other pursuits, “such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee”? Well, that where the inherent conflict between Facebook’s business model and Koum’s and Acton’s promise to WhatsApp users comes in: WhatsApp promised to be an encrypted communications app that guaranteed user privacy, including privacy from WhatsApp itself. Facebook, a company with a business model predicated on serving up personally targeted ads, paid $19 billion for WhatsApp. And when Facebook purchased WhatsApp it promised Koum that it would adhere to his vision of respecting user privacy and keep WhatsApp an independent service that doesn’t get fused with the rest of Facebook.

    How is Facebook planning on monetizing that $19 billion investment in a product it promised to not merge with Facebook’s personalized ads model? By violating Koum’s and Acton’s vision, of course. Within 18 months of purchasing WhatsApp, Facebook was already finding way to merge it into the rest of Facebook’s targeted business model. Koum and Acton were ok with sharing some data with Facebook to measure who was using WhatsApp, but they opposed incorporating WhatApp data int the centralized user profiles that Facebook creates on all of us and shares across its various products and uses for targeted ads. In the end, Koun and Acton agreed to let Facebook recommend that users’ WhatsApps contacts become their Facebook friends too and also allow Facebook to collect more data on those relationships.

    In addition, advertisers are now allowed to use Facebook’s “custom lists” feature – where advertisers give Facebook a list of email address of people they want to target and Facebook matches those email addresses and phone numbers to Facebook accounts and serves of the ads – on WhatsApp users too. There are no ads on WhatsApp at this point, but the phone numbers of WhatsApp users (which are now connected to their Facebook accounts) can now be used in Facebook’s Custom Lists ad targeting tool. In other words, WhatsApp is now used to associated phone numbers with Facebook accounts in case Facebook didn’t already have that information.

    There’s also a new WhatsApp tool that allows business to send messages to target lists of people (which is basically an ad delivery system). In other words, while it’s unclear how much of the content of people’s actual WhatsApp messages are being merged into Facebook centralized ad targeting system, it’s pretty clear that all of the other kinds of information WhatsApp collects on its user (like your phone number and WhatsApp contacts) is now fused with the rest of Facebook data-collection monolith.

    And regarding data-mining the actual content of WhatsApp messages, Facebook appears to be interesting in weakening WhatsApp’s encryption. This is ostensibly to enable some features for businesses but its also pretty obviously a path to all Facebook to start harvesting the content of user’s messages.

    So the full incorporation of WhatsApp data into the rest of Facebook is well underway and just a matter of time. And that all is why Acton left Facebook last year and Koum recently decided to focus on collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, work on cars and play ultimate frisbee:

    The Washington Post

    WhatsApp founder plans to leave after broad clashes with parent Facebook

    by Elizabeth Dwoskin
    April 30, 2018 at 4:49 PM

    SAN FRANCISCO — The billionaire chief executive of WhatsApp, Jan Koum, is planning to leave the company after clashing with its parent, Facebook, over the popular messaging service’s strategy and Facebook’s attempts to use its personal data and weaken its encryption, according to people familiar with internal discussions.

    Koum, who sold WhatsApp to Facebook for more than $19 billion in 2014, also plans to step down from Facebook’s board of directors, according to these people. The date of his departure isn’t known.

    It “is time for me to move on,” Koum wrote in a Facebook post after The Washington Post reported his plans to depart. He has been informing senior executives at Facebook and WhatsApp of his decision, and in recent months has been showing up less frequently to WhatsApp’s offices on Facebook’s campus in Silicon Valley, according to the people.

    The independence and protection of its users’ data is a core tenet of WhatsApp that Koum and his co-founder, Brian Acton, promised to preserve when they sold their tiny start-up to Facebook. It doubled down on its pledge by adding encryption in 2016. The clash over data took on additional significance in the wake of revelations in March that Facebook had allowed third parties to mishandle its users’ personal information.

    Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg replied to Koum’s post by crediting Koum with teaching him “about encryption and its ability to take power from centralized systems and put it back in people’s hands. Those values will always be at the heart of WhatsApp.”

    Facebook, though, needs to prove that its investment in WhatsApp — its largest acquisition ever — was worth it.

    “Part of Facebook’s success has been to digest acquisitions, successfully monetize them, and integrate them into their advertising machine,” said Daniel Ives, chief strategy officer and head of technology research for research firm GBH Insights. But WhatsApp has been more challenging because of resistance from the founders, he said. “This was a massive culture clash.”

    Koum’s exit is highly unusual at Facebook. The inner circle of management, as well as the board of directors, has been fiercely loyal during the scandals that have rocked the social media giant. In addition, Koum is the sole founder of a company acquired by Facebook to serve on its board. Only two other Facebook executives, Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, are members of the board.

    In his Facebook post, Koum said he would take some time off from technology to focus on other pursuits, “such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee.”

    Acton left the company in November. He has joined a chorus of former executives critical of Facebook. Acton recently endorsed a #DeleteFacebook social media campaign that has gained force in the wake of the controversy over data privacy sparked by Cambridge Analytica, a political marketing firm tied to the Trump campaign that had inappropriately obtained the private information of 87 million Facebook users.

    Though the Cambridge Analytica revelations contributed to a climate of broader frustration with Facebook among WhatsApp employees, Koum made his decision to leave before the scandal, the people said.

    WhatsApp, with 1.5 billion monthly users, is the largest messaging service in the world. It is most popular in countries such as India, Egypt and Brazil, as well as in Europe, where it is used for phone calls and text messaging with friends and businesses, as well as news distribution and group chats.

    Koum and Acton, former co-workers at Yahoo, founded WhatsApp in 2009. It promised private communications for 99 cents a year. By 2014, the tiny company had almost 500 million users. It caught the attention of Zuckerberg, who was looking to expand the social network overseas. After a dinner at Zuckerberg’s house, Zuckerberg made an offer for WhatsApp that turned Acton and Koum into instant billionaires.

    But even in the early days, there were signs of a mismatch. WhatsApp had less than $20 million in revenue at the time of the acquisition. Facebook was making billions of dollars by selling advertisers access to its users, on whom it had collected large amounts of information.

    Koum and Acton were openly disparaging of the targeted advertising model. In a WhatsApp blog post in 2012, they wrote that “no one wakes up excited to see more advertising; no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow.” They described online advertising as “a disruption to aesthetics, an insult to your intelligence, and the interruption of your train of thought.”

    The WhatsApp co-founders were also big believers in privacy. They took pains to collect as little data as possible from their users, requiring only phone numbers and putting them at odds with data-hungry Facebook. At the time of the acquisition, Koum and Acton said Facebook had assured them that WhatsApp could remain an independent service and would not share its data with Facebook.

    How and if WhatsApp would make money was left an open question. “WhatsApp will remain autonomous and operate independently,” the founders wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition. “And you can still count on absolutely no ads interrupting your communication.”

    Eighteen months later, the promise not to share data evaporated. Facebook pushed WhatsApp to change its terms of service to give the social network access to the phone numbers of WhatsApp users, along with analytics such as what devices and operating systems people were using.

    WhatsApp executives were comfortable sharing some data with Facebook to measure who was using the service, according to the people. But they opposed using WhatsApp’s data to create a user profile that was unified across Facebook’s multiple platforms, which also include Instagram and Facebook Messenger, and that could be used for ad-targeting or for Facebook’s data-mining.

    Acton and Koum acquiesced, enabling Facebook to recommend that users’ WhatsApp contacts become their Facebook friends and making it possible for Facebook to collect more data about those relationships. The changes also allowed advertisers to feed lists of phone numbers into Facebook’s advertising system, known as Custom Audience, and find new people to target with ads.

