WASHINGTON – A powerful but previously obscure online data mining firm bankrolled by Albuquerque native Robert Mercer has been thrust into the national media glare after revelations that it harvested Facebook user information to help propel Donald Trump into the White House in 2016.
Robert Mercer, a graduate of Sandia High School and the University of New Mexico turned New York hedge fund titan, reportedly plowed $15 million into Cambridge Analytica, which helped both the Trump campaign in the U.S. and the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom. The Journal profiled Mercer and his Albuquerque connections in November.
According to Forbes magazine, Mercer donated $24.6 million to the Republican Party in 2016. He has reportedly invested $10 million into Breitbart, the conservative news site. Financial journals place his net worth between $900 million and more than $1 billion.
Cambridge Analytica claims to use secret psychological methods to help mine online data that can be used to reach and influence potential voters. But now the firm’s acquisition and use of Facebook data in the 2016 election is drawing scrutiny from Congress, state and federal investigators, and the British Parliament.
According to a report in The New York Times on Saturday, Facebook initially downplayed knowledge of Cambridge Analytica’s work to influence the election, but on Friday suspended the company from its network.
“This was a scam – and a fraud,” Paul Grewal, a vice president and deputy general counsel at the social network, said in a statement to the Times.
According to the Times, under the guidance of Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital director in 2016 and now the campaign manager for his 2020 re-election effort, Cambridge performed a variety of services. That included designing target audiences for digital ads and fundraising appeals, modeling voter turnout, buying $5 million in television ads and determining where Mr. Trump should travel to best drum up support.
Mercer and his politically connected daughter, Rebekah, initially backed the presidential candidacy of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016. But they eventually supported Trump as the nominee.
Deanna Cooper Koloc, who graduated from high school with Mercer, told the Journal last year that she enjoyed catching up with her old classmate at their 50th reunion in Albuquerque in 2014. But she said he never mentioned politics.
“I was excited to see him at the reunion because he was one of the students I remembered well as part of a group I identified with, and I found him very pleasant and interesting to talk to,” Cooper Koloc recalled in the Journal interview. “We were both interested in hearing about mutual friends and exchanged the sort of chitchat that always occurs at high school reunions.”
Mercer attended the reunion with Rebekah. The father-daughter duo took an alumni tour of the Albuquerque school, attended the reunion dinner and reminisced with his old friends just like regular folks. According to the 1964 edition of “The Crest” – the Sandia High yearbook – Mercer was active in extracurricular activities. The yearbook shows the bespectacled student as a member of the school’s chess, auto and Russian clubs.