Exposed: how US billionaire helped to back Brexit

Robert Mercer, who bankrolled Donald Trump, played key role with sinister advice on using Facebook data

The US billionaire who helped bankroll Donald Trumps campaign for the presidency played a key role in the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, the Observer has learned.

It has emerged that Robert Mercer, a hedge-fund billionaire, who helped to finance the Trump campaign and who was exposed this weekend as one of the owners of the rightwing Breitbart News Network, is a long-time friend of Nigel Farage. He directed his data analytics firm to provide expert advice to the Leave campaign on how to target sway voters via Facebook a donation of services that was not declared to the electoral commission.

Cambridge Analytica, an outgrowth of a British company, SCL Group, which has 25 years experience in military disinformation campaigns and election management, claims to use cutting-edge technology to build intimate psychometric profiles of voters to find and target their emotional triggers. Trumps team paid the firm more than$ 6m( 4.8 m) to target swing voters, and it has now emerged that Mercer also introduced the firm in which he has a major stake to Farage.

The communications director of Leave.eu, Andy Wigmore, told the Observer that the longstanding friendship between Nigel Farage and the Mercer family resulted Mercer to offer his help free to the Brexit campaign because of their shared goals. Wigmore said that he introduced Farage and Leave.eu to Cambridge Analytica: They were happy to help. Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And Mercer introduced them to us. He said, Heres this company we guess may be useful to you. What they were trying to do in the US and what we were trying to do had massive parallels. We shared a lot of information.

The strategy involved harvesting data from people Facebook and other social media profiles and then using machine learning to spread through their networks. Wigmore admitted the technology and the level of information it gathered from people was creepy. He said the campaign used this information, combined with artificial intelligence, to determine who to target with highly individualised ads and had built a database of more than a million people, based on advice Cambridge Analytica supplied. Two weeks ago Arron Banks, Leave.eus founder, stated in a series of tweets that Gerry Gunster( Leave.eus pollster) and Cambridge Analytica with world class AI had helped them gain unprecedented levels of participation. AI won it for Leave, he said.

By law, all donations of services-in-kind worth more than 7,500 must be reported to the electoral commission. A spokesman said that no gift from the company or Mercer to Leave.eu had been filed.

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US hedge fund administrator Robert Mercer, a long-time friend of Nigel Farage, is now known to be one of the owners of the Breitbart News Network. Photo: USA/ Rex

Brittany Kaiser, federal employees of Cambridge Analytica/ SCL, appeared on a panel at a Leave.eu press conference to explain the technology behind the campaign. And in documents Leave.eu filed with the commission, it reported that Cambridge Analytica was a strategic partner.The Observer reported in Decemberthat Cambridge Analytica had worked on the Leave campaign and received a letter from the campaign to say this was untrue. It afterward wrote to say: It is a US company based in the US. It hasnt run in British politics. It declined to comment last week on whether it had donated services to Leave.eu.

Leave.eu declined to say why it had not proclaimed any gift of services to the electoral commission.

Mercer and his daughter Rebekah are emerging as key figures in the dominance of Trump and, as the Observer details today, the strategic interruption of the mainstream media. A brilliant computer scientist who did pioneering work on IBM in AI, Mercer made billions with Renaissance Technologies, a hedge-fund that specialises in automated trading. As well as financing Trumps campaign, he encouraged Trump to take on two key consultants Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway and on Saturday the Washington Post revealed him as one of the owners of Breitbart. Bannons role within the Trump administration is being increasingly analyse but, up to now, Mercers connection has escaped the same sort of close scrutiny particularly with regard to the media.

Breitbart, which has become the leading platform for the alt-right, is only one of a series of investments that aim to change the media scenery and political opinions not only in the US but also in Britain. A British version of Breitbart was launched in 2014, Bannon told the New York Times , explicitly to try to influence the upcoming general election. He and Farage have been close friends since at least 2012 and the site has been an important cheerleader for Ukip, with its editor, Raheem Kassam, at one point working as chief consultant to Farage.

Until now, however, it was not known that Mercer had explicitly tried to influence the outcome of the referendum. Depicting on Cambridge Analyticas advice, Leave.eu built up a huge database of supporters creating detailed profiles of “peoples lives” through open-source data it harvested via Facebook. The campaign then sent thousands of different versions of advertisements to people depending on what it had learned of their personalities.

A leading expert on potential impacts of technology on elections “ve called the” relevation extremely disturbing and quite sinister. Martin Moore, of Kings College London, said that undisclosed support-in-kind is exceedingly troubling. It undermines the whole basis of our electoral system, that we should have a level playing field.

But details of how people were being targeted with this technology raised more serious questions, he said. We have no idea what people were being proven or not, which induces it frankly sinister. Maybe it wasnt, but we have no way of knowing. There is no possibility of public scrutiny. I find this extremely worrying and disturbing.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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