Rightwing computer scientist and hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer was the top donor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. He contributed $13.5 million and laid the groundwork for what is now called the Trump Revolution. Mercer also funded Cambridge Analytica (CA), a small data analytics company that specializes in “election management strategies.” CA boasts on its website that it has psychological profiles, based on 5,000 separate pieces of data, on 220 million American voters. CA scoops up masses of data from peoples’ Facebook profiles and uses artificial intelligence to influence their thinking and manipulate public opinion. They used these skills to exploit America’s populist insurgency and tip the election toward Trump.
Mercer’s money also enabled Steve Bannon to fund Breitbart, a rightwing news site established with the express intention of serving as a Huffington Post for the right. Last year, Mercer also gave $95 million to rightwing political campaigns and non-profits. He funds a climate change denial think tank, the Heartland Institute and the Media Research Center, which refers to itself as “America’s Media Watchdog” and aims to correct “liberal bias.”
Rightwing sites are now dominating Google’s search results on certain subjects. Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, mapped the “news ecosystem” and found millions of links to rightwing sites “strangling” the mainstream media. And automation is used to blast out certain messages, affecting both trending topics on Twitter, Google, and Facebook, and the algorithms that help drive them.
We enter and participate in this digital world every day, on our laptops and our smartphones. We are living in a new era of propaganda, one we can’t see, with the collection and use of our data played back in ways to covertly manipulate us. All this is enabled by technological platforms originally built to bring us together. Welcome to the age of platform capitalism—the new battleground for the future.
Carole Cadwalladr, “Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire Waging War on Mainstream Media, Guardian, February 26, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage.
Jane Mayer, “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency,” New Yorker, March 27, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/27/the-reclusive-hedge-fund-tycoon-behind-the-trump-presidency.
“The Dark Money Behind Trump and Bannon,” Democracy Now!, March 23, 2017, https://www.democracynow.org/2017/3/23/jane_mayer_on_robert_mercer_the.
Travis Gettys, “Before Helping Trump Win with Data Mining, Cambridge Analytica Tipped Elections With Old-Fashioned Tricks,” Raw Story, March 24, 2017, http://www.rawstory.com/2017/03/before-helping-trump-win-with-data-mining-cambridge-analytica-tipped-elections-with-old-fashioned-tricks/.
Student Researcher: Maura Rocio Tellez (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)