“We are living in very strange times, and they are likely to get a lot stranger before things bottom out,” Dr. Hunter S. Thompson warned his readers more than forty years ago. But if the “Gonzo journalist” was accurate in his observations then, what would he say about the present?
For the last week, headlines in the US have started to tell the story about a once-obscure company called Cambridge Anayltica and its use of data mining techniques in the 2016 election. The full details of how a company, funded by the mega-rich right-wing Mercer family, snared the profiles of about 50 million Facebook users and manufactured strategies to influence voter perceptions, are yet to be told.
This week’s developments against the UK-based company featured the watchdog group Common Cause, which accused the firm of violating US election laws through its foreign status. When that complete narrative is assembled, however, it still will be only a small part of the story in these very, very strange times.
As an attempt to build part of the narrative, it should be mentioned that Cambridge Analytica emerged from some university psychology department research, where human characteristics are analyzed for a variety of purposes in a field called psychometrics, and where human behavior can be influenced based upon exposure to prompts and manufactured information.
Wouldn’t Don Draper and his Mad Men colleagues at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce love to be working in the very strange times of the present, where the Koch Brothers and the Mercer Family can manipulate you?
More on the Mercers a bit later.
Jane Mayer, author of the groundbreaking Dark Money, was out of the gate early on the subject of Cambridge Analytica. In March 2017, she wrote an interesting article in the New Yorker about the origins of the company and its role in manipulating voters. This passage is of particular note in building the narrative of what happened to democracy in the 2016 election:
Michal Kosinski, who performed groundbreaking university research in using Facebook data but used informed consent in his collection methods, strongly disagrees with the methods of Cambridge and its sister company, Strategic Communication Laboratories.
Kosinski felt that repurposing [data] for commercial use was unethical, and possibly illegal. His concerns deepened when he researched S.C.L. He was disturbed to learn that the company specialized in psychological warfare, and in influencing elections. He spurned the chance to work with S.C.L., although his colleague signed a contract with the company.
Kosinski was further disconcerted when he learned that a new American affiliate of S.C.L., Cambridge Analytica—owned principally by an American hedge-fund tycoon named Robert Mercer—was attempting to influence elections in the U.S. Kosinski, who is now an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s business school, supports the idea of using psychometric data to “nudge” people toward socially positive behavior, such as voting. But, he told me, “there’s a thin line between convincing people and manipulating them.”
But that thin line of separation, as it relates to contentious public issues, runs deep and is well-established with the Mercers. The narrative being written about the significance of Cambridge Analytica in undermining democracy by manipulating public opinion will certainly prove to be instructive.
In telling part of this story, it is important to understand that Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire, and computer scientist, was the largest contributor to the Trump 2016 campaign. According to available reports, Mercer and his Renaissance Technologies donated more than $15 million to Trump, and that has provided Mercer and his “intensely private” daughter, Rebekah, an ardent school choice and charter school fan, the opportunity to influence Trump’s stance on education policy and thus wreak havoc on public education.
Rebekah Mercer, in particular, provides an interesting study in how being a strident ideologue brings with it an abundance of contradictions and hypocrisy.
Her involvement with a so-called non-profit, Reclaim New York, is a case in point. This organization, which has also included former Breitbart News and White House strategist Steve Bannon, spends a great deal of energy organizing citizen activity and sowing “distrust of local government,” including school districts. Here is a succinct summary of what Reclaim does as an activist, anti-government group intent on stirring citizen discord:
The organization uses money from the Mercer family to hold meetings across rural towns in New York. From Long Island to the Hudson Valley, Reclaim rents spaces in local offices and restaurants where it holds what it calls “information sessions” to which the public is warmly welcomed.
At meetings like this, a team of Reclaim staff, sometimes from other states, instructs the attendees on how to hold their local governments (especially school boards) financially accountable. They do this by training volunteers to file Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to these municipalities. In Massachusetts [and elsewhere], such queries are typically called public records requests. Reclaim New York claims to have instigated 2,500 FOIL requests and amassed a mailing list of 25,000.
A perusal of the Reclaim New York website reveals this gem: “educates New Yorkers on issues like affordability, transparency, and education.”
How interesting. An organization created and funded by a billionaire family, including a daughter who homeschools her children and is a strong advocate of school choice and charter schools, is passionate about education and government transparency.
Except that the charter schools she champions, ravenous in their intent to receive public funds and thus drain revenue from her hated “government schools,” in practice are the very opposite of what Rebekah Mercer espouses.
It is fitting that the Mercer family, who have gained their fortune from the somewhat secretive hedge fund world and who have used that fortune to fund the dark side Cambridge Analytica operation, would embrace charter schools, another entity from The Dark Side, the name given to the charter world by some of its own operatives. Yes, those folks who loudly yet carefully recite the oxymoronic phrase “public charter schools” and tell us that charters are certainly public schools.
Never mind that these so-called public schools have non-elected boards and otherwise are operated by private management companies whose very non-public nature provide them, should we say, certain immunities.
Like responding to public records requests.
So, here we are again. A right-wing establishment that hates government and deploys entities like Cambridge Analytica, which operates in darkness, manipulates public opinion by harvesting Facebook data and in the process destabilizes democracy, predictably supports non-transparent and mostly unaccountable charter schools, which feature unelected boards that expend public funds.
No matter how else you might describe them, Cambridge Analytica and charter schools, by their very nature, undermine democracy. And to think that Reclaim, another Mercer creation, is a vigorous champion of citizens filing public records requests against state and local governments and public school districts.
Give me a break. Is there no limit on the sheer volume of hypocrisy – or projection – that can be amassed by hyperbolic organizations and their patrons?
[In the near future, Plunderbund will more closely examine the subject of public records requests.]
We need to learn much more about how our democracy was subverted by Cambridge Analytica. While we’re at it, we need to learn so much more about the Mercer family, along with the Kochs and other oligarchs, who are hell-bent on destroying anything that has the word public associated with it.
As we find out more about how the 2016 election debased our electoral process, we will learn how those from The Dark Side manipulated a system that was already wounded as a result of the 2000 election, where the popular vote winner, as in 2016, became the loser.
But we also need to realize that the same system that was assaulted by the Mercers and their Cambridge monster has also been weakened by the very charter schools that those same Mercers champion. When that realization comes, it should spotlight the fraud that is Reclaim New York and how America’s oligarchs, with the help of the U.S. Supreme Court in its infamous Citizens United v FEC ruling, have rigged the system in their favor.
One can only hope that those bright and articulate high school students, who are fervently marching today for a safe America free from wholesale gun violence, could somehow also educate enough of their elders to reclaim the representative government that has been lost over the years to privateers like the Mercers. Yes, the Mercers, those folks who generate all that smoke as they do their nefarious work behind The Dark Side curtain.
Work hard, kids. Our eighteenth-century model of self-government is gasping for breath. You can save it. Hurry.