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FTR #949 Walkin’ the Snake with Breitbart, Part 2

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

Serpent's WalkIntroduction: The title of the program refers to the Nazi tract Serpent’s Walk. The back cover of that book sums up the essence of the tome: ” . . . It assumes that Hitler’s warrior elite – the SS – didn’t give up their struggle for a White world when they lost the Second World War. Instead their survivors went underground and adopted some of the tactics of their enemies: they began building their economic muscle and buying into the opinion-forming media. A century after the war they are ready to challenge the democrats and Jews for the hearts and minds of White Americans, who have begun to have their fill of government-enforced multi-culturalism and ‘equality.’ . . .”

The “opinion-forming media” in 2017 has crystallized into a frighteningly dominant entity, the Breitbartian engine of Steven Bannon, Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica and the latter’s parent company SCL. An article from The Guardian sets forth this terrifying development. (Note that, due to the limitations of time, we were not able to read the entire story in FTR #948.)

Cambridge Analytica, and its parent company SCL, specialize in using AI and Big Data psychometric analysis on hundreds of millions of Americans in order to model individual behavior. SCL develops strategies to use that information, and manipulate search engine results to change public opinion (the Trump campaign was apparently very big into AI and Big Data during the campaign).

Individual social media users receive messages crafted to influence them, generated by the (in effectr) Nazi AI at the core of this media engine, using Big Data to target the individual user!

As the article notes, not only are Cambridge Analytica/SCL are using their propaganda techniques to shape US public opinion in a fascist direction, but they are achieving this by utilizing their propaganda machine to characterize all news outlets to the left of Brietbart as “fake news” that can’t be trusted.

In short, the secretive far-right billionaire (Robert Mercer), joined at the hip with Steve Bannon, is running multiple firms specializing in mass psychometric profiling based on data collected from Facebook and other social media. Mercer/Bannon/Cambridge Analytica/SCL are using Nazified AI and Big Data to develop mass propaganda campaigns to turn the public against everything that isn’t Brietbartian by convincing the public that all non-Brietbartian media outlets are conspiring to lie to the public.

This is the ultimate Serpent’s Walk scenario–a Nazified Artificial Intelligence drawing on Big Data gleaned from the world’s internet and social media operations to shape public opinion, target individual users, shape search engine results and even feedback to Trump while he is giving press conferences!

We note that SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, has been deeply involved with “psyops” in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, Cambridge Analytica, their Big Data and AI components, Mercer money and Bannon political savvy are applying that to contemporary society.

At the end of the program we note that Bannon had turned Breitbart toward supporting Narendra Modi’s BJP Party in India.

Program Highlights Include:

  • Cambridge Analytica’s parent corporation SCL, deeply involved with “psyops” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ” . . . 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.) . . .”
  • The use of millions of “bots” to manipulate public opinion: ” . . . .’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 use of Artificial Intelligence: ” . . . 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 every 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.’ . . .”
  • The use of bio-psycho-social profiling: ” . . . 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.’ . . .”
  • The use and/or creation of a cognitive casualty: ” . . . . 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!!!!’ . . . “
  • All of this adds up to a “cyber Serpent’s Walk.” ” . . . . 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. [Serpent’s Walk scenario with Breitbart becoming “the opinion forming media”!–D.E.] 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. . . .”

1. The Guardian has a long and critical piece on Robert Mercer and the Mercer clan’s role in the rise of Breitbart as the dominant ‘outsider’ conservative media outlet, and how deeply intertwined that endeavor is with the Mercers’ other big investments.

Of particular interest are the firms Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL, where Cambridge Analytica specializes in using AI and Big Data psychometric analysis on hundreds of millions of Americans in order to model individual behavior. SCL develops strategies to use that information, and manipulate search engine results to change public opinion (the Trump campaign was apparently very big into AI and Big Data during the campaign).

As the article notes, not only are Cambridge Analytica/SCL are using their propaganda techniques to shape the US public opinion in a fascist direction, but this formidable phalanx is going about achieving this shift in attitudes by utilizing its propaganda machine to characterize all news outlets to the left of Brietbart as “fake news” that can’t be trusted.

Only far-right media can be trusted. That’s the meme disseminated by this the Mercer/Bannon meme-machine.

In short, the secretive far-right billionaire (Robert Mercer), joined at the hip with Steve Bannon, is running multiple firms specializing in mass psychometric profiling based on data collected from Facebook and other social media. Mercer/Bannon/Cambridge Analytica/SCL are using Nazified AI and Big Data to develop mass propaganda campaigns to turn the public against everything that isn’t Brietbartian by convincing the public that all non-Brietbartian media outlets are conspiring to lie to the public.

This is the ultimate Serpent’s Walk scenario–a Nazi Artificial Intelligence drawing on Big Data gleaned from the world’s internet and social media operations to shape public opinion, target individual users, shape search engine results and even feedback to Trump while he is giving press conferences.

And you were worried about the NSA. Worry about THIS!

“Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire Waging War on Mainstream Media” Carole Cadwalladr; The Guardian; 2/26/2017.

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

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 think tank, 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.
[Wow–Google and Facebook dominated by Cambridge Analytica–D.E.]

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 every 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. [Serpent’s Walk scenario with Breitbart becoming “the opinion forming media”!–D.E.] 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.” . . .

2. Here’s a reminder that Steve Bannon’s vision of an international network of Breitbart branches pushing a far-right, pro-corporatist ethno-nationalist agenda – in other words, corporatist globalism with an ethno-nationalist patina – isn’t limited to Breitbart’s expansion into Europe. Breitbart India is on the agenda too and has been for a while.

This dynamic also bears examination in the context of Tulsi Gabbard, one of the driving forces behind the Bernie Sanders phenomenon and a networking partner of Bannon, Modi, the BJP and the RSS. (We discussed Gabbard in FTR #’s 941, 942 and 945.)

In FTR #795, we noted that Narendra Modi was politically evolved from the Hindu nationalist/fascist milieu of the RSS. (An “alumnus” of that political environment murdered Gandhi.) In addition, we have seen that Modi’s election was heavily buttressed by Ebay’s Pierre Omidyar, who has underwritten Glenn Greenwald’s recent journalistic ventures and partially bankrolled the 2014 Ukraine coup that brought the heirs of the OUN/B to power.

For an overview of the resonance between the RSS/BJP and Italian and German fascism, check out this post.

“Inside Steve Bannon’s Failed Breitbart India Scheme” by Asawin Suebsaeng; The Daily Beast; 3/02/2017.

Before he was the president’s right-hand man, Steve Bannon was bent on world domination of a different kind.

If Stephen K. Bannon had had his way, there would already be a Breitbart India.

Well before he entered the Trump White House with an eye toward influencing and affecting foreign policy, Bannon was already trying to wield his Breitbart media empire to influence the politics of foreign democracies, in favor of right-wing nationalist upheavals.

Until he became President Trump’s chief strategist, Bannon was on a mission to open new Breitbart operations in several European countries. According to multiple reports, he wanted these foreign offices opened for the purpose of backing nationalist, anti-immigrant political parties such as the National Front in France.

Another country Bannon had eyed for setting up shop was India, so his right-wing news and propaganda network could lend its support to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, another nationalist, hugely controversial figure whom Bannon has come to admire greatly.

“On November 17 2015, I sat opposite Steve Bannon in [a New York City] office as he asked me if I’d be interested in starting Breitbart India,” Mumbai-based writer Amit Varma wrote in a little-noticed blog post late last year.

“A lady who was one of the funders of [Breitbart], and of certain leaders in the Republican Party, got in touch with [others] to ask if she could meet me. (It’s not fair of me to name her because she’s not really a public figure.),” Varma continued. “She’d been impressed by my speech, and thus this meeting [with her and Bannon].”

Though Varma declined to name the “lady,” two sources, who requested anonymity, with knowledge of the meeting confirmed to The Daily Beast that the woman present in the room with Bannon was in fact Rebekah Mercer, the Republican megadonor with deep ties to Trump and Bannon. Last week, Breitbart confirmed that the Mercer family does in fact co-own Breitbart.

Mercer did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Neither did Bannon.

Varma blogged that he “didn’t know much about Breitbart” or the American alt-right, though he knew right off the bat that launching Breitbart India wasn’t the gig for him. Breitbart was a conservative vehicle, both in the United States and at its offshoots abroad. Varma identifies as a pro-immigration, pro-gay-rights libertarian. Moreover, he says that he advised them that there wasn’t even a point to having a website like Breitbart colonize India.

“It’s incongruent,” he recalled telling Bannon and Mercer. “There is no analog of American conservatism in India. The Indian right is driven by bigotry and nativism, with no deeper guiding philosophy behind it. [Consider the irony of these words.] You will not find any Burkean conservatives here. Don’t come.”

“Well, we think that Modi is India’s Reagan,” Bannon replied, according to Varma.

Varma writes that he “laughed” in Bannon’s face when he said that, and had to tell them that “Modi was no Reagan.”

Subsequently, “the lady” present attempted to convince Varma that she was “actually” a libertarian, as well, before launching into “diatribes” against same-sex marriage and “immigrants in America, and how the cultural fabric of Europe was being torn apart by their immigrants.”

Following Trump’s election-night upset, Varma wrote that he is “still glad that I didn’t explore their offer further. I could have been somewhat richer, maybe even influential, if I’d taken it up—but I sleep well at night now, and that’s what matters.”

In a brief phone conversation, Varma told The Daily Beast that he did not wish to comment further than what he wrote in his original post, but added that he found Bannon to be warm and “very nice to me.”

Modi is a controversial nationalist, right-wing leader. The U.S., along with England and other Western countries, had imposed a visa ban on him after human-rights organizations implicated Modi in a 2002 slaughter of Muslims in his state. The Indian Supreme Court eventually exonerated Modi years later, but by then many witnesses had been tampered with, had died, or had been killed.

During a conference held inside the Vatican in 2014, Bannon praised Modi, a Hindu nationalist, for being at the center of a transnational “revolt.”

“That center-right revolt is really a global revolt,” Bannon said, according to BuzzFeed. “I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India. Modi’s great victory was very much based on these Reaganesque principles, so I think this is a global revolt, and we are very fortunate and proud to be the news site that is reporting that throughout the world.”

The intersection of pro-Modi and pro-Trump sentiments within Trump’s inner political circle didn’t stop there. The Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), which was very supportive of Trump’s presidential campaign and was favorably covered on Breitbart multiple times, has been in close contact with Bannon, via its leader and GOP donor Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar.

In mid-October of last year shortly before the election, Kumar organized an RHC event in New Jersey featuring and celebrating Donald J. Trump. The event also included Kumar, as well as “Bollywood Stars, and major Hindu spiritual leaders,” according to the invitation.

Kumar, chairman of the Republican Hindu Coalition, told The Daily Beast this week, that Bannon worked with him to get the event planned around the Republican presidential nominee’s busy schedule.

“I have had several interfaces with [Steve Bannon] in person, as well as over the phone and over email,” Kumar said.

Kumar said that he first met Bannon in late August 2016, and that he was a “very, very nice guy”—not the the “rude, angry-type person” he had seen portrayed in the news. During his August visit to Trump Tower to plan the Bollywood-tinged, pro-Trump event, Kumar met with Kellyanne Conway and Bannon.

“Generally, we were talking about the reaching-out to Hindu Americans, and [Bannon] was all for it—I do remember him being interested in talking to the powers at be from India,” Kumar recalled. “At the end of the meeting, Kellyanne had to disappear for a moment into a different room, and I had forgotten to ask her some questions… So Steve went with me from room, to room, to room [in Trump Tower] to find her to get my questions answered.”

Kumar said he chatted with Bannon multiple times regarding the importance of a “nationalist economy,” Indian politics, and taking “tough stands against radical Islamic terrorism.”

