As the president of United States continues demonising the mainstream media and accusing media outlets such as CNN, BBC and the New York Times of peddling fake news, the production of ‘actual’ fake news continues unabated, and is being produced by an alliance of right wing politicians, tech millionaires and online marketing.
It has now become clear that the sort of political advertising that propelled Donald Trump to the White House, achieved a vote for Brexit in Britain’s EU referendum and made Nigel Farage into an international celebrity, all flows from the same source. This is what investigations by traditional journalists (the ones Trump derides), has revealed.
Carole Cadwalladr elaborated on this in a chilling piece in last week’s The Observer newspaper in which she documented how a right wing tech billionaire is funding and driving many of the political campaigns and political initiatives of the present day. She identifies this major funder as Robert Mercer, “a hedge fund billionaire” who made his money “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.
Cadwalladr explains, Mercer gives a lot of money to an organisation called Media Research Centre whose objective is to “correct liberal bias” and whose website CNSnews claims “an unwavering commitment to neutralising leftwing bias in the news, media and popular culture”.
It was 10 million dollars of Mercer’s money that funded the right wing website Breitbart, set up by Steve Bannon, and Mercer is also associated with a company called Cambridge Analytica which worked on both the Trump and the Leave campaigns. This company it turns out emerged “out of a bigger British company called SCL Group which 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). Incidentally, SCL was set up by an ad man, one Nigel Oakes, formerly of Saatchi and Saatchi, the agency that worked on Margaret Thatcher’s image.
These companies are fighting a vicious online war. Cadwalladr quotes a professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, Jonathan Albright, “who has mapped the news ecosystem and found millions of links between rightwing sites ‘strangling’ the mainstream media”, as he told her “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.”
One of the most sinister aspects of this whole process is how Facebook users are exploited and utilised in these campaigns. Leave.EU’s Communications Director explained to Cadwalladr how Cambridge Analytica “had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles.”
According to Wigmore, Facebook was the key to the entire campaign. “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.”
The other rather sinister aspect was the utilisation of Twitter: Phil Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute’s Unit for Computational Propaganda, told Cadwalladr that what concerns him 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.”
This is war, but one thing is clear: money is driving a propaganda machine that is effectively drowning out liberal voices and fact-based journalism.