The same group driving advertisers away from Breitbart News and Bill O'Reilly has a new target: Renaissance Technologies, the hedge fund run by Republican megadonor Robert Mercer.
Sleeping Giants, an anonymous online activist organization, is pushing universities and pension funds to pull their money from the 25-year-old quant fund Mercer heads. The group alleges Mercer's backing of alt-right website Breitbart News and ties to far-right figures such as Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos are reason for institutions to divest from the fund, whose founder, James Simons, is a major donor to Democrats.
Sleeping Giants on Monday launched a campaign for Renaissance Technologies institutional investors to divest, citing Mercer's ties to the alt-right. "This is not a right or left issue," an online call-to-action from the group reads. "Robert Mercer's agenda is on full display at Breitbart with bigoted and sexist articles being printed daily."
Its first target is Michigan State University, which has about $50 million invested in Renaissance and was one of the institutions mentioned in a report on the hedge fund by ThinkProgress, the journalistic arm of the progressive Center for American Progress, last week.
An MSU spokesman said in a statement that any attempts to draw a line between the institution's investments to financing white nationalism is "misleading and irresponsible."
ThinkProgress also highlighted Columbia University, pensions in Missouri, Rhode Island, California, Maryland and a handful of other institutions invested in Renaissance.
Activists' ultimate goal may be for Renaissance's institutional investors to divest, but more broadly, the effort is also about transparency, said Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman in the Obama administration and cofounder of progressive political platform Crooked Media.
"If those institutions want to prioritize financial returns, that's their choice, but they should say so publicly," he said. "I suspect that many current students and alumni won't like that they're helping prop up Breitbart and whatever Nazi-saluting project Milo does next."
Based in East Setauket, New York, Renaissance Technologies is a quantitative hedge fund launched by Simons, a mathematician, in 1982. It currently manages more than $50 billion in assets and is run by co-CEOs Peter Brown and Mercer. (Simons retired in 2009 and remains on as a non-executive chairman.)
Renaissance operates a handful of hedge funds open to outside investors as well as its Medallion Fund, an employee-only fund that according to a 2016 report from Bloomberg produced $55 billion in profit over the course of 28 years.
Despite its success, the secretive firm has largely flown under the radar, but Mercer's political activities have pushed it into the spotlight.
Mercer, 71, has emerged as a major player in far-right circles. He and his daughter, Rebekah, reportedly helped orchestrate bringing Bannon and Kellyanne Conway into the Trump campaign in 2016. Their data firm, Cambridge Analytica, helped lift Trump to the White House.
It's not just Trump that Mercer is backing. He is also a major funder of Breitbart News, the alt-right news website known for inflammatory and often racist and sexist content. According to a report from BuzzFeed News, he also has ties to Yiannopoulos, a right-wing provocateur who was forced to resign from Breitbart after a video surfaced in which he appeared to condone pedophilia.
BuzzFeed at the start of October published an exposé examining how Breitbart, Bannon and Yiannopoulos helped to fuel hate and racism and shepherd such sentiments into the mainstream. It uncovered an April 2016 video in which Yiannopoulos sings "America the Beautiful" in a karaoke bar as the crowd, which includes white nationalist Richard Spencer, raise their arms in Nazi salutes. Its report also found Yiannopoulos reached out to neo-Nazis for advice on his writing.
A wrinkle in the narrative on Mercer and Renaissance is Simons. The 79-year-old is a major Democratic donor and philanthropist. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Simons and his wife, Marilyn, made $26.8 million in political contributions in the 2016 election cycle, all of which went to Democrats. (Mercer gave $25.1 million, all to Republicans.) Simons gave millions to pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action. (Mercer gave millions to Make America Number 1, which supported Ted Cruz and then Donald Trump.)
Simons has made multi-million-dollar donations to Stony Brook University and the New York Public Library, and he and his wife signed the Giving Pledge, a commitment started by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates for the ultra-wealthy to give away at least half of their riches.
He has also launched the Simons Foundation, which supports scientific research initiatives in areas such as math education and autism research and in 2016 awarded more than $230 million in grants. Mark Silber, chief financial officer at Renaissance, sits on its board.
Vietor, who has been publicly pushing the movement against the Mercers and Renaissance, doesn't believe Simons being part of the equation matters. "What is the flip side of that logic? Having a business partner with different politics views means you're fine to support hate speech?" he said.
"We're not a political organization and we don't see our work as 'right leaning' or 'left leaning.' Our goal is to stop funding bigotry where we see it, that's it," a spokesperson for Sleeping Giants said.
"If [Simons] has a problem with his business partner funding white nationalists he's welcome to say something," Vietor said.
Representatives for the Simons Foundation did not return request for comment. A Renaissance Technologies spokesman declined to comment.
Sleeping Giants' call to action against Renaissance has picked up steam online, but it is unclear whether it will be able to repeat the successes it's found with getting advertisers to drop Breitbart and ousted Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly.
Companies running ads on websites and on television are plain for the eye to see -- according to Sleeping Giants' tally, more than 3,000 advertisers have dropped Breitbart.
The individuals and institutions behind the billions of dollars invested in Renaissance are largely unknown. ThinkProgress has found a handful of investors, but the list is likely much longer. Activists remain optimistic.
"With Renaissance, we're using the same approach that has worked for us before. We're making the institutions and organizations involved aware of what their investments are funding -- we wouldn't be surprised if they're not -- and then we're asking them to reconsider whether their investments are aligned with their values," the Sleeping Giants spokesperson said. "Company values, as is turns out, are a powerful thing."
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Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 25.