    Last year, the European Commission, the European Union’s regulatory authority, fined Facebook $122 million for making “misleading” statements when the E.U. approved the WhatsApp takeover.

    Conflicts soon arose over how WhatsApp would make money. Facebook scrapped the 99-cent annual charge, and Koum and Acton continued to oppose the advertising model. The service still has no ads, but WhatsApp has embarked on experiments to make money: In January, Facebook rolled out a tool, called WhatsApp Business, to allow businesses to create a profile and send messages to their customers on WhatsApp. The founders also clashed with Facebook over building a mobile payments system on WhatsApp in India.

    Another point of disagreement was over WhatsApp’s encryption. In 2016, WhatsApp added end-to-end encryption, a security feature that scrambles people’s messages so that outsiders, including WhatsApp’s owners, can’t read them. Facebook executives wanted to make it easier for businesses to use its tools, and WhatsApp executives believed that doing so would require some weakening of its encryption.

    Ultimately, Koum was worn down by the differences in approach, the people said. Other WhatsApp employees are demoralized and plan to leave in November, four years and a month after the Facebook acquisition, when they are allowed to exercise all their stock options under the terms of the Facebook deal, according to the people.

    Acton donated $50 million of his money to Signal, a rival messaging app that is geared toward security and privacy. In a recent blog post announcing his donation and role as the executive chairman of the nonprofit Signal Foundation, Acton said his goal was to build “the most trusted communications experience on the planet.”

    ———-

    “WhatsApp founder plans to leave after broad clashes with parent Facebook” by Elizabeth Dwoskin; The Washington Post; 04/30/2018

    “The billionaire chief executive of WhatsApp, Jan Koum, is planning to leave the company after clashing with its parent, Facebook, over the popular messaging service’s strategy and Facebook’s attempts to use its personal data and weaken its encryption, according to people familiar with internal discussions.”

    Well, now we at least know the rationale behind Facebook’s decision to pay $19 billion for a company with an anti-Facebook business model: business models can be quietly changed after you own a company. That was the rationale for Facebook’s purchase of a company guided by an anti-Facebook philosophy:


    The independence and protection of its users’ data is a core tenet of WhatsApp that Koum and his co-founder, Brian Acton, promised to preserve when they sold their tiny start-up to Facebook. It doubled down on its pledge by adding encryption in 2016. The clash over data took on additional significance in the wake of revelations in March that Facebook had allowed third parties to mishandle its users’ personal information.

    Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg replied to Koum’s post by crediting Koum with teaching him “about encryption and its ability to take power from centralized systems and put it back in people’s hands. Those values will always be at the heart of WhatsApp.”

    Facebook, though, needs to prove that its investment in WhatsApp — its largest acquisition ever — was worth it.

    “Part of Facebook’s success has been to digest acquisitions, successfully monetize them, and integrate them into their advertising machine,” said Daniel Ives, chief strategy officer and head of technology research for research firm GBH Insights. But WhatsApp has been more challenging because of resistance from the founders, he said. “This was a massive culture clash.”

    As a result of this inversion of WhatsApp’s corporate philosophy we saw Brian Acton leave Facebook in November and the endorse the #DeleteFacebook campaign in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica:


    Acton left the company in November. He has joined a chorus of former executives critical of Facebook. Acton recently endorsed a #DeleteFacebook social media campaign that has gained force in the wake of the controversy over data privacy sparked by Cambridge Analytica, a political marketing firm tied to the Trump campaign that had inappropriately obtained the private information of 87 million Facebook users.

    And none of this shoudl be a surprise, because this was an obvious corporate mismatch from the very beginning:


    But even in the early days, there were signs of a mismatch. WhatsApp had less than $20 million in revenue at the time of the acquisition. Facebook was making billions of dollars by selling advertisers access to its users, on whom it had collected large amounts of information.

    Koum and Acton were openly disparaging of the targeted advertising model. In a WhatsApp blog post in 2012, they wrote that “no one wakes up excited to see more advertising; no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow.” They described online advertising as “a disruption to aesthetics, an insult to your intelligence, and the interruption of your train of thought.”

    The WhatsApp co-founders were also big believers in privacy. They took pains to collect as little data as possible from their users, requiring only phone numbers and putting them at odds with data-hungry Facebook. At the time of the acquisition, Koum and Acton said Facebook had assured them that WhatsApp could remain an independent service and would not share its data with Facebook.

    All it took was just 18 months after the purchase of WhatsApp and the promise to keep WhatsApp independent evaporated. Facebook got access to phone numbers and began the process of unifying its profiles on WhatsApp users with the rest of its Facebook profile information. Now Facebook advertisers can use the phone numbers from WhatsApp that have been merged with the unified Facebook profile system in the Custom List ad targeting:


    How and if WhatsApp would make money was left an open question. “WhatsApp will remain autonomous and operate independently,” the founders wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition. “And you can still count on absolutely no ads interrupting your communication.”

    Eighteen months later, the promise not to share data evaporated. Facebook pushed WhatsApp to change its terms of service to give the social network access to the phone numbers of WhatsApp users, along with analytics such as what devices and operating systems people were using.

    WhatsApp executives were comfortable sharing some data with Facebook to measure who was using the service, according to the people. But they opposed using WhatsApp’s data to create a user profile that was unified across Facebook’s multiple platforms, which also include Instagram and Facebook Messenger, and that could be used for ad-targeting or for Facebook’s data-mining.

    Acton and Koum acquiesced, enabling Facebook to recommend that users’ WhatsApp contacts become their Facebook friends and making it possible for Facebook to collect more data about those relationships. The changes also allowed advertisers to feed lists of phone numbers into Facebook’s advertising system, known as Custom Audience, and find new people to target with ads.

    Conflicts soon arose over how WhatsApp would make money. Facebook scrapped the 99-cent annual charge, and Koum and Acton continued to oppose the advertising model. The service still has no ads, but WhatsApp has embarked on experiments to make money: The founders also clashed with Facebook over building a mobile payments system on WhatsApp in India.

    And then there’s Facebook’s plans for weakening WhatsApp’s encryption, the one thing current preventing Facebook from data-mining all of the content of your WhatsApp messages:


    Another point of disagreement was over WhatsApp’s encryption. In 2016, WhatsApp added end-to-end encryption, a security feature that scrambles people’s messages so that outsiders, including WhatsApp’s owners, can’t read them. Facebook executives wanted to make it easier for businesses to use its tools, and WhatsApp executives believed that doing so would require some weakening of its encryption.

    Ultimately, Koum was worn down by the differences in approach, the people said. Other WhatsApp employees are demoralized and plan to leave in November, four years and a month after the Facebook acquisition, when they are allowed to exercise all their stock options under the terms of the Facebook deal, according to the people.

    Acton donated $50 million of his money to Signal, a rival messaging app that is geared toward security and privacy. In a recent blog post announcing his donation and role as the executive chairman of the nonprofit Signal Foundation, Acton said his goal was to build “the most trusted communications experience on the planet.”

    “Facebook executives wanted to make it easier for businesses to use its tools, and WhatsApp executives believed that doing so would require some weakening of its encryption.”

    LOL, yeah, they’re just going to weaken the encryption purely enable some business features. Sure.

    So that’s all something WhatsApp users should keep in mind regarding the privacy of their WhatsApp communications: they probably won’t have any privacy soon much like the rest of the Facebook tools they use.

    It’s a reminder that the prevailing profit-maximization model of business isn’t actually compatible with things this consumer privacy. Sure, businesses could base their business models on users paying for privacy, like WhatsApp originally did charging users and annual fee. But even under that model there’s still going to be the temptation to find ways to surreptitiously violate privacy for greater profits. It’s an inherent aspect of our profit-maximizing system.

