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Mysterious US billionaire played crucial role in Trump, Brexit victories

© Jonathan Bachmann, AFP | Pro-Brexit campaigner and former leader of the far-right UKIP party, Nigel Farage (pictured left) and US President Donald Trump

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2017-02-28

The secretive US billionaire Robert Mercer played a crucial role in the United Kingdom’s campaign to leave the European Union, as well as US President Donald Trump’s election victory, according to a recent media report.

Mercer gave the UK’s Leave.eu campaign a boost by directing his data analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, to offer its services free of charge via his close friend Nigel Farage, a prominent Brexit supporter and former leader of the far-right UKIP party, British newspaper The Guardian reported earlier this week.

Until recently, the 70-year-old hedge fund manager was best known for keeping out of the public eye. With an income of $150 million in 2016, Mercer came in at number 18 on Forbes list of 25 Highest-Earning Hedge Fund Managers and Traders last year.

A pioneer of artificial intelligence

Mercer launched his career at IBM during the early 1970s. While there, he earned a reputation as a talented computer programmer, making a number of advances in language processing – an area of research that has since played an important role in the development of artificial intelligence (AI).

In 1993, he joined Renaissance Technologies, which specialised in using so-called “big data” to identify investment strategies. After eight years at the hedge fund, he was named co-CEO in 2011.

Known for his extreme discretion, Mercer made news headlines during the 2016 US presidential election as one of the biggest Republican donors. After initially supporting Senator Ted Cruz of Texas during the primaries, Mercer spent more than $11 million to help get Trump elected.

He has also invested millions of dollars into the far-right website Breitbart News Network, which was once run by Trump’s chief strategist and former campaign manager, Stephen Bannon. Last week, Breitbart President and CEO Larry Solov confirmed that the Mercer family was a partial owner of the organisation.

Cruz, Trump and Leave.eu

But it now appears Mercer’s support extended far beyond financial contributions. According to The Guardian, he directed Cambridge Analytica, of which he is a major stakeholder, to consult for his pet political causes.

The small US-based data analytics company specialises in collecting information from social media to construct accurate psychological profiles of target audiences. In other words, it tracks a user’s “likes” and other technological habits to get to know him or her better than a close friend.

Cambridge Analytica worked for Mercer’s two favourite Republican candidates: first Cruz, then Trump. The company also offered its services free of charge to Leave.eu via Farage ahead of the UK’s June 23 referendum, The Guardian reported, citing the campaign’s former communication director Andy Wigmore.

“They were happy to help. Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And 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,” Wigmore told The Guardian.

Data on 220 million Americans

So what gives Cambridge Analytica an edge over other data analytics services? First, its expansive database. The company boasts of having collected up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans. Secondly, it uses a unique method of analysis that doesn’t rely on traditional information, such as an individual’s geolocalisation, age or profession.

Instead, Cambridge Analytics creates a psychographic profile for each person. The controversial practice allows the company to gauge a person’s intelligence and behavior through both objective and emotional information. This data is used to draw conclusions about an individual, such as whether he or she is conservative, liberal or undecided, enjoys socialising, is easily upset, has a sexual preference, is recently divorced or is nervous by nature.

A campaign can then use this information to woo voters by personalising the advertisements and videos that appear on their social media feeds. For example, black voters in some states were targeted by content appearing to show Trump’s rival, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, referring to African-Americans as “sexual predators”, according to the website Motherboard. “Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven,” Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander James Ashburner Nix told the publication.

In the UK, the Leave.eu campaign targeted prospective supporters by drafting dozens of emails that responded directly to their concerns based on information gleaned by Cambridge Analytics, The Guardian reported.

Although there is no concrete evidence that Mercer used “big data” to influence the outcome of the two elections, Leave.eu’s former communication director Wigmore left little doubt.

“AI won it for Leave,” he told The Guardian.

This article was translated from the original in French.

Date created : 2017-02-28

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