“[Steve] had a clear philosophy that you could still be in nationalism, and still be a global power,” he continued.

Kumar says he is still in touch with Bannon, and communicated as recently as last month. When asked about the former Breitbart chief’s plans to try to mount a Breitbart India, Kumar said he had not heard about them, but that it “would be great” if Breitbart did do that.

“Steve Bannon is the guy who straightened out the Trump campaign in August,” the Indian-American businessman said. “He almost seemed like a military commander… One of my favorite guys in history is Gen. Patton, and—you know—he could be like Gen. Patton.”

3. Another example of the global nature of the “Alt-Right’s” attempts to rebrand far-right ideologies. Check out the image on the main banner used in a Lithuanian far-right march celebrating the WWII pro-Nazi collaborationist Kazys Skirpa: Pepe the frog. Or, more precisely, Kazy Skirpa as Pepe the frog.

“ . . . The banner also included a quote attributed to the Pepe-like portrait of Skirpa, an envoy of the pro-Nazi movement in Lithuania to Berlin, that read ‘Lithuania will contribute to new and better European order.’ . . . ”

As we can see, the “Alt-Right” Pepe-fication of Europe is well underway, and it’s going to include Europe’s many WWII historical revisionism movements: all of those Nazi collaborators were actually misunderstood freedom fighters. Here’s a fun “Alt-Right” meme about them. But don’t call them Nazis.

“Lithuanian Nationalists Celebrate Holocaust-era Quisling, Pepe the Frog Near Execution Site:” Jewish Telegraph Agency; 2/17/2017.

Lithuanian ultranationalists marched near execution sites of Jews with banners celebrating a pro-Nazi collaborationist who called for ethnic cleansing and a symbol popular with members of the U.S. “alt-right” movement.

Approximately 170 people attended Thursday’s annual march in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city that is also known as Kovno, the website Defending History reported.

The main banner featured a picture of the collaborationist Kazys Skirpa modified to resemble Pepe the Frog, a cartoon figure that was used by hate groups in the United States during the 2016 presidential elections, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The banner also included a quote attributed to the Pepe-like portrait of Skirpa, an envoy of the pro-Nazi movement in Lithuania to Berlin, that read “Lithuania will contribute to new and better European order.”

Skirpa, who has a street named for him in Kaunas, “elevated anti-Semitism to a political level” that “could have encouraged a portion of Lithuania’s residents to get involved in the Holocaust,” the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania asserted in 2015. But Skirpa “proposed to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ not by genocide but by the method of expulsion from Lithuania,” the center said.

The procession passed near the Lietovus Garage, where in 1941 locals butchered dozens of Jews. Thousands more were killed in an around Kaunas by local collaborators of the Nazis and by German soldiers in the following months.

“Kaunas is ground zero of the Lithuanian Holocaust,” Dovid Katz, a U.S.-born scholar and the founder of Defending History, told JTA on Friday. He condemned local authorities for allowing the march by “folks who glorify the very Holocaust-collaborators, theoreticians and perpetrators who unleashed the genocide locally.” Katz was one of five people who attended the march to protest and document it.

Lithuania is the only country that officially defines its domination by the former Soviet Union as a form of genocide. The name of the state-funded entity that wrote about Skirpa in 2005 refers both to the Holocaust and the so-called Soviet occupation.

The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, which until 2011 did not mention the more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews who died in the Nazi Holocaust, was established in 1992 to memorialize Lithuanians killed by the Nazi, but mostly Soviet, states.

 

Discussion

6 comments for “FTR #949 Walkin’ the Snake with Breitbart, Part 2”

  1. Hi Dave, This post is amazing and so timely, I was surprised to see it since this is all I’ve been focused on for the last two weeks. I just finished a short doc about Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 election.

    Please share if you’d like!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nnYwsj5BWk

    best, Kris

    Posted by Kris Kelvin | March 11, 2017, 7:12 pm
  2. Here’s an article about a topic that’s only going to be increasingly topical as the science of artificial intelligence continues to advance while humanity’s political paradigms continue to regress and far-right authoritarianism consolidates its grip in societies across the globe: Microsoft research Kate Crawford gave a speech about her research on the social impact of machine learning and large-scale data system at the SXSW conference. The take home message? That fascists and other authoritarians are going to LOVE artificial intelligence. In particular AI systems that combine with Big Data and promise to do things like watch over a populace and identify potential criminals. Or maybe subtly target individuals to change their opinions. Or create various population databases and registries. Or whatever else they can think of to keep a population under control.

    In other words, by delegating powers to Bid Data-driven AIs those AIs could become fascist’s dream: Incredible power over the lives of others with minimal accountability:

    The Guardian

    Artificial intelligence is ripe for abuse, tech researcher warns: ‘a fascist’s dream’

    Microsoft’s Kate Crawford tells SXSW that society must prepare for authoritarian movements to test the ‘power without accountability’ of AI

    Olivia Solon in Austin, Texas

    Monday 13 March 2017 07.30 EDT

    As artificial intelligence becomes more powerful, people need to make sure it’s not used by authoritarian regimes to centralize power and target certain populations, Microsoft Research’s Kate Crawford warned on Sunday.

    In her SXSW session, titled Dark Days: AI and the Rise of Fascism, Crawford, who studies the social impact of machine learning and large-scale data systems, explained ways that automated systems and their encoded biases can be misused, particularly when they fall into the wrong hands.

    “Just as we are seeing a step function increase in the spread of AI, something else is happening: the rise of ultra-nationalism, rightwing authoritarianism and fascism,” she said.

    All of these movements have shared characteristics, including the desire to centralize power, track populations, demonize outsiders and claim authority and neutrality without being accountable. Machine intelligence can be a powerful part of the power playbook, she said.

    One of the key problems with artificial intelligence is that it is often invisibly coded with human biases. She described a controversial piece of research from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, where authors claimed to have developed a system that could predict criminality based on someone’s facial features. The machine was trained on Chinese government ID photos, analyzing the faces of criminals and non-criminals to identify predictive features. The researchers claimed it was free from bias.

    “We should always be suspicious when machine learning systems are described as free from bias if it’s been trained on human-generated data,” Crawford said. “Our biases are built into that training data.”

    In the Chinese research it turned out that the faces of criminals were more unusual than those of law-abiding citizens. “People who had dissimilar faces were more likely to be seen as untrustworthy by police and judges. That’s encoding bias,” Crawford said. “This would be a terrifying system for an autocrat to get his hand on.”

    Crawford then outlined the “nasty history” of people using facial features to “justify the unjustifiable”. The principles of phrenology, a pseudoscience that developed across Europe and the US in the 19th century, were used as part of the justification of both slavery and the Nazi persecution of Jews.

    With AI this type of discrimination can be masked in a black box of algorithms, as appears to be the case with a company called Faceception, for instance, a firm that promises to profile people’s personalities based on their faces. In its own marketing material, the company suggests that Middle Eastern-looking people with beards are “terrorists”, while white looking women with trendy haircuts are “brand promoters”.

    Another area where AI can be misused is in building registries, which can then be used to target certain population groups. Crawford noted historical cases of registry abuse, including IBM’s role in enabling Nazi Germany to track Jewish, Roma and other ethnic groups with the Hollerith Machine, and the Book of Life used in South Africa during apartheid.

    Donald Trump has floated the idea of creating a Muslim registry. “We already have that. Facebook has become the default Muslim registry of the world,” Crawford said, mentioning research from Cambridge University that showed it is possible to predict people’s religious beliefs based on what they “like” on the social network. Christians and Muslims were correctly classified in 82% of cases, and similar results were achieved for Democrats and Republicans (85%). That study was concluded in 2013, since when AI has made huge leaps.

    Crawford was concerned about the potential use of AI in predictive policing systems, which already gather the kind of data necessary to train an AI system. Such systems are flawed, as shown by a Rand Corporation study of Chicago’s program. The predictive policing did not reduce crime, but did increase harassment of people in “hotspot” areas. Earlier this year the justice department concluded that Chicago’s police had for years regularly used “unlawful force”, and that black and Hispanic neighborhoods were most affected.

    Another worry related to the manipulation of political beliefs or shifting voters, something Facebook and Cambridge Analytica claim they can already do. Crawford was skeptical about giving Cambridge Analytica credit for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but thinks what the firm promises – using thousands of data points on people to work out how to manipulate their views – will be possible “in the next few years”.

    “This is a fascist’s dream,” she said. “Power without accountability.”

    Such black box systems are starting to creep into government. Palantir is building an intelligence system to assist Donald Trump in deporting immigrants.

    “It’s the most powerful engine of mass deportation this country has ever seen,” she said.

    ““This is a fascist’s dream,” she said. “Power without accountability.””

    Yep, and note how much of that fascist dream is already reality:


    Donald Trump has floated the idea of creating a Muslim registry. “We already have that. Facebook has become the default Muslim registry of the world,” Crawford said, mentioning research from Cambridge University that showed it is possible to predict people’s religious beliefs based on what they “like” on the social network. Christians and Muslims were correctly classified in 82% of cases, and similar results were achieved for Democrats and Republicans (85%). That study was concluded in 2013, since when AI has made huge leaps.

    Crawford was concerned about the potential use of AI in predictive policing systems, which already gather the kind of data necessary to train an AI system. Such systems are flawed, as shown by a Rand Corporation study of Chicago’s program. The predictive policing did not reduce crime, but did increase harassment of people in “hotspot” areas. Earlier this year the justice department concluded that Chicago’s police had for years regularly used “unlawful force”, and that black and Hispanic neighborhoods were most affected.

    Another worry related to the manipulation of political beliefs or shifting voters, something Facebook and Cambridge Analytica claim they can already do. Crawford was skeptical about giving Cambridge Analytica credit for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but thinks what the firm promises – using thousands of data points on people to work out how to manipulate their views – will be possible “in the next few years”.

    Such black box systems are starting to creep into government. Palantir is building an intelligence system to assist Donald Trump in deporting immigrants.

    “It’s the most powerful engine of mass deportation this country has ever seen,” she said.

    And you have love this part: “Crawford was skeptical about giving Cambridge Analytica credit for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but thinks what the firm promises – using thousands of data points on people to work out how to manipulate their views – will be possible “in the next few years”.” So if Crawford is correct, the potential power of Cambridge Analytica to psychoanalyze the masses and shape public opinion (for the benefit of Donald Trump) is all hype…for now. But in the next few years it might not be just hype. At least that’s where she sees the technology at this point. Trump isn’t even fully harnessing the power of AI-driven opinion-shaping yet but he just might have that power by the next election.

    In other words, we’re already living in that AI-driven fascist dream but this is just the first phase of that dream so we haven’t really noticed it yet. The full-blown nightmare phase is yet to come. But it’s coming.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | March 14, 2017, 2:46 pm
  3. Here’s a strange mystery surrounding Breitbart News and the Mercers: So Breitbart wants to be admitted to the big boy political journalism club and become a credentialed member of the Senate Daily Press Gallery, which would put them on par with outlets like The New York Times and USA TODAY in terms of press access in the Capital. But in order to that, Breitbart has to engage in something it clearly has had no interesting in doing to date: transparency in things like who actually owns Breibart. And as the article below notes, Breitbart is loathe to do so. But they are at least willing to acknowledge that the Mercer family are co-owners. But they refuse to say which members of the Mercer family are actual owners. So who knows why Breitbart is so hesitant to say which Mercer is a partial owner but it’s pretty clear they don’t want that specific info divulged. It’s a mystery. A possibly pointless mystery, but a mystery nonetheless:

    USA TODAY

    Steve Bannon’s rise forces Breitbart News out of the shadows, and the basement

    Paul Singer
    Published 10:26 a.m. ET March 23, 2017 | Updated

    WASHINGTON — Breitbart News has stepped out of the fringes of American politics and is now, quite literally, moving out of the basement as well.