    And don’t forget that any spying made available to Facebook is also quite possibly going to made available to Peter Thiel’s Palantir given Thiel’s position at Facebook.

    Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that even if Facebook made none of these changes it’s not like WhatsApps ever truly offered the kind of super-secure privacy people liked to believe they were getting. Why? Because the end-to-end encryption feature still didn’t protect against spyware on your phone. Recall how Gamma, the maker of the FinFisher hacking software sold to governments around the world, had code to hack WhatsApp using spyware on your phone. The story about the CIA’s released hacking tools also being able to get around WhatsApp’s encryption. Similarly, Germany recently made it legal to plant spyware on smartphones for the purpose of getting around the end-to-end encryption of WhatsApp. And then there’s the reports of Michael Flynn working with a company, NSO, that sold spyware to governments looking to plant spyware on smartphones in order to get around message services like WhatsApp. When spyware is ubiquitous end-to-end encryption is no guarantee of privacy.

    And keep in mind that the encryption technology Facebook decided to implement for WhatsApp is the Open Whispers system developed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. So, you know, Facebook might not be the only entity out there interested in weakening WhatsApp’s encryption.

    But beyond the concerns of spyware and and corporate/state-based attacks on WhatsApp’s encryption technology, we can’t ignore the fact that if WhatsApp really did deliver on what it promised, truly unbreakable encryption that can only be bypassed by the owner of a smartphone, that would also pose its own set of public hazards. Strong encryption technologies really are potent tools for abuse, not just by rogue government agencies, organized crime, and terrorist groups, but also abuse by the public in general. For instance, WhatsApp has proven to be a potent tool for spreading misinformation campaigns that the public can’t stop or counter, as was the case in Brazil when WhatsApp, which is wildly popular there, was used to disseminate realistic looking ‘news’ reports encouraging people NOT to get vaccinated. There’s also the stories about high school kids in Germany using WhatsApp to promote Nazi propaganda. And then there’s the Facebook whistleblower, Chamath Palihapitiya, who warned that social media is tearing society apart and who noted how hoax messages over WhatsApp about kidnappings led to the lynching of seven innocent people. There really is a social cost to impregnable privacy and it’s a potentially devastating cost under the worst case scenarios.

    And, of course, there are going to be endless reports of thinking like law enforcement running into a digital wall when it comes to legal and totally valid wiretap orders for WhatsApp users. It’s an example of the meta-problem with encryption technology in general: there’s no clean right/wrong path forward and humans are horrible at navigating these kinds of morally ambiguous situations.

    So that’s all something WhatsApp users should keep in mind: Just as there is a real ‘privacy vs security’ dynamic at work here, there’s also a ‘privacy vs profits’ dynamic. And while the ‘privacy vs security’ debate remains one of those issues that humanity is barely even acknowledging or grappling with at this point and doesn’t really have a clear answer – other than striving for a very high quality government that can appropriately regulate companies like Facebook and the surveillance state – the ‘privacy vs profit’ debate has already been quietly resolved. Profits won.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 19, 2018, 2:40 pm
  15. Well, that’s one helluva twist to emerge on the one year anniversary of the opening of the Mueller investigation: It turns out there’s a new Trump Tower meeting from the summer of 2016 involving representatives of foreign governments offering the Trump campaign help in the election.

    But it’s not the Russian government making the offer this time. It was the Saudi Arabia and the UAE expressing an “eagerness” to help Trump win the election. That’s what was expressed during this newly discovered August 3rd, 2018, meeting in Trump Tower.

    Yep. These would, of course, be same countries that appear to be behind the “back channel” negotiations in the Seychelles, where Erik Prince (as the Trump representative), George Nader (as the Saudi/UAE representative), and Kirill Dmitriev (as the Kremlin representative) met at a bar in the Seychelles to discuss a proposal from the Trump team and its Middle Eastern partners to Russia. A proposal that appeared to have as one of its major goals shifting Russia away from its alliance with Iran and the Assad government, and paving the way for regime change operations against Iran and letting the Assad government fall and be replaced by the Saudi/UAE-backed jihadist. And guess who was at this new August 3, 2016 Trump Tower meeting: Erik Prince and George Nader. It’s the same crew.

    Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also the same countries at the heart of the proposed nuclear power “Marshall plan” for the Middle East getting pushed by Michael Flynn where countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE would all get nuclear power plants (but not Iran or the Assad government). Enticing Russia to pull away from Iran and Syria with such a lucrative offer (paired with a presumed drop in oil prices) was also one of the goals of this nuclear Marshall plan.

    So Saudi Arabia and the UAE were already significant players in this whole story. And now we learn about an August 3rd, 2016 Trump Tower meeting along with Erik Prince and George Nader.

    And here’s where the whole Cambridge Analytica story factors into all of this: one of the other attendees of the newly discovered meeting was Joel Zamel, the owner of two Israeli companies that appears to appears to offer many of the same services offered by SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Psy Group and Wikistrat.

    As we’re going to see in the second article below, Wikistrat claims to offer crowdsourced analysis – analysis on geopolitical problems using a network of analysts – and has been working with the UAE to predict threats related to the war in Yemen.

    And Zamen’s Psy Group private intelligence appears to be like a mix between Cambridge Analytica and Black Cube. First, recall how Black Cube was an Israeli private intelligence firm allegedly offering services like obtaining hacked documents and Cambridge contracted with them to do exactly that in 2015 for a Nigerian client. Also recall how the Trump aides hired Black Cube to dig up dirt on two Obama administration officials (and their families) who were involved with promoting the Iran nuclear deal for the purpose of discrediting them and discrediting the Iran deal by proxy. Also recall how Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO, Alexander Nix, bragged to an undercover reporter posing as a prospective client that Cambridge Analytica offered sexual honey-pot services against the political opponents of their clients. And that’s in addition to Cambridge Analytica’s social media manipulation and personalized psychological targeting services. Well, it turns out Zamel’s Psy Group offers services like psychological warfare and social media manipulation for the purpose of changing public opinion. And services like setting up sexual honey-traps for the purpose of political blackmail and character assassination, just like Cambridge Analytica offered. And services like navigating the Dark Web. Psy Group is in fact seen as a direct competitor for Black Cube.

    Don’t forget the other area where the Dark Web figures into this: there were multiple teams of right-wing forces scouring the Dark Web looking for someone offering Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails. That was the picture that emerged from the story of GOP financier/opposition researcher Peter Smith who assembled a team that involved Steven Bannon and Michael Flynn to search the Dark Web for Hillary’s emails. When they consulted Charles C. Johnson, who had the same goal and referred them to Andrew Auernhiemer, Johnson indicated he knew of multiple Alt Right teams of people searching the Dark Web for hacked Hillary emails (and presumably any hacked Democratic emails). In addition, there was the 2015 Dark Web search team assembled by Barbara Ledeen, wife of arch-neocon Michael Ledeen who co-authored a book with Michael Flynn about geopolitics, and included Newt Gingrich and Judicial Watch. So the kinds of Dark Web services offered by Black Cube and Psy Group are probably in pretty high demand.

    And Zamel already had a plan for the Trump campaign ready to go at the August Trump Tower meeting. Trump Jr. acknowledged the plan was pitched but claims he turned it down. But as the first article below notes, one source claims Trump Jr. responded approvingly to the plan at the meeting and soon after George Nader was embraced as a close ally and frequently met with Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn. And after Trump was elected, Nader reportedly paid Zamel up to $2 million, although much of that $2 million is apparently being attributed to some sort of elaborate presentation Zamel gave to the Trump campaign about the importance of social media (that’s an expensive sales pitch).

