Thursday, March 2, 2017

Who Is Robert Mercer and Why Should I Care?

The short answer is he’s a computer scientist billionaire. The long answer is a bit more complicated.

Mercer is very right-wing in his politics, which is not all that unusual. But he’s chosen to use his expertise and wealth to move the American social conscience hard to the right as well. So, knowing just who Bob is and how he proposes to propagandize is essential if you care at all about world politics.

If ISIS and Brexit, immigrants and Donald Trump, global climate change and the Dakota Indians are not on your mind, you still ought to know, because all those things affect your life and Mercer affects all those things.

Bob Mercer is not a bad man. Like many of us, either liberal or conservative, he has a vision of a better America and unlike most of us has the financial power to advance his understanding of that vision. Through companies he supports, Mercer is essentially in the data-mining business, primarily through Facebook and other social media sites. The CEO of Cambridge Analytica (one of those companies) states that "today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual ... so we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people."

They use this collected data to interpret voter’s hidden emotions and target them accordingly. Tracking Facebook ‘likes’ they claim 150 likes allows their model to predict someone’s personality better than their spouse. With 300, they say it understands you better than you know yourself.

Pretty scary. If you’re not into scary, it’s pretty damned interesting.

As a warm-up to the American election, Cambridge Analytica played a key role in Britain’s Leave campaign to pull the UK out of the European Union (Brexit). Mercer donated these services, advising by way of data harvested from members’ Facebook profiles, targeting individual messages to voters in support of Brexit.

No one bothered at the time to inform the UK electoral commission, a violation of UK law. Brits are still wondering how the hell they got to voting themselves out of Europe, but it seems to be a done deal.

A majority of American voters are in similar wonderment at the victory of Donald Trump in a presidential campaign no one believed he could possibly win.

Enter Cambridge Alalytica, Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, all of whom are tied financially and intellectually to our billionaire Robert Mercer. Using the tools sharpened in Britain, Trump was everywhere in American media. Laughed at, caricatured and never taken quite seriously, Donald Trump dominated the conversation and drowned Hillary Clinton in an avalanche of rhetoric. We knew where she stood on policy, we’d known it over her 35 years of public service.

We couldn’t wait to hear Donald’s next outrageous bit of blather. And when the polls closed we went home to watch Hillary walk away with her ‘well deserved’ victory for womanhood and sensible government. Somewhere between the pizza and a stiff drink sensible government lost.

And we still do not know why or how, but Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer know and they’re not done with us yet, not by a long shot. We struggle to understand social media, scramble to get our heads around teenagers hounded into suicide by trolls and battle our way through this strange new world of fake news, wondering who to believe and clinging all the more frantically to our far-left or far-right positions.

Facebook and Twitter and Google will struggle as well with their individual responsibilities in this mess and will no doubt make progress in sorting truth from trolls and bots from real people. But in the meantime, Bob Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica will be heads-down and well on its way to the next jump ahead in what will no doubt prove to be a long battle for truth, fairness and representative democracy.

And once again an ultimate and inescapable truth emerges…
…you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.

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