    The bare-knuckled conservative news organization has moved its office out of the house where former chief Steve Bannon lived, has begun to reluctantly disclose its ownership, and, in its quest for official recognition, may even go so far as to publicly declare who runs the place.

    Breitbart has for the past several years operated, basically, out of Bannon’s house. Bannon was the executive chairman of Breitbart News and the ideological engine behind the site’s bareknuckled anti-immigration, anti-government ideology. He and the site both operated out of a townhouse on Capitol Hill a couple of blocks behind the Supreme Court. It became known as the “Breitbart Embassy,” site of lavish parties upstairs and the typing of a staff of young reporters downstairs, whom Bannon  referred to as "the Valkyries."

    But then Bannon became Trump’s campaign manager last summer and is now chief strategist in the White House.

    Breitbart is rising with Bannon and is now trying to become a credentialed member of the Senate Daily Press Gallery, joining The New York Times, USA TODAY and other mainstream news outlets. This would given them access to the Capitol that is on par with congressional staff. It would also allow them to participate in White House “pools,” providing coverage of events to the rest of the press corps when space for reporters is limited.

    But membership in that club requires a level of transparency Breitbart News has long shunned. The office location is the first hurdle. Breitbart News has declared the Breitbart Embassy as its office address, but that is not really true.

    Washington, D.C., property records show the building it is owned by Moustafa El-Gindy, a former Egyptian member of Parliament who has occasionally been quoted in Breitbart news stories. El-Gindy is receiving a homestead deduction on the property, a $72,000 tax credit that requires the owner to maintain residence in the building. He could not be located for comment on this story.

    Breitbart CEO Larry Solov told the Senate press gallery that the company has a soon-to-expire lease in the building for corporate housing, offices and entertainment. But zoning rules for the block do not allow commercial leases.

    “That area of Capitol Hill is zoned only for residential uses, with a very narrow set of ‘home occupation’ exceptions allowing a resident (as opposed to a rotating group of occasional visitors) to work as an in-home tailor, music tutor, doctor, or the like, or to run a small bed & breakfast,” said Mark Eckenwiler, longtime chair of the zoning committee for the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, the city government unit for that area.

    The uses Solov described to the press gallery “appear to violate the D.C. zoning regulations applicable to that location,” Eckenwiler said. Since the lease is not public, it is impossible to know whether the terms meet the neighborhoods restrictions.

    When Breitbart does get a new office, it will presumably make the address more public than the current address, which appears nowhere on the Breitbart news site. The site also provides no phone number and no way to contact the editors or reporters.

    Beyond the address, Breitbart’s application for press credentials is also shining new light on the company’s management and ownership structure.

    The site offers no “masthead,” the roster of editors and managers that news organizations traditionally publish in print editions or post on their websites. Solov told the Standing Committee of Correspondents last month that he would consider producing a masthead, but it still has not appeared on the site.

    The bigger question is who owns the site, a piece of information Solov admitted he was loath to disclose.

    The press gallery rules state that to qualify, a reporter “must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. Government, or in prosecuting any claim before Congress or any federal government department, and will not do so while a member of the Daily Press Galleries. Applicants’ publications must be editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government, or that is not principally a general news organization.”

    Solov reluctantly told the Standing Committee in February that Breitbart is partly owned by the Mercer family,, one the largest sources of money behind committees supporting President Trump’s campaign last year. Solov would not say which of the Mercers was an owner. Rebekah Mercer helped persuade Trump to hire Bannon as campaign CEO last summer, and she served on the executive committee of Trump’s transition team after the election.

    Solov also told the committee that Bannon resigned from Breitbart last fall, shortly after the election, but was unable to provide any formal documentation to that effect. He said Bannon simply called him to say he is stepping down. The Standing Committee has asked for more details before its next meeting on Friday.

    And while Solov says Bannon is no longer connected to Breitbart News, his influence clearly still lingers at the Breitbart Embassy.

    Answering the door at the Breitbart Embassy on Monday was Dan Fleuette, who lists himself on LinkedIn as vice president of production of Victory Film Group, Bannon’s political film enterprise. Fleuette shares screenwriting and production credits on several Bannon films, including the 2016 film Clinton Cash. Fleuette has also written for Breitbart News, largely as a sports columnist, but he said he is not on staff now.

    “The bigger question is who owns the site, a piece of information Solov admitted he was loath to disclose.”

    So Breitbart CEO Larry Solov really doesn’t want to reveal that the Mercer clan are investors. And even after that disclosure he still won’t say which Mercer:


    Solov reluctantly told the Standing Committee in February that Breitbart is partly owned by the Mercer family,, one the largest sources of money behind committees supporting President Trump’s campaign last year. Solov would not say which of the Mercers was an owner. Rebekah Mercer helped persuade Trump to hire Bannon as campaign CEO last summer, and she served on the executive committee of Trump’s transition team after the election.

    And this is despite the fact that it’s basically a choice of 1. Robert Mercer. 2. His daughter Rebekah. 3. Both of them. 4. Some other mystery Mercer.

    So unless it’s some other mystery Mercer it’s a pretty pointless mystery. Although there’s still a mystery as to how much of Breitbart the Mercers own. And based on Solov’s testimony to the Standing Committee in February, it wouldn’t be surprising of the Mercers’ share was quite large since Solov told the committee that Breitbart has just three owners: Larry Solov, Susie Breitbart (Andrew Breitbart’s widow), and the Mercers. That, according to Solov’s testimony, is it:

    USA TODAY

    CEO confirms Mercers, top GOP donors, are part owners of Breitbart

    Paul Singer
    Published 4:04 p.m. ET Feb. 24, 2017 | Updated 4:23 p.m. ET Feb. 24, 2017

    Breitbart News Network CEO Larry Solov acknowledged Friday that the Mercer family — top Republican donors and key backers of President Trump’s campaign — are part owners of the controversial news site, but he said they have no editorial role.

    Presidential adviser Steve Bannon has resigned his editorial and financial roles with the site, Solov said, but there is no formal paperwork to that effect.

    The ownership of Breitbart has been a closely guarded secret, and Solov said he was reluctant to disclose it publicly. Breitbart is applying for press credentials through the Senate Daily Press Gallery, and the Standing Committee of Correspondents that serve as the gallery leadership had requested information about the site’s ownership to ensure Breitbart meets the gallery’s requirements for editorial independence.

    The press gallery rules state that to qualify, a reporter “must not be engaged in any lobbying or paid advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. Government, or in prosecuting any claim before Congress or any federal government department, and will not do so while a member of the Daily Press Galleries. Applicants’ publications must be editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government, or that is not principally a general news organization.”

    Solov told the committee Friday that the three owners are him, the Mercer family and Andrew Breitbart’s widow, Susie.

    Last August, after Bannon joined the Trump campaign, Breitbart announced that Bannon had taken a temporary leave of absence, but the committee had asked for more details about Bannon’s relationship with the site. Solov said that Bannon called him shortly after the election to resign from the company, and that it is a total severing of ties, but he said there is no written documentation of his resignation, and he could not provide an exact date for the conversation. Solov said he would be willing to write a letter stating that Bannon has left the company.

    Solov told the committee that as a private limited liability corporation, “I want to disclose as little as possible about our financial and ownership structure.” But he also said he understood the gallery’s need to understand who owns Breitbart and who makes editorial decisions. The site has never had a masthead like a traditional news operation, listing top editors and managers, but Solov appeared willing to provide that to the gallery as well.

    Getting credentials in the press gallery is not a requirement for reporters to cover Congress — Breitbart reporters already run the halls of the Capitol with the rest of the press pack — but it provides some prerogatives for reporters covering news events on Capitol Hill and makes it much easier to get around. A Senate press pass also can be a steppingstone to getting a White House press pass.

    “Solov told the committee Friday that the three owners are him, the Mercer family and Andrew Breitbart’s widow, Susie.”

    So while we don’t know exactly how much of Breitbart the Mercers own, we know the ownership is divided between those three entities. And based on how much the Mercers invested and when they made that investment, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Mercers own a lot of Breitbart since they reportedly invested $10 million back in 2011 when the site was struggling:

    Bloomberg Politics

    What Kind of Man Spends Millions to Elect Ted Cruz?

    Robert Mercer is one of the wealthiest, most secretive, influential, and reactionary Republicans in the country.

    by Zachary Mider
    Jan 20, 2016 4:45 AM CST

    Breitbart.com, which devoted at least six stories to the summit, has proven to be one of Mercer’s better political wagers. He invested $10 million in the media outlet when it was struggling in 2011, according to a person with knowledge of the transaction. Since then, its audience has exploded. In December it announced its billionth page view of the year.

    “He invested $10 million in the media outlet when it was struggling in 2011, according to a person with knowledge of the transaction. Since then, its audience has exploded. In December it announced its billionth page view of the year.”

    That sure sounds like the Mercers got to invest at a moment when Breitbart was extra cheap. It also sounds like Robert Mercer is the one doing the investing since the report says “He invested $10 million…”. If so, we may have solved the pointless mystery of precisely which Mercer did the actual investing. Yay?

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | March 23, 2017, 3:05 pm
  4. Oh look at that: Robert Mercer is being sued by David Magerman, a former research scientist who worked at Mercer’s hedge fund, for being wrongfully fired. So what are the grounds for the lawsuit? Well, Magerman is also one of the individuals who has spoken out about Mercer’s scary politics and he makes a pretty strong case that his recent termination is in retaliation for exactly that. And while, as the article below notes, private sector employees are generally not protected from political discrimination, in this case Magerman may have a case. Because he wasn’t just terminated over politics. He was terminated over his complaints about how Robert Mercer expressed appallingly racist, pro-segregation views:

    Bloomberg
    Politics

    Mercer Sued by Hedge Fund Worker Fired After Blasting Trump

    by Erik Larson

    May 8, 2017, 8:49 AM CDT
    updated May 8, 2017, 3:04 PM CDT

    * David Magerman says Renaissance co-CEO went on racist rant
    * Policy prohibits employees from publicly criticizing company

    Hedge fund mogul Robert Mercer, one of the biggest financial backers of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, was sued by a former employee who claims he was fired for calling Mercer racist and publicly criticizing his support of Trump.

    The complaint by David Magerman, a research scientist who worked at Renaissance Technologies LLC for two decades, alleges he was wrongfully fired April 29 after his relationship with Mercer and his family became toxic. For example, Magerman alleges that Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah Mercer, a member of Trump’s transition team, called him “pond scum” at a celebrity poker tournament.

    The confrontation “just shows the hostility that the Mercers had toward Mr. Magerman because he dared to challenge their political views,” his lawyer, H. Robert Fiebach, said in a phone call on Monday.

    Mercer, a major investor in Trump-friendly Breitbart News, advised the president to hire two of the Mercer family’s longtime political advisers, Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. Mercer’s politics have “tainted” the hedge fund, while internal policies that prohibit “politely” speaking out against the company in public are “unfair and untenable,” Magerman said in the complaint, filed May 5 in federal court in Philadelphia.

    A spokesman for Renaissance had no immediate comment. Mercer emerged as one of the most influential Republican donors in the 2016 election, giving at least $2 million to Make America Number 1, a political action committee that began backing Trump in July. Rebekah Mercer was named to Trump’s transition team in November.

    Wrong Direction

    The dispute started on Jan. 16 when Magerman called Mercer and asked to have a conversation about his support of Trump, according to the complaint. During the chat, Mercer said the U.S. had started going in the wrong direction “after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s,” according to the complaint. Mercer also said that black Americans “were doing fine” in the late 1950s and are the “only racist people remaining in the U.S.,” according to the complaint.

    “Magerman was stunned by these comments and pushed back,” according to the complaint. Reminded of the racial segregation that existed at the time, Mercer allegedly responded by saying those issues weren’t important.