    As the first article also notes, Kushner, Flynn and Steve Bannon apparently consulted closely with George Nader in the final weeks of the campaign. Might that have been to coordinate with Zamen’s group? Don’t forget that Steve Bannon is a co-founder and executive officer of Cambridge Analytica. So if Nader was acting as an intermediary with Zamen’s Psy Group those meetings could have been the means of channeling the quiet coordination between the Trump campaign and Psy Group through Cambridge Analytica.

    Another thing to keep in mind regarding the possibility that Cambridge Analytica was coordinating with Psy Group is the fact that Cambridge Analytica was hired by the UAE to run a social media campaign against Qatar. Cambridge Analytica then went bankrupt but appears to have been reborn as an UAE-finance “Emerdata” (which sounds like “Emerati-data”).

    As the following article notes, Nader was also in discussions with Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater, about a plan to get the Saudis to pay $2 billion to set up a private army to combat Iranian proxy forces in Yemen. And after the inauguration, Nader was reportedly promoting a plan to the US, Saudis, and UAE to economically destabilize Iran and promote regime-change. Nader’s plan would cost about $300 million. It’s unclear if it was truly his own plan or he was promoting it on behalf of a client, although the client scenario seems the likeliest. Nader also tried to persuade Jared Kushner to endorse the economic sabotage plan to Crown Prince Mohammed in person on a trip to Riyadh. It’s a sign Kushner and the Trump team probably backed the plan and Nader was probably acting on behalf of the UAE.

    And as the following article notes, the Saudis and UAE openly disliked the policies of the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State. They didn’t like the Iran nuclear deal and wanted a deeper US involvement in Syria. That appears to be a big part of the motive for going as far as they appear to have gone in choosing sides in a US election.

    So we are now learning that the Saudis and UAE were not just “eager” to help Trump win but eager for that help to come in the form of a private intelligence operation that’s like a mix between Cambridge Analytica and Black Cube. And we also learn that Donald Trump Jr. was excited about the offer George Nader became a close ally with the Trump team shortly after this August Trump Tower meeting. The sure sounds like collusion!

    And in relation to the DNC hack, it’s worth recalling that some of the hacking code used by Hacking Team – the Italian cybersecurity firm that sold legal hacking tools to countries like the Saudis and UAE until it got hacked itself and had all its hacking tools leaked online – included code that looked like X-Agent, one of the pieces of malware said to be exclusively Russian hackers. It’s also worth recalling that the Saudi government tried to purchase a majority stake in Hacking Team in 2013. And when Hacking Team was facing bankruptcy after its 2015 hack it was a mysterious Saudi investor who infused the company with cash in early 2016.

    And don’t forget that Joseph Mifsud, the mysterious Maltese professor with Kremlin ties who first approached George Papadopoulos in March of 2016 talking about the Russians having thousands of Hillary’s emails, was also employed by the Saudis and appeared to act as a representative for Saudi interests in Russia.

    The following article also includes another key fact in all this in terms of the timeline of events in the DNC hack of March 2016: George Nader began approaching the Trump team about offering Emirati help to the Trump team soon after it looked like Trump had the GOP nomination locked up in early 2016. And Trump was already looking like the likely winner of the primary by the beginning of March of 2016, the same month of the ‘Fancy Bear’ hack conspicuously filled with ‘I’m a Russian Hacker’ clues. and, really, he was looking like the likely winner before March. So this August 2016 Trump Tower meeting was probably a continuation of conversations that began months earlier, which would explain why Zamel’s team apparently had a plan for a social media influence campaign for the Trump team ready to go and it’s entirely possible this Saudi/UAE collusion with the Trump team quietly started well before the ‘Fancy Bear’ hack.

    It’s a reminder that the Saudis and UAE could very well be the true culprits Fancy Bear hack that was filled with ‘I’m a Russian hacker!’ clues. They had the hacking means and the motive. And not just a motive to help Trump win. They had a motive to hack the DNC and leave ‘Russian fingerprints’ all over the hack if they were planning on implementing a ‘carrot and stick’ strategy to get Russia to change its policies towards Iran and Syria. Hack Hillary to help get Trump elected and then use the subsequent outrage at Russian and additional sanctions to help incentivize Russia’s acceptance of a big alliance shift deal. Might that have been part of how this all played out?

    Who knows, but it’s pretty remarkable that, at the one year mark into this #TrumpRussia investigation, we now have the most compelling evidence yet of the Trump campaign colluding with a foreign government. It’s not just one but two foreign governments. And they are both governments with major problems with both the foreign policy of the Democrats and the foreign policy of Russia. And as the following article notes, the Mueller team is apparently looking into whether or not the government of Qatar was also making overtures to the Trump campaign. So we don’t just have Russia’s rivals, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, involved with this but their regional rival Qatar was potentially colluding with the Trump team too. In other words, #TrumpRussia is quickly becoming #TrumpRussiaAndRussianRivals:

    The New York Times

    Trump Jr. and Other Aides Met With Gulf Emissary Offering Help to Win Election

    By Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman and David D. Kirkpatrick
    May 19, 2018

    WASHINGTON — Three months before the 2016 election, a small group gathered at Trump Tower to meet with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son. One was an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation. Another was an emissary for two wealthy Arab princes. The third was a Republican donor with a controversial past in the Middle East as a private security contractor.

    The meeting was convened primarily to offer help to the Trump team, and it forged relationships between the men and Trump insiders that would develop over the coming months — past the election and well into President Trump’s first year in office, according to several people with knowledge of their encounters.

    Erik Prince, the private security contractor and the former head of Blackwater, arranged the meeting, which took place on Aug. 3, 2016. The emissary, George Nader, told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president. The social media specialist, Joel Zamel, extolled his company’s ability to give an edge to a political campaign; by that time, the firm had already drawn up a multimillion-dollar proposal for a social media manipulation effort to help elect Mr. Trump.

    The company, which employed several Israeli former intelligence officers, specialized in collecting information and shaping opinion through social media.

    It is unclear whether such a proposal was executed, and the details of who commissioned it remain in dispute. But Donald Trump Jr. responded approvingly, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting, and after those initial offers of help, Mr. Nader was quickly embraced as a close ally by Trump campaign advisers — meeting frequently with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, and Michael T. Flynn, who became the president’s first national security adviser. At the time, Mr. Nader was also promoting a secret plan to use private contractors to destabilize Iran, the regional nemesis of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

    After Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Nader paid Mr. Zamel a large sum of money, described by one associate as up to $2 million. There are conflicting accounts of the reason for the payment, but among other things, a company linked to Mr. Zamel provided Mr. Nader with an elaborate presentation about the significance of social media campaigning to Mr. Trump’s victory.

    The meetings, which have not been reported previously, are the first indication that countries other than Russia may have offered assistance to the Trump campaign in the months before the presidential election. The interactions are a focus of the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, who was originally tasked with examining possible Trump campaign coordination with Russia in the election.

    Mr. Nader is cooperating with the inquiry, and investigators have questioned numerous witnesses in Washington, New York, Atlanta, Tel Aviv and elsewhere about what foreign help may have been pledged or accepted, and about whether any such assistance was coordinated with Russia, according to witnesses and others with knowledge of the interviews.

    The interviews, some in recent weeks, are further evidence that special counsel’s investigation remains in an intense phase even as Mr. Trump’s lawyers are publicly calling for Mr. Mueller to bring it to a close.

    It is illegal for foreign governments or individuals to be involved in American elections, and it is unclear what — if any — direct assistance Saudi Arabia and the Emirates may have provided. But two people familiar with the meetings said that Trump campaign officials did not appear bothered by the idea of cooperation with foreigners.

