Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage is a friend of the Mercers. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
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. Its what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. Its how you brainwash someone. Its incredibly dangerous.
Its 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 dont know its happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs.
Mercer invested in Cambridge Analytica,
the , driven in part by an assessment that the right was lacking sophisticated technology capabilities. But in many ways, its what Cambridge Analyticas parent company does that raises even more questions. Washington Post reported
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 its 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 Thatchers 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 its 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 Trumps administration. It seems significant that a company involved in engineering a political outcome profits from what follows. Particularly if its the manipulation, and then resolution, of fear, says Briant.
Its 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 dont 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 cant see, and that is working on us in ways we cant 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. Its totally covert. And people dont realise what is going on.
Public mood and politics goes through cycles. You dont 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 militarys or SCLs playbook.
But then theres 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. Its 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 Institutes 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.
Politics is war, said Steve Bannon last year in the Wall Street Journal. And increasingly this looks to be true.
Theres nothing accidental about Trumps behaviour, Andy Wigmore tells me. That press conference. It was absolutely brilliant. I could see exactly what he was doing. Theres feedback going on constantly. Thats what you can do with artificial intelligence. You can measure ever reaction to every word. He has a word room, where you fix key words. We did it. So with immigration, there are actually key words within that subject matter which people are concerned about. So when you are going to make a speech, its all about how can you use these trending words.
Wigmore met with Trumps team right at the start of the Leave campaign. And they said the holy grail was artificial intelligence.
Jared Kushner and Jason Miller.
Later, when Trump picked up Mercer and Cambridge Analytica, the game changed again. Its all about the emotions. This is the big difference with what we did. They call it bio-psycho-social profiling. It takes your physical, mental and lifestyle attributes and works out how people work, how they react emotionally.
Bio-psycho-social profiling, I read later, is one offensive in what is called cognitive warfare. Though there are many others: recoding the mass consciousness to turn patriotism into collaborationism, explains a Nato briefing document on countering Russian disinformation written by an SCL employee. Time-sensitive professional use of media to propagate narratives, says one US state department white paper. Of particular importance to psyop personnel may be publicly and commercially available data from social media platforms.
Yet another details the power of a cognitive casualty a moral shock that has a disabling effect on empathy and higher processes such as moral reasoning and critical thinking. Something like immigration, perhaps. Or fake news. Or as it has now become: FAKE news!!!!
How do you change the way a nation thinks? You could start by creating a mainstream media to replace the existing one with a site such as Breitbart. You could set up other websites that displace mainstream sources of news and information with your own definitions of concepts like liberal media bias, like CNSnews.com. And you could give the rump mainstream media, papers like the failing
New York Times! what it wants: stories. Because the third prong of Mercer and Bannons media empire is the Government Accountability Institute.
Bannon co-founded it with $2m of Mercers money. Mercers daughter, Rebekah, was appointed to the board. Then they invested in expensive, long-term investigative journalism. The modern economics of the newsroom dont support big investigative reporting staffs, Bannon told
Forbes magazine. You wouldnt get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. Were 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 cant 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 GAIs 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 Clintons cash did. Like Hillarys 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 couldnt take Bill Clinton down becausethey 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, theres a sense that we are talking to ourselves. And whether its Mercers millions or other factors, Jonathan Albrights 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. Its clearly being led by money and politics.
Theres been a lot of talk in the echo chamber about Bannon in the last few months, but its 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. NickPatterson, 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.
Bannon scorns media in rare public appearance at CPAC
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 hes 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 its 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: hes 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 its 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 weve 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 Bollens work are those who want not only to measure public sentiment, but to change it. Bollens research shows how its 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 Institutes 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? Theres 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 hes 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 whats 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 theyve 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.
Many of the techniques were refined in Russia, he says, and then exported everywhere else. You have these incredible propaganda tools developed in an authoritarian regime moving into a free market economy with a complete regulatory vacuum. What you get is a firestorm.
This is the world we enter every day, on our laptops and our smartphones. It has become a battleground where the ambitions of nation states and ideologues are being fought using us. We are the bounty: our social media feeds; our conversations; our hearts and minds. Our votes. Bots influence trending topics and trending topics have a powerful effect on algorithms, Woolley, explains, on Twitter, on Google, on Facebook. Know how to manipulate information structure and you can manipulate reality.
Were not quite in the alternative reality where the actual news has become FAKE news!!! But were almost there. Out on Twitter, the new transnational battleground for the future, someone I follow tweets a quote by Marshall McLuhan, the great information theorist of the 60s. World War III will be a guerrilla information war, it says. With no divisions between military and civilian participation.
By that definition were already there.
Additional reporting by Paul-Olivier Dehaye Carole Cadwalladr will be hosting a discussion on technologys disruption of democracy at the bluedot festival , Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, 7-9 July