    After the phone call, Magerman complained about Mercer’s comments to Co-Chief Executive Officer Peter Brown, who “expressed disbelief” and urged the two men to speak again, according to the complaint. Magerman agreed and called Mercer back on Feb. 5.

    “I hear you’re going around saying I’m a white supremacist,” Mercer said, according to the complaint. During the call, Mercer “scoffed” at the idea that segregation was degrading and destructive, Magerman said.

    Magerman later criticized Mercer’s support for Trump in a story published in the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 23. Magerman said he had sent an email advising the hedge fund’s general counsel, Carla Porter, and its chief financial officer, Mark Silber, about what he intended to tell the newspaper and was told by Silber that it was permissible under company policy. He was suspended a day later, he said.

    Poker Tournament

    On April 20, Magerman attended a celebrity poker tournament in New York City, where many Renaissance staffers were present, according to the suit. Magerman told the Wall Street Journal that he attended the event to repair his frayed relationship with the firm, according to an April 28 article.

    Rebekah Mercer allegedly confronted Magerman, calling him “pond scum” and saying karma “is a bitch,” according to the complaint.

    Magerman was fired April 29, according to the suit. Magerman seeks “substantial damages,” his lawyer said.

    Renaissance’s employee handbook bars workers from disparaging the hedge fund or any of its workers, though such policies are “illegal and unenforceable,” according to the complaint.

    Magerman said he designed mathematical and statistical algorithms to direct Renaissance’s investment decisions on international financial markets, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue for the hedge fund.

    Based in East Setauket, New York, Renaissance was started in 1982 by Jim Simons, a former military code cracker. He stepped away from the business at the end of 2009. Mercer and Brown took over the following year.

    Private sector employees are generally not protected from political discrimination, said Robert Young, an employment lawyer with Bowditch & Dewey LLP in Boston. But Magerman may have a claim if he can prove he was retaliated against for complaining about race bias by Mercer.

    “That may be the more viable of the two claims because there does seem to be a connection between objecting to those comments and termination,” Young, who isn’t involved in the case, said in a phone call.

    “The dispute started on Jan. 16 when Magerman called Mercer and asked to have a conversation about his support of Trump, according to the complaint. During the chat, Mercer said the U.S. had started going in the wrong direction “after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s,” according to the complaint. Mercer also said that black Americans “were doing fine” in the late 1950s and are the “only racist people remaining in the U.S.,” according to the complaint.

    Black Americans who don’t approve of segregation are the only racist people left in Robert Mercer’s America. He apparently actually said that. And who knows, maybe that’s part of why the guy reportedly almost never talks. Maybe he can’t stop saying incredibly racist things or scoffing at the idea that segregation was degrading and destructive:


    “Magerman was stunned by these comments and pushed back,” according to the complaint. Reminded of the racial segregation that existed at the time, Mercer allegedly responded by saying those issues weren’t important.

    After the phone call, Magerman complained about Mercer’s comments to Co-Chief Executive Officer Peter Brown, who “expressed disbelief” and urged the two men to speak again, according to the complaint. Magerman agreed and called Mercer back on Feb. 5.

    “I hear you’re going around saying I’m a white supremacist,” Mercer said, according to the complaint. During the call, Mercer “scoffed” at the idea that segregation was degrading and destructive, Magerman said.

    “I hear you’re going around saying I’m a white supremacist,” says the guy who financed the conversion of Brietbart into a platform for the Alt Right. And while it’s pretty clear from his words and actions that Robert Mercer is incredibly racist, what isn’t clear at this point is whether or not he can be fined for firing someone for pointing out his incredible racism. That’s going to be for the courts to decide:


    Private sector employees are generally not protected from political discrimination, said Robert Young, an employment lawyer with Bowditch & Dewey LLP in Boston. But Magerman may have a claim if he can prove he was retaliated against for complaining about race bias by Mercer.

    “That may be the more viable of the two claims because there does seem to be a connection between objecting to those comments and termination,” Young, who isn’t involved in the case, said in a phone call.

    So that’s going to be a case to watch. And let’s hope Magerman gets the “substantial damages” he’s fighting for and ideally a settlement that directly impacts the Mercers’ wealth. After all, if there’s one thing clear at this point it’s that Mercer money is basically neo-Nazi money. So hopefully they’ll have a lot less white supremacist money once this case is over.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 9, 2017, 3:14 pm
  5. Britain’s political roller coaster ride may not be coming to an end any time soon: The June 8th early election called back in April that were looking like an easy win for Theresa May and her Conservatives is now looking like a real contest. A contest that could end up being so close that one particular group is already being declared the big losers following their big losses from the Brexit referendum: British pollsters:

    The New York Times

    Theresa May’s Lead in British Election Narrows After Missteps

    By DAN BILEFSKY
    MAY 31, 2017

    LONDON — When Prime Minister Theresa May called an early election in April, there was an air of inevitability about her victory. Some even predicted the biggest landslide in decades in the June 8 vote.

    No longer.

    While Mrs. May is still expected to win, the previously yawning gap between her and the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has narrowed, reflecting, experts say, a growing consensus that her campaign has stumbled badly. A more limited win could potentially undermine her authority as she negotiates Britain’s torturous departure from the European Union.

    One analysis, published Wednesday, predicts that neither major party will win an outright majority, potentially forcing the formation of a messy coalition government.

    But British pollsters have been among the biggest losers in recent elections — including failing to predict the 2015 general election and, in many cases, getting last year’s Brexit vote wrong.

    Whoever wins, Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader who lost badly in 2015 after predictions of a close race, warned against giving credence to the pollsters, who had shown their fallibility.

    “The pollsters have been off my Christmas card list since 2015,” he wrote on Twitter.

    “But British pollsters have been among the biggest losers in recent elections — including failing to predict the 2015 general election and, in many cases, getting last year’s Brexit vote wrong.”

    It isn’t easy being a pollster during times of sudden significant change. Especially if you’re past recent predictions have all been wrong. So while Theresa May’s Conservatives still appear to have the edge in the upcoming elections, things can change in politics. Especially in the age of Facebook, Big Data, and the application of psychological warfare techniques and hyper-targeted messaging in the political arena. So don’t write off a big Labour surprise surge yet. Although when you considering that the company leading the way in the application of Big Data and political pysops is Cambridge Analytica, and Cambridge Analytica is probably a lot more likely to be helping the Conservatives if it’s participating at all in this election, that better be a big surge:

    The Guardian
    The Observer

    The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked

    A shadowy global operation involving big data, billionaire friends of Trump and the disparate forces of the Leave campaign influenced the result of the EU referendum. As Britain heads to the polls again, is our electoral process still fit for purpose?

    by Carole Cadwalladr
    Sunday 7 May 2017 04.00 EDT

    “The connectivity that is the heart of globalisation can be exploited by states with hostile intent to further their aims.[…] The risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty.”
    Alex Younger, head of MI6, December, 2016

    “It’s not MI6’s job to warn of internal threats. It was a very strange speech. Was it one branch of the intelligence services sending a shot across the bows of another? Or was it pointed at Theresa May’s government? Does she know something she’s not telling us?”
    Senior intelligence analyst, April 2017

    In June 2013, a young American postgraduate called Sophie was passing through London when she called up the boss of a firm where she’d previously interned. The company, SCL Elections, went on to be bought by Robert Mercer, a secretive hedge fund billionaire, renamed Cambridge Analytica, and achieved a certain notoriety as the data analytics firm that played a role in both Trump and Brexit campaigns. But all of this was still to come. London in 2013 was still basking in the afterglow of the Olympics. Britain had not yet Brexited. The world had not yet turned.

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

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

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

    On that day in June 2013, Sophie met up with SCL’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, and gave him the germ of an idea. “She said, ‘You really need to get into data.’ She really drummed it home to Alexander. And she suggested he meet this firm that belonged to someone she knew about through her father.”

    Who’s her father?

    “Eric Schmidt.”

    Eric Schmidt – the chairman of Google?

    “Yes. And she suggested Alexander should meet this company called Palantir.”

    I had been speaking to former employees of Cambridge Analytica for months and heard dozens of hair-raising stories, but it was still a gobsmacking moment. To anyone concerned about surveillance, Palantir is practically now a trigger word. The data-mining firm has contracts with governments all over the world – including GCHQ and the NSA. It’s owned by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of eBay and PayPal, who became Silicon Valley’s first vocal supporter of Trump.

    In some ways, Eric Schmidt’s daughter showing up to make an introduction to Palantir is just another weird detail in the weirdest story I have ever researched.

    A weird but telling detail. Because it goes to the heart of why the story of Cambridge Analytica is one of the most profoundly unsettling of our time. Sophie Schmidt now works for another Silicon Valley megafirm: Uber. And what’s clear is that the power and dominance of the Silicon Valley – Google and Facebook and a small handful of others – are at the centre of the global tectonic shift we are currently witnessing.

    It also reveals a critical and gaping hole in the political debate in Britain. Because what is happening in America and what is happening in Britain are entwined. Brexit and Trump are entwined. The Trump administration’s links to Russia and Britain are entwined. And Cambridge Analytica is one point of focus through which we can see all these relationships in play; it also reveals the elephant in the room as we hurtle into a general election: Britain tying its future to an America that is being remade – in a radical and alarming way – by Trump.

    There are three strands to this story. How the foundations of an authoritarian surveillance state are being laid in the US. How British democracy was subverted through a covert, far-reaching plan of coordination enabled by a US billionaire. And how we are in the midst of a massive land grab for power by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested and stored. Whoever owns this data owns the future.

    My entry point into this story began, as so many things do, with a late-night Google. Last December, I took an unsettling tumble into a wormhole of Google autocomplete suggestions that ended with “did the holocaust happen”. And an entire page of results that claimed it didn’t.

    Google’s algorithm had been gamed by extremist sites and it was Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, who helped me get to grips with what I was seeing. He was the first person to map and uncover an entire “alt-right” news and information ecosystem and he was the one who first introduced me to Cambridge Analytica.

    He called the company a central point in the right’s “propaganda machine”, a line I quoted in reference to its work for the Trump election campaign and the referendum Leave campaign. That led to the second article featuring Cambridge Analytica – as a central node in the alternative news and information network that I believed Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon, the key Trump aide who is now his chief strategist, were creating. I found evidence suggesting they were on a strategic mission to smash the mainstream media and replace it with one comprising alternative facts, fake history and rightwing propaganda.

    Mercer is a brilliant computer scientist, a pioneer in early artificial intelligence, and the co-owner of one of the most successful hedge funds on the planet (with a gravity-defying 71.8% annual return). And, he is also, I discovered, good friends with Nigel Farage. Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s communications director, told me that it was Mercer who had directed his company, Cambridge Analytica, to “help” the Leave campaign.

    The second article triggered two investigations, which are both continuing: one by the Information Commissioner’s Office into the possible illegal use of data. And a second by the Electoral Commission which is “focused on whether one or more donations – including services – accepted by Leave.EU was ‘impermissable’”.

    What I then discovered is that Mercer’s role in the referendum went far beyond this. Far beyond the jurisdiction of any UK law. The key to understanding how a motivated and determined billionaire could bypass ourelectoral laws rests on AggregateIQ, an obscure web analytics company based in an office above a shop in Victoria, British Columbia.

    It was with AggregateIQ that Vote Leave (the official Leave campaign) chose to spend £3.9m, more than half its official £7m campaign budget. As did three other affiliated Leave campaigns: BeLeave, Veterans for Britain and the Democratic Unionist party, spending a further £757,750. “Coordination” between campaigns is prohibited under UK electoral law, unless campaign expenditure is declared, jointly. It wasn’t. Vote Leave says the Electoral Commission “looked into this” and gave it “a clean bill of health”.