    A lawyer for Donald Trump Jr., Alan Futerfas, said in a statement that “prior to the 2016 election, Donald Trump Jr. recalls a meeting with Erik Prince, George Nader and another individual who may be Joel Zamel. They pitched Mr. Trump Jr. on a social media platform or marketing strategy. He was not interested and that was the end of it.”

    The August 2016 meeting has echoes of another Trump Tower meeting two months earlier, also under scrutiny by the special counsel, when Donald Trump Jr. and other top campaign aides met with a Russian lawyer after being promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton. No evidence has emerged suggesting that the August meeting was set up with a similar premise.

    The revelations about the meetings come in the midst of new scrutiny about ties between Mr. Trump’s advisers and at least three wealthy Persian Gulf states. Besides his interest in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, Mr. Mueller has also been asking witnesses about meetings between White House advisers and representatives of Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s bitter rival.

    A lawyer for Mr. Zamel denied that his client had carried out any campaign on Mr. Trump’s behalf. “Neither Joel Zamel, nor any of his related entities, had any involvement whatsoever in the U.S. election campaign,” said the lawyer, Marc L. Mukasey.

    “The D.O.J. clarified from Day 1 that Joel and his companies have never been a target of the investigation. My client provided full cooperation to the government to assist with their investigation,” he said.

    Kathryn Ruemmler, a lawyer for Mr. Nader, said, “Mr. Nader has fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation and will continue to do so.” A senior official in Saudi Arabia said it had never employed Mr. Nader in any capacity or authorized him to speak for the crown prince.

    Advisers to the Court

    Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the king’s main adviser, had long opposed many of the Obama administration’s policies toward the Middle East. They resented President Barack Obama’s agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, his statements of support for the Arab Spring uprisings and his hands-off approach to the Syrian civil war.

    News outlets linked to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fiercely criticized Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, when she was secretary of state, and diplomats familiar with their thinking say both princes hoped for a president who would take a stronger hand in the region against both Iran and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

    Mr. Nader had worked for years as a close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed of Abu Dhabi, and Mr. Zamel had worked for the Emirati royal court as a consultant as well. When Mr. Trump locked up the Republican presidential nomination in early 2016, Mr. Nader began making inquiries on behalf of the Emirati prince about possible ways to directly support Mr. Trump, according to three people with whom Mr. Nader discussed his efforts.

    Mr. Nader also visited Moscow at least twice during the presidential campaign as a confidential emissary from Crown Prince Mohammed of Abu Dhabi, according to people familiar with his travels. After the election, he worked with the crown prince to arrange a meeting in the Seychelles between Mr. Prince and a financier close to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

    Companies connected to Mr. Zamel also have ties to Russia. One of his firms had previously worked for oligarchs linked to Mr. Putin, including Oleg V. Deripaska and Dmitry Rybolovlev, who hired the firm for online campaigns against their business rivals.

    Mr. Deripaska, an aluminum magnate, was once in business with the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty in the special counsel investigation to charges of financial crimes and failing to disclose the lobbying work he did on behalf of a former president of Ukraine, an ally of Mr. Putin. Mr. Rybolovlev once purchased a Florida mansion from Mr. Trump.

    Mr. Nader’s visits to Russia and the work Mr. Zamel’s companies did for the Russians have both been a subject of interest to the special counsel’s investigators, according to people familiar with witness interviews.

    A String of Meetings

    Mr. Zamel and Mr. Nader were together at a Midtown Manhattan hotel at about 4 p.m. on the afternoon of Aug. 3 when Mr. Nader received a call from Mr. Prince summoning them to Trump Tower. When they arrived, Stephen Miller, a top campaign aide who is now a White House adviser, was in Donald Trump Jr.’s office as well, according to the people familiar with the meeting.

    Mr. Prince is a longtime Republican donor and the brother of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, and Mr. Prince and Mr. Nader had known each other since Mr. Nader had worked for Blackwater as a business agent in Iraq in the years after the American invasion. Mr. Prince has longstanding ties to the Emirates, and has frequently done business with Crown Prince Mohammed.

    Mr. Prince opened the meeting by telling Donald Trump Jr. that “we are working hard for your father,” in reference to his family and other donors, according to a person familiar with the meeting. He then introduced Mr. Nader as an old friend with deep ties to Arab leaders.

    Mr. Nader repeatedly referred to the Saudi and Emirati princes as “my friends,” according to one person with knowledge of the conversation. To underscore the point, he would open his mobile phone to show off pictures of him posing with them, some of which The New York Times obtained.

    Mr. Nader explained to Donald Trump Jr. that the two princes saw the elder Mr. Trump as a strong leader who would fill the power vacuum that they believed Mr. Obama had left in the Middle East, and Mr. Nader went on to say that he and his friends would be glad to support Mr. Trump as much as they could, according to the person with knowledge of the conversation.

    Mr. Zamel, for his part, laid out the capabilities of his online media company, although it is unclear whether he referred to the proposals his company had already prepared. One person familiar with the meeting said that Mr. Nader invited Donald Trump Jr. to meet with a Saudi prince — an invitation the younger Mr. Trump declined. After about half an hour, everyone exchanged business cards.

    “There was a brief meeting, nothing concrete was offered or pitched to anyone and nothing came of it,” said Mr. Mukasey, the lawyer for Mr. Zamel.

    By then, a company connected to Mr. Zamel had been working on a proposal for a covert multimillion-dollar online manipulation campaign to help elect Mr. Trump, according to three people involved and a fourth briefed on the effort. The plan involved using thousands of fake social media accounts to promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy on platforms like Facebook.

    There were concerns inside the company, Psy-Group, about the plan’s legality, according to one person familiar with the effort. The company, whose motto is “shape reality,” consulted an American law firm, and was told that it would be illegal if any non-Americans were involved in the effort.

    Mr. Zamel, the founder of Psy-Group and one of its owners, has been questioned about the August 2016 meeting by investigators for the special counsel, and at least two F.B.I. agents working on the inquiry have traveled to Israel to interview employees of the company who worked on the proposal. According to one person, the special counsel’s team has worked with the Israeli police to seize the computers of one of Mr. Zamel’s companies, which is currently in liquidation.

    In the hectic final weeks of the campaign and during the presidential transition, several of Mr. Trump’s advisers drew Mr. Nader close. He met often with Mr. Kushner, Mr. Flynn and Stephen K. Bannon, who took over as campaign chairman after Mr. Manafort resigned amid revelations about his work in Ukraine.

    In December 2016, Mr. Nader turned again to an internet company linked to Mr. Zamel — WhiteKnight, based in the Philippines — to purchase a presentation demonstrating the impact of social media campaigns on Mr. Trump’s electoral victory. Asked about the purchase, a representative of WhiteKnight said: “WhiteKnight delivers premium research and high-end business development services for prestigious clients around the world. WhiteKnight does not talk about any of its clients.”

    After the inauguration, both Mr. Zamel and Mr. Nader visited the White House, meeting with Mr. Kushner and Mr. Bannon.

    At that time, Mr. Nader was promoting a plan to use private contractors to carry out economic sabotage against Iran that, he hoped, might coerce it to permanently abandon its nuclear program. The plan included efforts to deter Western companies from investing in Iran, and operations to sow mistrust among Iranian officials. He advocated the project, which he estimated would cost about $300 million, to American, Emirati and Saudi officials.

    Last spring, Mr. Nader traveled to Riyadh for meetings with senior Saudi military and intelligence officials to pitch his Iran sabotage plan. He was convinced, according to several people familiar with his plan, that economic warfare was the key to the overthrow of the government in Tehran. One person briefed on Mr. Nader’s activities said he tried to persuade Mr. Kushner to endorse the plan to Crown Prince Mohammed in person on a trip to Riyadh, although it was unclear whether the message was delivered.

    Asked about Mr. Nader’s plans to attack Iran, the senior Saudi official said Mr. Nader had a habit of pitching proposals that went nowhere.

    Mr. Nader was also in discussions with Mr. Prince, the former head of Blackwater, about a plan to get the Saudis to pay $2 billion to set up a private army to combat Iranian proxy forces in Yemen.

    Since entering the White House, Mr. Trump has allied himself closely with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. His first overseas trip was to Riyadh. He strongly backed Saudi and Emirati efforts to isolate their neighbor Qatar, another American ally, even over apparent disagreement from the State and Defense Departments.

    This month, Mr. Trump also withdrew from an Obama administration nuclear deal with Iran that both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had campaigned against for years, delivering them their biggest victory yet from his administration.

    ———-

    “Trump Jr. and Other Aides Met With Gulf Emissary Offering Help to Win Election” by Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman and David D. Kirkpatrick; The New York Times; 05/19/2018

    Erik Prince, the private security contractor and the former head of Blackwater, arranged the meeting, which took place on Aug. 3, 2016. The emissary, George Nader, told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president. The social media specialist, Joel Zamel, extolled his company’s ability to give an edge to a political campaign; by that time, the firm had already drawn up a multimillion-dollar proposal for a social media manipulation effort to help elect Mr. Trump.”

    Erik Prince arranges the meeting where George Nader expresses how eager the prince who led Saudi Arabia and the UAE were to help Trump win. That sounds pretty collusion-y.

    Joel Zamel is there with a multimillion-dollar pitch for a social media manipulation effort. And while we don’t know precisely what become of that pitch, George Nader ends up getting embraced as a close ally shortly after the meeting and Nader ends up paying Zamel up to $2 million after Trump was elected. Although that payment is being spun as merely covering the cost of an elaborate presentation demonstrating the importance of social media to the Trump campaign (it’s not the best cover story):


    The company, which employed several Israeli former intelligence officers, specialized in collecting information and shaping opinion through social media.

    It is unclear whether such a proposal was executed, and the details of who commissioned it remain in dispute. But Donald Trump Jr. responded approvingly, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting, and after those initial offers of help, Mr. Nader was quickly embraced as a close ally by Trump campaign advisers — meeting frequently with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, and Michael T. Flynn, who became the president’s first national security adviser. At the time, Mr. Nader was also promoting a secret plan to use private contractors to destabilize Iran, the regional nemesis of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

    After Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Nader paid Mr. Zamel a large sum of money, described by one associate as up to $2 million. There are conflicting accounts of the reason for the payment, but among other things, a company linked to Mr. Zamel provided Mr. Nader with an elaborate presentation about the significance of social media campaigning to Mr. Trump’s victory.

    So what kinds of services did Zamel offer? How about a covert multimillion-dollar online manipulation campaign that involved using thousands of fake social media accounts. In other words, exactly what the Trump team ended up doing. And while it’s generally assumed it was Cambridge Analytica who led this social media manipulation effort, it sounds like we can add Psy Group to the list of entities involved in this:


    Mr. Zamel, for his part, laid out the capabilities of his online media company, although it is unclear whether he referred to the proposals his company had already prepared. One person familiar with the meeting said that Mr. Nader invited Donald Trump Jr. to meet with a Saudi prince — an invitation the younger Mr. Trump declined. After about half an hour, everyone exchanged business cards.

    “There was a brief meeting, nothing concrete was offered or pitched to anyone and nothing came of it,” said Mr. Mukasey, the lawyer for Mr. Zamel.

    By then, a company connected to Mr. Zamel had been working on a proposal for a covert multimillion-dollar online manipulation campaign to help elect Mr. Trump, according to three people involved and a fourth briefed on the effort. The plan involved using thousands of fake social media accounts to promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy on platforms like Facebook.

    There were concerns inside the company, Psy-Group, about the plan’s legality, according to one person familiar with the effort. The company, whose motto is “shape reality,” consulted an American law firm, and was told that it would be illegal if any non-Americans were involved in the effort.

    Mr. Zamel, the founder of Psy-Group and one of its owners, has been questioned about the August 2016 meeting by investigators for the special counsel, and at least two F.B.I. agents working on the inquiry have traveled to Israel to interview employees of the company who worked on the proposal. According to one person, the special counsel’s team has worked with the Israeli police to seize the computers of one of Mr. Zamel’s companies, which is currently in liquidation.

    And while it’s unclear what work Psy Group ended up doing for the Trump campaign, it’s pretty clear that George Nader because an important figure in the campaign up through those crucial final weeks:


    In the hectic final weeks of the campaign and during the presidential transition, several of Mr. Trump’s advisers drew Mr. Nader close. He met often with Mr. Kushner, Mr. Flynn and Stephen K. Bannon, who took over as campaign chairman after Mr. Manafort resigned amid revelations about his work in Ukraine.

    In December 2016, Mr. Nader turned again to an internet company linked to Mr. Zamel — WhiteKnight, based in the Philippines — to purchase a presentation demonstrating the impact of social media campaigns on Mr. Trump’s electoral victory. Asked about the purchase, a representative of WhiteKnight said: “WhiteKnight delivers premium research and high-end business development services for prestigious clients around the world. WhiteKnight does not talk about any of its clients.”

    Keep in mind that some of the sleaziest stuff the Trump team did, like promoting the #PizzaGate conspiracy theory, happened in the final weeks of the campaign. So, given that PsyGroup was potentially acting as a secret social media manipulation entity it seems reasonable to assume that the sleaziest stuff would have been outsourced to them.

    Also note who else was at this August 3 meeting representing the Trump team: Stephen Miller:


    Mr. Zamel and Mr. Nader were together at a Midtown Manhattan hotel at about 4 p.m. on the afternoon of Aug. 3 when Mr. Nader received a call from Mr. Prince summoning them to Trump Tower. When they arrived, Stephen Miller, a top campaign aide who is now a White House adviser, was in Donald Trump Jr.’s office as well, according to the people familiar with the meeting.

    So why were the Saudis and UAE so “eager” to help Trump win. Because they hated Obama’s and Hillary’s policies in the region. And this has been open loathing for years. It’s not a secret:


    Advisers to the Court

    Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the king’s main adviser, had long opposed many of the Obama administration’s policies toward the Middle East. They resented President Barack Obama’s agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, his statements of support for the Arab Spring uprisings and his hands-off approach to the Syrian civil war.

    News outlets linked to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fiercely criticized Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, when she was secretary of state, and diplomats familiar with their thinking say both princes hoped for a president who would take a stronger hand in the region against both Iran and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

    And while Donald Trump Jr. admits to having the meeting but denies showing any interest in the proposal, two people familiar with the meetings indicate that Trump campaign officials – not just Trump Jr. – appeared to have no problem cooperating with foreigners. It was literally a culture of collusion on the campaign:


    It is illegal for foreign governments or individuals to be involved in American elections, and it is unclear what — if any — direct assistance Saudi Arabia and the Emirates may have provided. But two people familiar with the meetings said that Trump campaign officials did not appear bothered by the idea of cooperation with foreigners.

    A lawyer for Donald Trump Jr., Alan Futerfas, said in a statement that “prior to the 2016 election, Donald Trump Jr. recalls a meeting with Erik Prince, George Nader and another individual who may be Joel Zamel. They pitched Mr. Trump Jr. on a social media platform or marketing strategy. He was not interested and that was the end of it.”