    How did an obscure Canadian company come to play such a pivotal role in Brexit? It’s a question that Martin Moore, director of the centre for the study of communication, media and power at King’s College London has been asking too. “I went through all the Leave campaign invoices when the Electoral Commission uploaded them to its site in February. And I kept on discovering all these huge amounts going to a company that not only had I never heard of, but that there was practically nothing at all about on the internet. More money was spent with AggregateIQ than with any other company in any other campaign in the entire referendum. All I found, at that time, was a one-page website and that was it. It was an absolute mystery.”

    Moore contributed to an LSE report published in April that concluded UK’s electoral laws were “weak and helpless” in the face of new forms of digital campaigning. Offshore companies, money poured into databases, unfettered third parties… the caps on spending had come off. The laws that had always underpinned Britain’s electoral laws were no longer fit for purpose. Laws, the report said, that needed “urgently reviewing by parliament”.

    AggregateIQ holds the key to unravelling another complicated network of influence that Mercer has created. A source emailed me to say he had found that AggregateIQ’s address and telephone number corresponded to a company listed on Cambridge Analytica’s website as its overseas office: “SCL Canada”. A day later, that online reference vanished.

    There had to be a connection between the two companies. Between the various Leave campaigns. Between the referendum and Mercer. It was too big a coincidence. But everyone – AggregateIQ, Cambridge Analytica, Leave.EU, Vote Leave – denied it. AggregateIQ had just been a short-term “contractor” to Cambridge Analytica. There was nothing to disprove this. We published the known facts. On 29 March, article 50 was triggered.

    Then I meet Paul, the first of two sources formerly employed by Cambridge Analytica. He is in his late 20s and bears mental scars from his time there. “It’s almost like post-traumatic shock. It was so… messed up. It happened so fast. I just woke up one morning and found we’d turned into the Republican fascist party. I still can’t get my head around it.”

    He laughed when I told him the frustrating mystery that was AggregateIQ. “Find Chris Wylie,” he said.

    Who’s Chris Wylie?

    “He’s the one who brought data and micro-targeting [individualised political messages] to Cambridge Analytica. And he’s from west Canada. It’s only because of him that AggregateIQ exist. They’re his friends. He’s the one who brought them in.”

    There wasn’t just a relationship between Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ, Paul told me. They were intimately entwined, key nodes in Robert Mercer’s distributed empire. “The Canadians were our back office. They built our software for us. They held our database. If AggregateIQ is involved then Cambridge Analytica is involved. And if Cambridge Analytica is involved, then Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon are involved. You need to find Chris Wylie.”

    I did find Chris Wylie. He refused to comment.

    Key to understanding how data would transform the company is knowing where it came from. And it’s a letter from “Director of Defence Operations, SCL Group”, that helped me realise this. It’s from “Commander Steve Tatham, PhD, MPhil, Royal Navy (rtd)” complaining about my use in my Mercer article of the word “disinformation”.

    I wrote back to him pointing out references in papers he’d written to “deception” and “propaganda”, which I said I understood to be “roughly synonymous with ‘disinformation’.” It’s only later that it strikes me how strange it is that I’m corresponding with a retired navy commander about military strategies that may have been used in British and US elections.

    What’s been lost in the US coverage of this “data analytics” firm is the understanding of where the firm came from: deep within the military-industrial complex. A weird British corner of it populated, as the military establishment in Britain is, by old-school Tories. Geoffrey Pattie, a former parliamentary under-secretary of state for defence procurement and director of Marconi Defence Systems, used to be on the board, and Lord Marland, David Cameron’s pro-Brexit former trade envoy, a shareholder.

    Steve Tatham was the head of psychological operations for British forces in Afghanistan. The Observer has seen letters endorsing him from the UK Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and Nato.

    SCL/Cambridge Analytica was not some startup created by a couple of guys with a Mac PowerBook. It’s effectively part of the British defence establishment. And, now, too, the American defence establishment. An ex-commanding officer of the US Marine Corps operations centre, Chris Naler, has recently joined Iota Global, a partner of the SCL group.

    This is not just a story about social psychology and data analytics. It has to be understood in terms of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. Us. David Miller, a professor of sociology at Bath University and an authority in psyops and propaganda, says it is “an extraordinary scandal that this should be anywhere near a democracy. It should be clear to voters where information is coming from, and if it’s not transparent or open where it’s coming from, it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy or not.”

    Paul and David, another ex-Cambridge Analytica employee, were working at the firm when it introduced mass data-harvesting to its psychological warfare techniques. “It brought psychology, propaganda and technology together in this powerful new way,” David tells me.

    And it was Facebook that made it possible. It was from Facebook that Cambridge Analytica obtained its vast dataset in the first place. Earlier, psychologists at Cambridge University harvested Facebook data (legally) for research purposes and published pioneering peer-reviewed work about determining personality traits, political partisanship, sexuality and much more from people’s Facebook “likes”. And SCL/Cambridge Analytica contracted a scientist at the university, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, to harvest new Facebook data. And he did so by paying people to take a personality quiz which also allowed not just their own Facebook profiles to be harvested, but also those of their friends – a process then allowed by the social network.

    Facebook was the source of the psychological insights that enabled Cambridge Analytica to target individuals. It was also the mechanism that enabled them to be delivered on a large scale.

    The company also (perfectly legally) bought consumer datasets – on everything from magazine subscriptions to airline travel – and uniquely it appended these with the psych data to voter files. It matched all this information to people’s addresses, their phone numbers and often their email addresses. “The goal is to capture every single aspect of every voter’s information environment,” said David. “And the personality data enabled Cambridge Analytica to craft individual messages.”

    Finding “persuadable” voters is key for any campaign and with its treasure trove of data, Cambridge Analytica could target people high in neuroticism, for example, with images of immigrants “swamping” the country. The key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter.

    Cambridge Analytica worked on campaigns in several key states for a Republican political action committee. Its key objective, according to a memo the Observer has seen, was “voter disengagement” and “to persuade Democrat voters to stay at home”: a profoundly disquieting tactic. It has previously been claimed that suppression tactics were used in the campaign, but this document provides the first actual evidence.

    But does it actually work? One of the criticisms that has been levelled at my and others’ articles is that Cambridge Analytica’s “special sauce” has been oversold. Is what it is doing any different from any other political consultancy?

    “It’s not a political consultancy,” says David. “You have to understand this is not a normal company in any way. I don’t think Mercer even cares if it ever makes any money. It’s the product of a billionaire spending huge amounts of money to build his own experimental science lab, to test what works, to find tiny slivers of influence that can tip an election. Robert Mercer did not invest in this firm until it ran a bunch of pilots – controlled trials. This is one of the smartest computer scientists in the world. He is not going to splash $15m on bullshit.”

    Tamsin Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy at New York University, helps me understand the context. She has researched the US military’s funding and use of psychological research for use in torture. “The capacity for this science to be used to manipulate emotions is very well established. This is military-funded technology that has been harnessed by a global plutocracy and is being used to sway elections in ways that people can’t even see, don’t even realise is happening to them,” she says. “It’s about exploiting existing phenomenon like nationalism and then using it to manipulate people at the margins. To have so much data in the hands of a bunch of international plutocrats to do with it what they will is absolutely chilling.

    “We are in an information war and billionaires are buying up these companies, which are then employed to go to work in the heart of government. That’s a very worrying situation.”

    A project that Cambridge Analytica carried out in Trinidad in 2013 brings all the elements in this story together. Just as Robert Mercer began his negotiations with SCL boss Alexander Nix about an acquisition, SCL was retained by several government ministers in Trinidad and Tobago. The brief involved developing a micro-targeting programme for the governing party of the time. And AggregateIQ – the same company involved in delivering Brexit for Vote Leave – was brought in to build the targeting platform.

    David said: “The standard SCL/CA method is that you get a government contract from the ruling party. And this pays for the political work. So, it’s often some bullshit health project that’s just a cover for getting the minister re-elected. But in this case, our government contacts were with Trinidad’s national security council.”

    The security work was to be the prize for the political work. Documents seen by the Observer show that this was a proposal to capture citizens’ browsing history en masse, recording phone conversations and applying natural language processing to the recorded voice data to construct a national police database, complete with scores for each citizen on their propensity to commit crime.

    “The plan put to the minister was Minority Report. It was pre-crime. And the fact that Cambridge Analytica is now working inside the Pentagon is, I think, absolutely terrifying,” said David.

    These documents throw light on a significant and under-reported aspect of the Trump administration. The company that helped Trump achieve power in the first place has now been awarded contracts in the Pentagon and the US state department. Its former vice-president Steve Bannon now sits in the White House. It is also reported to be in discussions for “military and homeland security work”.

    In the US, the government is bound by strict laws about what data it can collect on individuals. But, for private companies anything goes. Is it unreasonable to see in this the possible beginnings of an authoritarian surveillance state?

    A state that is bringing corporate interests into the heart of the administration. Documents detail Cambridge Analytica is involved with many other right-leaning billionaires, including Rupert Murdoch. One memo references Cambridge Analytica trying to place an article with a journalist in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal: “RM re-channeled and connected with Jamie McCauley from Robert Thomson News Corp office,” it says.

    It makes me think again about the story involving Sophie Schmidt, Cambridge Analytica and Palantir. Is it a telling detail, or is it a clue to something else going on? Cambridge Analytica and Palantir both declined to comment for this article on whether they had any relationship. But witnesses and emails confirm that meetings between Cambridge Analytica and Palantir took place in 2013. The possibility of a working relationship was at least discussed.

    Further documents seen by the Observer confirm that at least one senior Palantir employee consulted with Cambridge Analytica in relation to the Trinidad project and later political work in the US. But at the time, I’m told, Palantir decided it was too much of a reputational risk for a more formal arrangement. There was no upside to it. Palantir is a company that is trusted to handle vast datasets on UK and US citizens for GCHQ and the NSA, as well as many other countries.

    Now though, they are both owned by ideologically aligned billionaires: Robert Mercer and Peter Thiel. The Trump campaign has said that Thiel helped it with data. A campaign that was led by Steve Bannon, who was then at Cambridge Analytica.

    A leading QC who spends a lot of time in the investigatory powers tribunal said that the problem with this technology was that it all depended on whose hands it was in.

    “On the one hand, it’s being done by companies and governments who say ‘you can trust us, we are good and democratic and bake cakes at the weekend’. But then the same expertise can also be sold on to whichever repressive regime.”

    In Britain, we still trust our government. We respect our authorities to uphold our laws. We trust the rule of law. We believe we live in a free and fair democracy. Which is what, I believe, makes the last part of this story so profoundly unsettling.

    The details of the Trinidad project finally unlocked the mystery that was AggregateIQ. Trinidad was SCL’s first project using big data for micro-targeting before the firm was acquired by Mercer. It was the model that Mercer was buying into. And it brought together all the players: the Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, AggregateIQ, Chris Wylie, and two other individuals who would play a role in this story: Mark Gettleson, a focus group expert who had previously worked for the Lib Dems. And Thomas Borwick, the son of Victoria Borwick, the Conservative MP for Kensington.

    When my article linking Mercer and Leave.EU was published in February, no one was more upset about it than former Tory adviser Dominic Cummings, the campaign strategist for Vote Leave. He launched an irate Twitter tirade. The piece was “full of errors & itself spreads disinformation” “CA had ~0% role in Brexit referendum”.

    A week later the Observer revealed AggregateIQ’s possible link to Cambridge Analytica. Cummings’s Twitter feed went quiet. He didn’t return my messages or my emails.

    Questions had already been swirling about whether there had been any coordination between the Leave campaigns. In the week before the referendum, Vote Leave donated money to two other Leave groups – £625,000 to BeLeave, run by fashion student Darren Grimes, and £100,000 to Veterans for Britain, who both then spent this money with AggregateIQ.

    The Electoral Commission has written to AggregateIQ. A source close to the investigation said that AggregateIQ responded by saying it had signed a non-disclosure agreement. And since it was outside British jurisdiction, that was the end of it. Vote Leave refers to this as the Electoral Commission giving it “a clean bill of health”.