    And that willingness to cooperate with foreign interests is part of why it’s entirely plausible they were colluding with Qatar too:


    The revelations about the meetings come in the midst of new scrutiny about ties between Mr. Trump’s advisers and at least three wealthy Persian Gulf states. Besides his interest in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, Mr. Mueller has also been asking witnesses about meetings between White House advisers and representatives of Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s bitter rival.

    But note this critical detail in terms of the timeline: George Nader’s inquiries into how his Saudi and UAE clients could help the Trump campaign didn’t start in August. They started “When Mr. Trump locked up the Republican presidential nomination in early 2016”:


    Mr. Nader had worked for years as a close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed of Abu Dhabi, and Mr. Zamel had worked for the Emirati royal court as a consultant as well. When Mr. Trump locked up the Republican presidential nomination in early 2016, Mr. Nader began making inquiries on behalf of the Emirati prince about possible ways to directly support Mr. Trump, according to three people with whom Mr. Nader discussed his efforts.

    And don’t forget that it was looking like Trump locked it up by early March, before the ‘Fancy Bear’ DNC hack.

    And note the language that was apparently used at this August 3rd meeting: Erik Prince opens the meeting telling Don Jr., “we are working hard for your father.” And while the “we” that statement is interpreted as meaning Eric Prince and his deVos family members, you have to wonder if the “we” was actually intended to mean Prince and Nader and his Saudi/UAE clients given the fact that Nader was apparently working on assisting Trump starting in early 2016 after Trump appeared to have locked up the nomination:


    Mr. Prince opened the meeting by telling Donald Trump Jr. that “we are working hard for your father,” in reference to his family and other donors, according to a person familiar with the meeting. He then introduced Mr. Nader as an old friend with deep ties to Arab leaders.

    Mr. Nader repeatedly referred to the Saudi and Emirati princes as “my friends,” according to one person with knowledge of the conversation. To underscore the point, he would open his mobile phone to show off pictures of him posing with them, some of which The New York Times obtained.

    Mr. Nader explained to Donald Trump Jr. that the two princes saw the elder Mr. Trump as a strong leader who would fill the power vacuum that they believed Mr. Obama had left in the Middle East, and Mr. Nader went on to say that he and his friends would be glad to support Mr. Trump as much as they could, according to the person with knowledge of the conversation.

    Not surprisingly, both Nader and Zamel have ties to Russia too. Nader traveled to Moscow twice during the 2016 campaign, which should probably be expected given that the Saudis and UAE were apparently pushing these various schemes to pressure Russia into changing its alliance with Iran and Syria and Nader is one of their go-to representative. And Zamel once worked for Oleg Deripaska which makes sense because his firm offer exactly the kinds of services an oligarch is going to want to purchase:


    Mr. Nader also visited Moscow at least twice during the presidential campaign as a confidential emissary from Crown Prince Mohammed of Abu Dhabi, according to people familiar with his travels. After the election, he worked with the crown prince to arrange a meeting in the Seychelles between Mr. Prince and a financier close to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

    Companies connected to Mr. Zamel also have ties to Russia. One of his firms had previously worked for oligarchs linked to Mr. Putin, including Oleg V. Deripaska and Dmitry Rybolovlev, who hired the firm for online campaigns against their business rivals.

    Mr. Deripaska, an aluminum magnate, was once in business with the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty in the special counsel investigation to charges of financial crimes and failing to disclose the lobbying work he did on behalf of a former president of Ukraine, an ally of Mr. Putin. Mr. Rybolovlev once purchased a Florida mansion from Mr. Trump.

    Mr. Nader’s visits to Russia and the work Mr. Zamel’s companies did for the Russians have both been a subject of interest to the special counsel’s investigators, according to people familiar with witness interviews.

    But, of course, the biggest reasons to not read too much into Nader’s and Zamel’s ties with Moscow is the fact that they have much, much stronger ties to entities like the UAE with policy objectives that are the exact opposite of Moscow’s. Like the plan Nader was promoting after Trump’s inauguration to use private contractors set to carry out economic sabotage against Iran or a plan to get the Saudis to pay $2 billion to Erik Prince to set up a private army to fight in Yemen. Those probably aren’t the kinds of objectives Moscow would back:


    After the inauguration, both Mr. Zamel and Mr. Nader visited the White House, meeting with Mr. Kushner and Mr. Bannon.

    At that time, Mr. Nader was promoting a plan to use private contractors to carry out economic sabotage against Iran that, he hoped, might coerce it to permanently abandon its nuclear program. The plan included efforts to deter Western companies from investing in Iran, and operations to sow mistrust among Iranian officials. He advocated the project, which he estimated would cost about $300 million, to American, Emirati and Saudi officials.

    Last spring, Mr. Nader traveled to Riyadh for meetings with senior Saudi military and intelligence officials to pitch his Iran sabotage plan. He was convinced, according to several people familiar with his plan, that economic warfare was the key to the overthrow of the government in Tehran. One person briefed on Mr. Nader’s activities said he tried to persuade Mr. Kushner to endorse the plan to Crown Prince Mohammed in person on a trip to Riyadh, although it was unclear whether the message was delivered.

    Asked about Mr. Nader’s plans to attack Iran, the senior Saudi official said Mr. Nader had a habit of pitching proposals that went nowhere.

    Mr. Nader was also in discussions with Mr. Prince, the former head of Blackwater, about a plan to get the Saudis to pay $2 billion to set up a private army to combat Iranian proxy forces in Yemen.

    So that’s what we know so far about this new notorious Trump Tower meeting. We know a sales pitch was made, we know Trump Jr. responded positively, we know George Nader quickly became a close ally of the campaign, and we know Nader paid Zamel a large sum after the election. But we still don’t know what services, if any, services Zamel’s companies actually provided. And as the following article make clear, part of the reason there’s so much ambiguity about the services Zamel’s companies provided is because they provide such a wide variety of services, including Dark Web searches (presumably for hacked materials) and setting up “honey pots”:

    The Wall Street Journal

    Mueller Probe Expands to Israeli Entrepreneur With U.A.E. Ties
    Investigation has sought testimony regarding work of Joel Zamel, founder of several private consulting firms

    By Byron Tau and Rebecca Ballhaus
    Updated May 19, 2018 6:56 p.m. ET

    WASHINGTON—Special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe is looking more closely into Middle Eastern involvement during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, as it is now exploring the role of an Israeli entrepreneur with ties to a Gulf monarchy, according to people familiar with the matter.

    Mr. Mueller has been conducting interviews about the work of Joel Zamel, an Australia-born Israeli businessman with experience in social media and intelligence gathering. Mr. Zamel is the founder of several private consulting firms—including a crowdsourced analysis firm called Wikistrat as well as the Psy Group, a secretive private intelligence firm with the motto “shape reality.”

    A subpoena concerning Mr. Zamel’s work, but not issued to Mr. Zamel, was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

    Mr. Zamel met with Donald Trump Jr. , Mr. Trump’s eldest son, at Trump Tower in the months before the 2016 election along with George Nader, a top adviser to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, to discuss an offer to help boost the campaign. Erik Prince, a U.S. defense contractor who specializes in the Middle East and had close ties to the campaign, also attended the meeting, which was first reported by the New York Times on Saturday.

    Following Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Nader made a payment to Mr. Zamel of $2 million, which a person familiar with the payment described as unrelated to the campaign.

    Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for the younger Mr. Trump, confirmed the meeting in a statement. “Prior to the 2016 election, Donald Trump Jr. recalls a meeting with Eric Prince [sic], George Nader, and another individual who may be Joel Zamel. They pitched Mr. Trump Jr. on a social media platform or marketing strategy,” he said. The younger Mr. Trump “was not interested and that was the end of it.”

    Mr. Zamel has met with the special counsel’s team and was asked about his business relationship with Mr. Nader, the Journal has previously reported. His attorney has previously said he is not a target of the investigation. Mr. Nader is also cooperating with the investigation; his lawyer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Marc Mukasey, an attorney for Mr. Zamel, said in a statement that his client “offered nothing to the Trump campaign, received nothing from the Trump campaign, delivered nothing to the Trump campaign and was not solicited by, or asked to do anything for, the Trump campaign.” He said reports that Mr. Zamel had engaged in “social media manipulation” were incorrect and that his client’s companies “harvest publicly available information for lawful use.”

    Mr. Mukasey said investigators have told him his client is not a target of the probe. “This is much ado about nothing,” he said.

    The work of two of Mr. Zamel’s companies—Wikistrat and the Psy Group—has increasingly drawn the interest of the special counsel as part of the continuing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

    Little is known publicly about the work of the Psy Group. According to a person familiar with the firm’s operations, it did mainly private intelligence gathering work. One of its main rivals was Black Cube—another Israeli firm which has achieved notoriety after it used by Harvey Weinstein to counter probes into his alleged sexual abuse.

    Several people linked to the firm are veteran Israeli intelligence officials, with experience in areas that include in psychological operations. According to the firm’s marketing materials reviewed by the Journal, Psy-Group offered clients an array of services—including “honey traps,” a term used by spy agencies for an intelligence-gathering tactic using romantic or sexual relationships to extract information.

    In the same marketing materials, the firm also boasted of its “strong operating capabilities within the ‘Deep Web’ and Darknet (often referred to as the ‘Dark Side’ of the Internet.)”

    “As a meeting place and a market for a variety of illegal activities (hacking, counterfeiting, terrorism), the Darknet requires special skills to access, navigate and operate within while maintaining full legal compliance,” the firm wrote.

    Mr. Zamel’s other company, Wikistrat, uses a network of experts to analyze geopolitical problems and was contracted to conduct war-game scenarios on Islamist political movements in Yemen for the U.A.E., the Journal previously reported.

    Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. both entered the Yemeni civil war in early 2015, aiming to combat an Islamist insurgency. That conflict is continuing. Mr. Zamel is also close to top Emirati officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

    Wikistrat’s efforts for the Gulf state later transformed into what one person close to the company referred to as “intelligence lite”—using local on-the-ground sources to anticipate threats. Mr. Zamel in recent years had built a close relationship with top Emirati national security officials and has held business meetings in the U.A.E., according to people familiar with the matter.

    The company was based in Israel but rented U.S.-office space in Washington, D.C., to give it the appearance of being an American firm, according to people familiar with Wikistrat’s operations. Most of its employees were in Tel Aviv or worked remotely, these people said.

    The meeting with Mr. Zamel wasn’t the younger Mr. Trump’s first encounter with foreign interests who said they were interested in helping his father’s campaign. In June 2016, he and other campaign aides—including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort —met with a Russian lawyer linked to the Kremlin, after being promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton that he was told had been gathered by the Russian government as part of an effort to help the Trump campaign.

    ———-

    “Mueller Probe Expands to Israeli Entrepreneur With U.A.E. Ties” by Byron Tau and Rebecca Ballhaus; The Wall Street Journal; 05/19/2018

    “Little is known publicly about the work of the Psy Group. According to a person familiar with the firm’s operations, it did mainly private intelligence gathering work. One of its main rivals was Black Cube—another Israeli firm which has achieved notoriety after it used by Harvey Weinstein to counter probes into his alleged sexual abuse.

    A rival of Black Cube. It’s a rather disturbing reputation for a company. But that’s Psy Group’s reputation, and it appears to be a well earned one based on their marketing materials. Marketing materials that apparently included Dark Web scans and setting up “honey traps”:


    Several people linked to the firm are veteran Israeli intelligence officials, with experience in areas that include in psychological operations. According to the firm’s marketing materials reviewed by the Journal, Psy-Group offered clients an array of services—including “honey traps,” a term used by spy agencies for an intelligence-gathering tactic using romantic or sexual relationships to extract information.

    In the same marketing materials, the firm also boasted of its “strong operating capabilities within the ‘Deep Web’ and Darknet (often referred to as the ‘Dark Side’ of the Internet.)”

    “As a meeting place and a market for a variety of illegal activities (hacking, counterfeiting, terrorism), the Darknet requires special skills to access, navigate and operate within while maintaining full legal compliance,” the firm wrote.

    And then there’s Wikistrat, a company that provides geopolitical analysis and appears to effectively be a defense contractor for UAE in the Saudi/UAE war in Yemen:


    Mr. Zamel’s other company, Wikistrat, uses a network of experts to analyze geopolitical problems and was contracted to conduct war-game scenarios on Islamist political movements in Yemen for the U.A.E., the Journal previously reported.

    Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. both entered the Yemeni civil war in early 2015, aiming to combat an Islamist insurgency. That conflict is continuing. Mr. Zamel is also close to top Emirati officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

    Wikistrat’s efforts for the Gulf state later transformed into what one person close to the company referred to as “intelligence lite”—using local on-the-ground sources to anticipate threats. Mr. Zamel in recent years had built a close relationship with top Emirati national security officials and has held business meetings in the U.A.E., according to people familiar with the matter.

    The company was based in Israel but rented U.S.-office space in Washington, D.C., to give it the appearance of being an American firm, according to people familiar with Wikistrat’s operations. Most of its employees were in Tel Aviv or worked remotely, these people said.

    And note the particular language used by Zamel’s lawyer: that his client’s companies “harvest publicly available information for lawful use”:


    Marc Mukasey, an attorney for Mr. Zamel, said in a statement that his client “offered nothing to the Trump campaign, received nothing from the Trump campaign, delivered nothing to the Trump campaign and was not solicited by, or asked to do anything for, the Trump campaign.” He said reports that Mr. Zamel had engaged in “social media manipulation” were incorrect and that his client’s companies “harvest publicly available information for lawful use.”

    Part of what makes that “harvest publicly available information” language so interesting is that the term “harvest” has been often used to describe the kind of mass data collection Cambridge Analytica engaged in with its psychological profiling app that ‘harvested’ massive amounts of Facebook data from those app 270,000 users and their ~87 million friends. So to hear Zamel’s attorney use the “harvesting” terminology raises the question: was Psy Group also engaged in mass social media data harvesting like Cambridge Analytica was doing?

    Keep in mind that the services offered by Wikistrat also sound like the kind of services that would involve the the “harvesting” of massive amounts of public information. So perhaps Zamen’s lawyers were referring to that kind of “harvesting”. But given the nature of work of Psy Group engaged in, and the fact that a mass social media campaign was literally part of the pitched proposal, it seems extremely possible that Psy Group was effectively engaged in the kind of mass Facebook harvesting that Cambridge Analytica was doing.

    All in all, we appear to be looking at a whole new chapter to the #TrumpRussia campaign. And yet much of this isn’t new at all. There have been signs of Saudi/UAE involvement for quite some time as the story of the Seychelles meeting began to unfold. But open offers from the Saudi and UAE governments of helping the Trump team win and offers of social media manipulation campaigns is indeed quite new.

    So everything we are seeing strongly suggests the Trump team was actively colluding with the Saudis and UAE during the 2016 campaign. For the purpose of pressuring Russia to change its alliances and laying the groundwork for great US involvement in Syria and a possible war with Iran. Will this elicit the same level of outrage the idea of Russian collusion triggered? We’ll see. But, again, it’s one helluva twist for the one year anniversary of the Mueller probe.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 21, 2018, 9:44 am

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