    On his blog, Dominic Cummings has written thousands of words about the referendum campaign. What is missing is any details about his data scientists. He “hired physicists” is all he’ll say. In the books on Brexit, other members of the team talk about “Dom’s astrophysicists”, who he kept “a tightly guarded secret”. They built models, using data “scraped” off Facebook.

    Finally, after weeks of messages, he sent me an email. We were agreed on one thing, it turned out. He wrote: “The law/regulatory agencies are such a joke the reality is that anybody who wanted to cheat the law could do it easily without people realising.” But, he says, “by encouraging people to focus on non-stories like Mercer’s nonexistent role in the referendum you are obscuring these important issues”.

    And to finally answer the question about how Vote Leave found this obscure Canadian company on the other side of the planet, he wrote: “Someone found AIQ [AggregateIQ] on the internet and interviewed them on the phone then told me – let’s go with these guys. They were clearly more competent than any others we’d spoken to in London.”

    The most unfortunate aspect of this – for Dominic Cummings – is that this isn’t credible. It’s the work of moments to put a date filter on Google search and discover that in late 2015 or early 2016, there are no Google hits for “Aggregate IQ”. There is no press coverage. No random mentions. It doesn’t even throw up its website. I have caught Dominic Cummings in what appears to be an alternative fact.

    But what is an actual fact is that Gettleson and Borwick, both previously consultants for SCL and Cambridge Analytica, were both core members of the Vote Leave team. They’re both in the official Vote Leave documents lodged with the Electoral Commission, though they coyly describe their previous work for SCL/Cambridge Analytica as “micro-targeting in Antigua and Trinidad” and “direct communications for several PACs, Senate and Governor campaigns”.

    And Borwick wasn’t just any member of the team. He was Vote Leave’s chief technology officer.

    This story may involve a complex web of connections, but it all comes back to Cambridge Analytica. It all comes back to Mercer. Because the connections must have been evident. “AggregateIQ may not have belonged to the Mercers but they exist within his world,” David told me. “Almost all of their contracts came from Cambridge Analytica or Mercer. They wouldn’t exist without them. During the whole time the referendum was going on, they were working every day on the [Ted] Cruz campaign with Mercer and Cambridge Analytica. AggregateIQ built and ran Cambridge Analytica’s database platforms.”

    Cummings won’t say who did his modelling. But invoices lodged with the Electoral Commission show payments to a company called Advanced Skills Institute. It takes me weeks to spot the significance of this because the company is usually referred to as ASI Data Science, a company that has a revolving cast of data scientists who have gone on to work with Cambridge Analytica and vice versa. There are videos of ASI data scientists presenting Cambridge Analytica personality models and pages for events the two companies have jointly hosted. ASI told the Observer it had no formal relationship with Cambridge Analytica.

    Here’s the crucial fact: during the US primary elections, Aggregate IQ signed away its intellectual property (IP). It didn’t own its IP: Robert Mercer did. For AggregateIQ to work with another campaign in Britain, the firm would have to have had the express permission of Mercer. Asked if it would make any comment on financial or business links between “Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, AggregateIQ, Leave.EU and Vote Leave”, a spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica said: “Cambridge Analytica did no paid or unpaid work for Leave.EU.”

    This story isn’t about cunning Dominic Cummings finding a few loopholes in the Electoral Commission’s rules. Finding a way to spend an extra million quid here. Or (as the Observer has also discovered )underdeclaring the costs of his physicists on the spending returns by £43,000. This story is not even about what appears to be covert coordination between Vote Leave and Leave.EU in their use of AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica. It’s about how a motivated US billionaire – Mercer and his chief ideologue, Bannon – helped to bring about the biggest constitutional change to Britain in a century.

    Because to understand where and how Brexit is connected to Trump, it’s right here. These relationships, which thread through the middle of Cambridge Analytica, are the result of a transatlantic partnership that stretches back years. Nigel Farage and Bannon have been close associates since at least 2012. Bannon opened the London arm of his news website Breitbart in 2014 to support Ukip – the latest front “in our current cultural and political war”, he told the New York Times.

    Britain had always been key to Bannon’s plans, another ex-Cambridge Analytica employee told me on condition of anonymity. It was a crucial part of his strategy for changing the entire world order.

    “He believes that to change politics, you have to first change the culture. And Britain was key to that. He thought that where Britain led, America would follow. The idea of Brexit was hugely symbolically important to him.”

    On 29 March, the day article 50 was triggered, I called one of the smaller campaigns, Veterans for Britain. Cummings’s strategy was to target people in the last days of the campaign and Vote Leave gave the smaller group £100,000 in the last week. A small number of people they identified as “persuadable” were bombarded with more than a billion ads, the vast majority in the last few days.

    I asked David Banks, Veterans for Britain’s head of communications, why they spent the money with AggregateIQ.

    “I didn’t find AggegrateIQ. They found us. They rang us up and pitched us. There’s no conspiracy here. They were this Canadian company which was opening an office in London to work in British politics and they were doing stuff that none of the UK companies could offer. Their targeting was based on a set of technologies that hadn’t reached the UK yet. A lot of it was proprietary, they’d found a way of targeting people based on behavioural insights. They approached us.”

    It seems clear to me that David Banks didn’t know there might have been anything untoward about this. He’s a patriotic man who believes in British sovereignty and British values and British laws. I don’t think he knew about any overlap with these other campaigns. I can only think that he was played.

    And that we, the British people, were played. In his blog, Dominic Cummings writes that Brexit came down to “about 600,000 people – just over 1% of registered voters”. It’s not a stretch to believe that a member of the global 1% found a way to influence this crucial 1% of British voters. The referendum was an open goal too tempting a target for US billionaires not to take a clear shot at. Or I should say US billionaires and other interested parties, because in acknowledging the transatlantic links that bind Britain and America, Brexit and Trump, so tightly, we also must acknowledge that Russia is wrapped somewhere in this tight embrace too.

    For the last month, I’ve been writing about the links between the British right, the Trump administration and the European right. And these links lead to Russia from multiple directions. Between Nigel Farage and Donald Trump and Cambridge Analytica.

    A map shown to the Observer showing the many places in the world where SCL and Cambridge Analytica have worked includes Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Iran and Moldova. Multiple Cambridge Analytica sources have revealed other links to Russia, including trips to the country, meetings with executives from Russian state-owned companies, and references by SCL employees to working for Russian entities.

    Article 50 has been triggered. AggregateIQ is outside British jurisdiction. The Electoral Commission is powerless. And another election, with these same rules, is just a month away. It is not that the authorities don’t know there is cause for concern. The Observer has learned that the Crown Prosecution Service did appoint a special prosecutor to assess whether there was a case for a criminal investigation into whether campaign finance laws were broken. The CPS referred it back to the electoral commission. Someone close to the intelligence select committee tells me that “work is being done” on potential Russian interference in the referendum.

    Gavin Millar, a QC and expert in electoral law, described the situation as “highly disturbing”. He believes the only way to find the truth would be to hold a public inquiry. But a government would need to call it. A government that has just triggered an election specifically to shore up its power base. An election designed to set us into permanent alignment with Trump’s America.

    Martin Moore of King’s College, London, pointed out that elections were a newly fashionable tool for would-be authoritarian states. “Look at Erdogan in Turkey. What Theresa May is doing is quite anti-democratic in a way. It’s about enhancing her power very deliberately. It’s not about a battle of policy between two parties.”

    This is Britain in 2017. A Britain that increasingly looks like a “managed” democracy. Paid for by a US billionaire. Using military-style technology. Delivered by Facebook. And enabled by us. If we let this referendum result stand, we are giving it our implicit consent. This isn’t about Remain or Leave. It goes far beyond party politics. It’s about the first step into a brave, new, increasingly undemocratic world.

    Some names, ages and other identifying details of sources in this article have been changed

    ———-

    “The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked” by Carole Cadwalladr; The Guardian; 05/07/2017

    “What’s been lost in the US coverage of this “data analytics” firm is the understanding of where the firm came from: deep within the military-industrial complex. A weird British corner of it populated, as the military establishment in Britain is, by old-school Tories. Geoffrey Pattie, a former parliamentary under-secretary of state for defence procurement and director of Marconi Defence Systems, used to be on the board, and Lord Marland, David Cameron’s pro-Brexit former trade envoy, a shareholder.”

    Yep, the SCL/Cambridge Analytica psyop empire has its roots in the British conservative military establishment. So if it picking sides in the upcoming election, it’s probably not trying to help Labour. And note how the service they’re offering is basically harnessing the power of Big Data to carrying out advanced military-grade psyops:


    In June 2013, a young American postgraduate called Sophie was passing through London when she called up the boss of a firm where she’d previously interned. The company, SCL Elections, went on to be bought by Robert Mercer, a secretive hedge fund billionaire, renamed Cambridge Analytica, and achieved a certain notoriety as the data analytics firm that played a role in both Trump and Brexit campaigns. But all of this was still to come. London in 2013 was still basking in the afterglow of the Olympics. Britain had not yet Brexited. The world had not yet turned.

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

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

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

    Conducting mass psyops to shift elections in a developing nation with few protections. Sounds like fun. And also note the firm initially recommended to SCL’s chairman back in 2013 when the idea of deep diving into individual data was first proposed by “Sophie”, who happens to be the daughter of Google CEO Erick Schmidt: SCL should team up with Palantir:


    On that day in June 2013, Sophie met up with SCL’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, and gave him the germ of an idea. “She said, ‘You really need to get into data.’ She really drummed it home to Alexander. And she suggested he meet this firm that belonged to someone she knew about through her father.”

    Who’s her father?

    “Eric Schmidt.”

    Eric Schmidt – the chairman of Google?

    “Yes. And she suggested Alexander should meet this company called Palantir.”

    I had been speaking to former employees of Cambridge Analytica for months and heard dozens of hair-raising stories, but it was still a gobsmacking moment. To anyone concerned about surveillance, Palantir is practically now a trigger word. The data-mining firm has contracts with governments all over the world – including GCHQ and the NSA. It’s owned by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal and major investor in Facebook, who became Silicon Valley’s first vocal supporter of Trump.

    In some ways, Eric Schmidt’s daughter showing up to make an introduction to Palantir is just another weird detail in the weirdest story I have ever researched.

    A weird but telling detail. Because it goes to the heart of why the story of Cambridge Analytica is one of the most profoundly unsettling of our time. Sophie Schmidt now works for another Silicon Valley megafirm: Uber. And what’s clear is that the power and dominance of the Silicon Valley – Google and Facebook and a small handful of others – are at the centre of the global tectonic shift we are currently witnessing.

    That’s SCL’s potential competitor in the commercial space of offering nation-state-scale psyop campaigns: Palantir, the Big Data giant with extensive contracts with the US military and intelligence communities. And what was one of the first projects of this nature that SCL worked on? Getting the government of Trinidad and Tobago reelection. And if that works, the prize is that SCL gets to set up a mass surveillance apparatus that would have given the government Minority Report powers. And that was the test run for the model that Robert Mercer was buying into:


    A project that Cambridge Analytica carried out in Trinidad in 2013 brings all the elements in this story together. Just as Robert Mercer began his negotiations with SCL boss Alexander Nix about an acquisition, SCL was retained by several government ministers in Trinidad and Tobago. The brief involved developing a micro-targeting programme for the governing party of the time. And AggregateIQ – the same company involved in delivering Brexit for Vote Leave – was brought in to build the targeting platform.

    David said: “The standard SCL/CA method is that you get a government contract from the ruling party. And this pays for the political work. So, it’s often some bullshit health project that’s just a cover for getting the minister re-elected. But in this case, our government contacts were with Trinidad’s national security council.”

    The security work was to be the prize for the political work. Documents seen by the Observer show that this was a proposal to capture citizens’ browsing history en masse, recording phone conversations and applying natural language processing to the recorded voice data to construct a national police database, complete with scores for each citizen on their propensity to commit crime.

    “The plan put to the minister was Minority Report. It was pre-crime. And the fact that Cambridge Analytica is now working inside the Pentagon is, I think, absolutely terrifying,” said David.

    These documents throw light on a significant and under-reported aspect of the Trump administration. The company that helped Trump achieve power in the first place has now been awarded contracts in the Pentagon and the US state department. Its former vice-president Steve Bannon now sits in the White House. It is also reported to be in discussions for “military and homeland security work”.

    In the US, the government is bound by strict laws about what data it can collect on individuals. But, for private companies anything goes. Is it unreasonable to see in this the possible beginnings of an authoritarian surveillance state?

    The details of the Trinidad project finally unlocked the mystery that was AggregateIQ. Trinidad was SCL’s first project using big data for micro-targeting before the firm was acquired by Mercer. It was the model that Mercer was buying into. And it brought together all the players: the Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, AggregateIQ, Chris Wylie, and two other individuals who would play a role in this story: Mark Gettleson, a focus group expert who had previously worked for the Lib Dems. And Thomas Borwick, the son of Victoria Borwick, the Conservative MP for Kensington.

    These documents throw light on a significant and under-reported aspect of the Trump administration. The company that helped Trump achieve power in the first place has now been awarded contracts in the Pentagon and the US state department. Its former vice-president Steve Bannon now sits in the White House. It is also reported to be in discussions for “military and homeland security work”.”

    So that all gives us a better sense of not just who is being SCL/Cambridge Analytica but also how potentially influential that firm is in Britain already. They already have an abundance of data on UK voters and deep ties to UK conservatives. Is the firm using all that data in the upcoming next months elections? That’s unclear at this, but if we learn about a last minute web-based advertising blitz with an uncanny ability to persuade people to switch their votes at the last minute, that will be a clue. Pollsters beware. Everyone else should probably beware too.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 31, 2017, 8:08 pm
  6. GOP-affiliated data analytics firm Deep Root has quite a data-privacy violation earlier this month. At least we have to hope it only took place earlier this month. We don’t really know. But what we do know is that a cybersecurity researcher discovered a Deep Root server with public access to their proprietary database of the voting habits/political views on over 198 million Americans on June 12th. Deep Root claims this was all due to an accident that took place on June 1st and that nobody knew about it so it’s possible it was publicly accessible but no one actually accessed the data. Hopefully that’s the case. But the cybersecurity researcher found it while simply scanning Amazon’s Cloud for misconfigured servers. So while we don’t know if anyone access that massive trove of data on 198 million Americans, we do know that the kind of people who scan might Amazon’s cloud for misconfigured servers would have found it:

    Gizmodo

    GOP Data Firm Accidentally Leaks Personal Details of Nearly 200 Million American Voters

    Dell Cameron and Kate Conger
    06/19/2017, 8:00am

    Political data gathered on more than 198 million US citizens was exposed this month after a marketing firm contracted by the Republican National Committee stored internal documents on a publicly accessible Amazon server.

    The data leak contains a wealth of personal information on roughly 61 percent of the US population. Along with home addresses, birthdates, and phone numbers, the records include advanced sentiment analyses used by political groups to predict where individual voters fall on hot-button issues such as gun ownership, stem cell research, and the right to abortion, as well as suspected religious affiliation and ethnicity. The data was amassed from a variety of sources—from the banned subreddit r/fatpeoplehate to American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by former White House strategist Karl Rove.

    Deep Root Analytics, a conservative data firm that identifies audiences for political ads, confirmed ownership of the data to Gizmodo on Friday.

    UpGuard cyber risk analyst Chris Vickery discovered Deep Root’s data online last week. More than a terabyte was stored on the cloud server without the protection of a password and could be accessed by anyone who found the URL. Many of the files did not originate at Deep Root, but are instead the aggregate of outside data firms and Republican super PACs, shedding light onto the increasingly advanced data ecosystem that helped propel President Donald Trump’s slim margins in key swing states.

    Although files possessed by Deep Root would be typical in any campaign, Republican or Democratic, experts say its exposure in a single open database raises significant privacy concerns. “This is valuable for people who have nefarious purposes,” Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said of the data.

    The RNC paid Deep Root $983,000 last year, according to Federal Election Commission reports, but its server contained records from a variety of other conservative sources paid millions more, including The Data Trust (also known as GOP Data Trust), the Republican party’s primary voter file provider. Data Trust received over $6.7 million from the RNC during the 2016 cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org, and its president, Johnny DeStefano, now serves as Trump’s director of presidential personnel.

    The Koch brothers’ political group Americans for Prosperity, which had a data-swapping agreement with Data Trust during the 2016 election cycle, contributed heavily to the exposed files, as did the market research firm TargetPoint, whose co-founder previously served as director of Mitt Romney’s strategy team. (The Koch brothers also subsidized a data company known as i360, which began exchanging voter files with Data Trust in 2014.) Furthermore, the files provided by Rove’s American Crossroads contain strategic voter data used to target, among others, disaffected Democrats and undecideds in Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, and other key battleground states.

    Deep Root further obtained hundreds of files (at least) from The Kantar Group, a leading media and market research company with offices in New York, Beijing, Moscow, and more than a hundred other cities on six continents. Each file offers rich details about political ads—estimated cost, audience demographics, reach, and more—by and about figures and groups spanning the political spectrum. There are files on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Planned Parenthood, and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as files on every 2016 presidential candidate, Republicans included.

    What’s more, the Kantar files each contain video links to related political ads stored on Kantar’s servers.

    Spreadsheets acquired from TargetPoint, which partnered with Deep Root and GOP Data Trust during the 2016 election, include the home addresses, birthdates, and party affiliations of nearly 200 million registered voters in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, as well as some 2016 voters. TargetPoint’s data seeks to resolve questions about where individual voters stand on dozens of political issues. For example: Is the voter eco-friendly? Do they favor lowering taxes? Do they believe the Democrats should stand up to Trump? Do they agree with Trump’s “America First” economic stance? Pharmaceutical companies do great damage: Agree or Disagree?

    The details of voters’ likely preferences for issues like stem cell research and gun control were likely drawn from a variety of sources according to a Democratic strategist who spoke with Gizmodo.

    “Data like that would be a combination of polling data, real world data from door-knocking and phone-calling and other canvassing activities, coupled with modeling using the data we already have to extrapolate what the voters we don’t know about would think,” the strategist said. “The campaigns that do it right combine all the available data together to make the most robust model for every single voter in the target universe.”

    Deep Root’s data was exposed after the company updated its security settings on June 1, Lundry said. Deep Root has retained Stroz Friedberg, a cybersecurity and digital forensics firm, to investigate. “Based on the information we have gathered thus far, we do not believe that our systems have been hacked,” Lundry added.

    So far, Deep Root doesn’t believe its proprietary data was accessed by any malicious third parties during the 12 days that the data was exposed on the open web.

    Deep Root’s server was discovered by UpGuard’s Vickery on the night of June 12 as he was searching for data publicly accessible on Amazon’s cloud service. He used the same process last month to detect sensitive files tied to a US Defense Department project and exposed by an employee of a top defense contractor.

    This is not the first leak of voter files uncovered by Vickery, who told Gizmodo that he was alarmed over how the data was apparently being used—some states, for instance, prohibit the commercial use of voter records. Moreover, it was not immediately clear to whom the data belonged. “It was decided that law enforcement should be contacted before attempting any contact with the entity responsible,” said Vickery, who reported that the server was secured two days later on June 14.

    A web of data firms funnel research into campaigns

    Deep Root’s data sheds light onto the increasingly sophisticated data operation that has fed recent Republican campaigns and lays bare the intricate network of political organizations, PACs, and analysis firms that trade in bulk voter data. In an email to Gizmodo, Deep Root said that its voter models are used to enhance the understanding of TV viewership for political ad buyers. “The data accessed was not built for or used by any specific client,” Lundry said. “It is our proprietary analysis to help inform local television ad buying.”

    However, the presence of data on the server from several political organizations, including TargetPoint and Data Trust, suggests that it was used for Republican political campaigns. Deep Root also works primarily with GOP customers (although similar vendors, such as NationBuilder, service the Democrats as well).

    Deep Root is one of three data firms hired by the Republican National Committee in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Founded by Lundry, a data scientist on the Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney campaigns, the firm was one of three analytics teams that worked on the Trump campaign following the party’s national convention in the summer of 2016.

    Lundry’s work brought him into Trump’s campaign war room, according to a post-election AdAge article that charted the GOP’s 2016 data efforts. Deep Root was hand-picked by the RNC’s then-chief of staff, Katie Walsh, in September of last year and joined two other data shops—TargetPoint Consulting and Causeway Solutions—in the effort to win Trump the presidency.

    To appeal to the three crucial categories, it appears that Trump’s team relied on voter data provided by Data Trust. Complete voter rolls for 2008 and 2012, as well as partial 2016 voter rolls for Florida and Ohio, apparently compiled by Data Trust are contained in the dataset exposed by Deep Root.

    Data Trust acquires voter rolls from state officials and then standardizes the voter data to create a clean, manageable record of all registered US voters, a source familiar with the firm’s operations told Gizmodo. Voter data itself is public record and therefore not particularly sensitive, the source added, but the tools Data Trust uses to standardize that data are considered proprietary. That data is then provided to political clients, including analytics firms like Deep Root. While Data Trust requires its clients to protect the data, it has to take clients at their word that industry-standard encryption and security protocols are in place.

    TargetPoint and Causeway, the two firms employed by the RNC in addition to Deep Root, apparently layered their own analytics atop the information provided by Data Trust. TargetPoint conducted thousands of surveys per week in 22 states, according to AdAge, gauging voter sentiment on a variety of topics. While Causeway helped manage the data, Deep Root used it to perfect its TV advertising targets—producing voter turnout estimates by county and using that intelligence to target its ad buys.

    A source with years of experience working on political campaign data operations told Gizmodo that the data exposed by Deep Root appeared to be customized for the RNC and had apparently been used to create models for turnout and voter preferences. Metadata in the files suggested that the database wasn’t Deep Root’s working copy, but rather a post-election version of its data, the source said, adding that it was somewhat surprising the files hadn’t been discarded.

    Because the data from the 2008 and 2012 elections is outdated—the source compared it to the kind of address and phone data one could find on a “lousy internet lookup site”—it’s not very valuable. Even the 2016 data is quickly becoming stale. “This is a proprietary dataset based on a mix of public records, data from commercial providers, and a variety of predictive models of uncertain provenance and quality,” the source said, adding: “Undoubtedly it took millions of dollars to produce.”

    Although basic voter information is public record, Deep Root’s dataset contains a swirl of proprietary information from the RNC’s data firms. Many of filenames indicate they potentially contain market research on Democratic candidates and the independent expenditure committees that support them. (Up to two terabytes of data contained on the server was protected by permission settings.)

    One exposed folder is labeled “Exxon-Mobile” [sic] and contains spreadsheets apparently used to predict which voters support the oil and gas industry. Divided by state, the files include the voters’ names and addresses, along with a unique RNC identification number assigned to every US citizen registered to vote. Each row indicates where voters likely fall on issues of interest to ExxonMobil, the country’s biggest natural gas producer.

    The data evaluates, for example, whether or not a specific voter believes drilling for fossil fuels is vital to US security. It also predicts if the voter thinks the US should be moving away from fossil-fuel use. The ExxonMobil “national score” document alone contains data on 182,746,897 Americans spread across 19 fields.

    Reddit analysis

    Some of the data included in Deep Root’s dataset veers into downright bizarre territory. A folder titled simply ‘reddit’ houses 170 GBs of data apparently scraped from several subreddits, including the controversial r/fatpeoplehate that was home to a community of people who posted pictures of people and mocked them for their weight before it was banned from Reddit’s platform in 2015. Other subreddits that appear to have been scraped by Deep Root or a partner organization focused on more benign topics, like mountain biking and the Spanish language.

    The Reddit data could’ve been used as training data for an artificial intelligence algorithm focused on natural language processing, or it might have been harvested as part of an effort to match up Reddit users with their voter registration records. During the 2012 election cycle, Barack Obama’s campaign data team relied on information gleaned from Facebook profiles and matched profiles to voter records.

    During the 2016 election season, Reddit played host to a legion of Trump supporters who gathered in subreddits like r/The_Donald to comb through leaked Democratic National Committee emails and craft pro-Trump memes. Trump himself participated in an “Ask Me Anything” session on r/The_Donald during his campaign.

    Given how active some Trump supporters are on Reddit—r/The_Donald currently boasts more than 430,000 members—it makes sense that Trump’s data team might be interested in analyzing data from the site.

    A FiveThirtyEight analysis that looked at where r/The_Donald members spend their time when they’re not talking politics might shed some light onto why Deep Root collected r/fatpeoplehate data. FiveThirtyEight found that, when Redditors weren’t commenting in political subreddits, they most often frequented r/fatpeoplehate.

    It’s possible that Deep Root intended to use data from r/fatpeoplehate to build a more comprehensive profile of Trump voters. (Lundry declined to comment beyond his initial statement on any of information included in the Deep Root dataset.)

    However, FiveThirtyEight’s investigation doesn’t account for Deep Root’s collection of data from mountain-biking and Spanish-speaking subreddits that weren’t as popular with r/The_Donald members—and data from these subreddits that are not so closely linked to Trump’s diehard supporters might be more useful for his campaign’s goal of pursuing swing voters.

    “My guess is that they were scraping Reddit posts to match to the voter file as another input for individual modeling,” a source familiar with campaign data operations told Gizmodo. “Given the number of random forums, my guess is they started with a list of accounts to scrape from, rather than scraping from all forums then trying to match from there (in which case you’d start with the political ones).”

    Matching voter records with Reddit usernames would be complicated and any large-scale effort would likely result in many inaccuracies, the source said. However, campaigns have attempted to match voter files with social media profiles in the past. Such an effort by Deep Root wouldn’t be entirely surprising, and would likely yield rich data on the small portion of users it was able to match with their voter profiles, the source explained.

    Data exposes sensitive voter info

    The Deep Root incident represents the largest known leak of Americans’ voter records, outstripping past exposures by several million records. Five voter-file leaks over the past 18 months exposed between 350,000 and 191 million files, some of which paired voter data—name, race, gender, birthdate, address, phone number, party affiliation, etc.—with email accounts, social media profiles, and records of gun ownership.

    Campaigns and the data analysis firms they employ are a particularly weak point for data exposure, security experts say. Corporations that don’t properly secure customer data can face significant financial repercussions—just ask Target or Yahoo. But because campaigns are short-term operations, there’s not much incentive for them to take data security seriously, and valuable data is often left out to rust after an election.

    “Campaigns are very narrowly focused. They are shoestring operations, even presidential campaigns. So they don’t think of this as an asset they need to protect,” the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Hall told Gizmodo.

    Even though voter rolls are public record and are easy to access—Ohio, for instance, makes its voter rolls available to download online—their exposure can still be harmful.

    Voter registration records include ZIP codes, birthdates, and other personal information that have been crucial in research efforts to re-identify anonymous medical data. Latanya Sweeney, a professor of government and technology at Harvard University, famously used voter data to re-identify Massachusetts Governor William Weld from information in anonymous hospital discharge records.

    Because of the personal information they contain, voter registration databases can also be useful in identity theft schemes.

    Even though exposure of Deep Root’s data has the potential to harm voters, it’s exactly the kind of data that campaigns lust after and will spend millions of dollars to obtain. Campaigns are motivated to accumulate as much deeply personal information about voters as possible, so they can spend their ad dollars in the right swing districts where they’re likely to sway the greatest number of voters. But voter data rapidly goes stale and campaigns close up shop quickly, so data is seen as disposable and often isn’t well-protected.

    “I can think of no avenues for punishing political data breaches or otherwise properly aligning the incentives. I worry that if there’s no way to punish campaigns for leaking this stuff, it’s going to continue to happen until something bad happens,” Hall said. The data left behind by campaigns can pose a lingering security issue, he added. “None of these motherfuc kers were ever Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, they don’t pack out what they pack in.”

    ———-

    “GOP Data Firm Accidentally Leaks Personal Details of Nearly 200 Million American Voters” by Dell Cameron and Kate Conger, Gizmodo; 06/19/2017

    “Deep Root’s data sheds light onto the increasingly sophisticated data operation that has fed recent Republican campaigns and lays bare the intricate network of political organizations, PACs, and analysis firms that trade in bulk voter data. In an email to Gizmodo, Deep Root said that its voter models are used to enhance the understanding of TV viewership for political ad buyers. “The data accessed was not built for or used by any specific client,” Lundry said. “It is our proprietary analysis to help inform local television ad buying.””

    The GOP has clearly invested heavily in sophisticated Big Data strategies. And now one of its giant repositories of Big Data just got exposed to anyone using a pretty unsophisticated technique of simply scanning Amazon’s Cloud for open servers…something being done by cybercriminals routinely at all times:


    Deep Root’s data was exposed after the company updated its security settings on June 1, Lundry said. Deep Root has retained Stroz Friedberg, a cybersecurity and digital forensics firm, to investigate. “Based on the information we have gathered thus far, we do not believe that our systems have been hacked,” Lundry added.

    So far, Deep Root doesn’t believe its proprietary data was accessed by any malicious third parties during the 12 days that the data was exposed on the open web.

    Deep Root’s server was discovered by UpGuard’s Vickery on the night of June 12 as he was searching for data publicly accessible on Amazon’s cloud service. He used the same process last month to detect sensitive files tied to a US Defense Department project and exposed by an employee of a top defense contractor.

    So was this an intentional leak for a specific target or really just an accident? We’ll probably never know. But it’s worth noting the one possible intended recipient of those terrabytes of data: The data analytics firm that we know played a key role in the Trump victory and yet wasn’t mentioned at all in the above article: Cambridge Analytica.

    Because look at the firms mentions: In addition to Deep Root, we get mentions of how Deep Root’s data set was getting shared with other firms hired by the RNC and Trump team like Data Trust, TargetPoint and Causeway. But no mention of Cambridge Analytica:


    To appeal to the three crucial categories, it appears that Trump’s team relied on voter data provided by Data Trust. Complete voter rolls for 2008 and 2012, as well as partial 2016 voter rolls for Florida and Ohio, apparently compiled by Data Trust are contained in the dataset exposed by Deep Root.

    Data Trust acquires voter rolls from state officials and then standardizes the voter data to create a clean, manageable record of all registered US voters, a source familiar with the firm’s operations told Gizmodo. Voter data itself is public record and therefore not particularly sensitive, the source added, but the tools Data Trust uses to standardize that data are considered proprietary. That data is then provided to political clients, including analytics firms like Deep Root. While Data Trust requires its clients to protect the data, it has to take clients at their word that industry-standard encryption and security protocols are in place.

    TargetPoint and Causeway, the two firms employed by the RNC in addition to Deep Root, apparently layered their own analytics atop the information provided by Data Trust. TargetPoint conducted thousands of surveys per week in 22 states, according to AdAge, gauging voter sentiment on a variety of topics. While Causeway helped manage the data, Deep Root used it to perfect its TV advertising targets—producing voter turnout estimates by county and using that intelligence to target its ad buys.

    Where’s Cambridge Analytica? Did they get access to that data too? They were Trump’s primary Big Data secret weapon. So as this data redundant for them? If not and this data really is of use to Cambridge Analytica, then if we’re trying to think of a likely intended recipient for those terrabytes of data it’s hard to think of a likelier recipient than Cambridge Analytica. Especially after was announced back in January that the RNC’s Big Data guru was heading over to Cambridge Analytica as part of a bid to turn the firm into the RNC’s Big Data firm of choice:

    Wired

    Trump’s Data Firm Snags RNC Tech Guru Darren Bolding

    Issie Lapowsky
    01.16.17 07:00 am

    British newcomers Cambridge Analytica earned serious bragging rights—and more than a few enemies—as the data firm that helped engineer Donald Trump’s victory in its first US presidential election. Now it’s poaching the Republican National Committee’s chief technology officer, Darren Bolding, in a quest to become the analytics outfit of record for the GOP.

    Bolding, who in November, 2015, became the RNC’s third CTO in as many years after building his career as an engineer in Silicon Valley, will assume the title of CTO at Cambridge, where he will build products for commercial and political clients. “We want to be able to scale up what we’re already doing, since there’s been quite a lot of interest from the commercial and political space,” he says.

    Cambridge’s pitch is that it divides audiences into “psychographic groups” to target them with the kinds of messages that, like most ads, are based on demographic factors but also are most likely to appeal to their emotional and psychological profiles. The effectiveness of, and methodology behind, these tactics remain the subject of great debate among the Beltway’s traditional data minds, who express skepticism about Cambridge’s ability to deliver on its promises. But Trump’s victory in November was a blow to the firm’s detractors.

    Though Cambridge is now pursuing commercial clients through its new office in New York, it’s also expanding its DC operation and hopes to secure government and defense contracts under the Trump administration. Cambridge already has the requisite ties. Not only did it work for the Trump campaign, but Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, serves on the firm’s board.

    Cambridge also is funded by Robert Mercer, the billionaire donor who gave millions to Trump Super PACs and whose daughter Rebekah Mercer serves on the Trump transition team. She reportedly is involved in shaping the non-profit organization that will serve as a fundraising and messaging vehicle for the Trump administration. That could give Cambridge an advantage in securing its business. Cambridge Analytica declined to comment on these potential deals, and the Trump transition team has not yet responded to WIRED’s request for comment.

    Bolding’s departure from the RNC comes as Republicans and Democrats alike grapple with the threat of cyber attacks in the wake of the breach, attributed to Russian hackers, of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election. During his press conference this week, president-elect Trump scolded the DNC for allowing such an attack and claimed that hackers were foiled in their attempt to penetrate the Republican National Committee. Bolding confirms the RNC experienced frequent attacks throughout the election cycle. “We were very vigorously attacked,” Bolding says. “I’ve done this for large commercial companies that have had significant threats, but this was really intense.”

    While there may have been no breaches of recent RNC data, in a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Tuesday, FBI director James Comey said that “information was harvested” from old RNC email domains that are no longer in use, though none of that information was released.

    ———-

    “Trump’s Data Firm Snags RNC Tech Guru Darren Bolding” by Issie Lapowsky; Wired; 01/16/17

    “British newcomers Cambridge Analytica earned serious bragging rights—and more than a few enemies—as the data firm that helped engineer Donald Trump’s victory in its first US presidential election. Now it’s poaching the Republican National Committee’s chief technology officer, Darren Bolding, in a quest to become the analytics outfit of record for the GOP.

    So while we have no idea if Deep Root’s massive data base was accidentally or intentionally left exposed – for a minimum of 12 days and possibly a lot longer – if it was intentional left exposed for a particular it’s hard to ignore how useful this Cambridge Analytica’s operations. At the same time, given how easy it was for anyone to find this exposed data just by scanning Amazon’s cloud, intentionally leaving that kind of security gap for any significant period of time would be pretty crazy…unless someone was trying to sabotage Deep Root at the same time. Like maybe someone joining a firm that wants to replace Deep Root in the market for GOP Big Data services. That’s all speculative. What we know now is that what the RNC knows about you is now potentially known by who knows who. And maybe Cambridge Analytica too.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | June 20, 2017, 7:35 pm

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