Donald Trump’s campaign was working in parallel with Russian anti-Hillary Clinton propaganda efforts, although the specific nature of their cooperation has yet to emerge, according to new analyses connecting the dots between Russia’s theft of Democratic Party and Clinton campaign emails and Trump campaign social media messaging.
As congressional investigators and journalists compare timelines of anti-Clinton social messaging on FaceBook and Twitter in October 2016 with statements by officials high up in Trump’s campaign and some family members, it's becoming clear that the micro-targeting of Clinton voters in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin was certainly done by the Trump campaign—and also possibly done by Russia.
The big unanswered question is just how closely coordinated those operations were.
Will Bunch, writing for PhillyNews.com, pulled this together in a piece that ran Sunday, July 16, declaring that the old journalist maxim of “follow the money” has turned into “follow the data” under Trump. He writes, “The campaign’s data effort was overseen by President Trump’s son-in-law and arguably his closest adviser, Jared Kushner.” Bunch points to investigative reporting by the McClatchy News Service published last week. McClatchy wrote:
“Investigators at the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Justice Department are examining whether the Trump campaign’s digital operation—overseen by Jared Kushner—helped guide Russia’s sophisticated voter targeting and fake news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016. Congressional and Justice Department investigators are focusing on whether Trump’s campaign pointed Russian cyber operatives to certain voting jurisdictions in key states—areas where Trump’s digital team and Republican operatives were spotting unexpected weakness in voter support for Hillary Clinton, according to several people familiar with the parallel inquiries.”
Bunch reminds his readers that there have been a handful of investigative reports that probed exactly what the Trump campaign was doing to target Clinton’s supporters on social media—the new go-to political advertising media for 2016. What was different about last year’s political messaging, however, was the proliferation of fake news: stories, memes, attacks and websites all intentionally designed to discourage Clinton voters via Facebook and Twitter. These put a new twist on an old political campaign tactic: slinging mud via negative ads.
As Bloomberg.com’s Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg reported in late October 2016, Trump’s social media operation targeted Clinton supporters on FaceBook and Twitter to discourage them from voting for the former secretary of state. As FaceBook revealed in an April 2017 report on how its platform had been abused by propagandists during the election, “Social media accounts and pages were created to amplify news accounts of and direct people to the stolen data. From there, organic proliferation of the messaging and data through authentic peer groups and networks was inevitable.”
Thus, Donald Trump’s campaign bombarded swing-state Democrats with political ads/fake news, some of which was content based on stolen information gained by Russian hacks of the DNC and Clinton campaign.
Bunch cites a May report by Kate Brannen at JustSecurity.org, where in a podcast, Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council, asked Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA, the Intelligence Committee vice-chair, about one-half of this scenario: how Russia used social media to attack the Clinton supporters. Here’s the podcast excerpt:
Vietor: One thing I’ve heard about the focus of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the Russian hacking is that the sophistication and the preciseness of the targeting is something that’s being looked at closely. Specifically that Russian bots were targeting Clinton voters at the precinct level to suppress their vote with fake news, and that that level of expertise would require data from a targeting firm, like Cambridge Analytica, for example. Is that true? And can you tell us anything about the nature of these Russian hacks that I’m hearing about?
Warner:When you see some of the explanation and some of the fact that it appears that, for example, women and African Americans were targeted in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, where the Democrats were too brain-dead to realize those states were even in play.… It was interesting that those states seem to be targeted where the bots — where they could create a lot of these fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, could in fact overwhelm the targeted search engines that would end up saying on your news feed, you suddenly got stuff that “Hillary Clinton’s sick” or “Hillary Clinton’s stealing money from the State Department.” I get the fact that the Russian intel services could figure out how to manipulate and use the bots. Whether they could know how to target states and levels of voters that the Democrats weren’t even aware of really raises some questions. I think that’s a worthwhile area of inquiry. How did they know to go to that level of detail in those kinds of jurisdictions?
Vietor: I wonder if they just asked Jared [Kushner] like Trump does with all of his questions. We’ll find out.
Warner: We’ll find out. More to come on that.
Next, JustSecurity.org’s report goes to the data-mining operation the Trump campaign used, Cambridge Analytica, which was underwritten by the reclusive billionaire investor Robert Mercer. His daughter, Rebekah, was instrumental in the Trump campaign’s makeover in mid-summer 2016. Brannen then cites Paul Wood's take, a BBC reporter “who’s been ahead of the pack on the Russia-Trump investigation.”
Last March, Wood wrote, “Firstly, hackers steal damaging emails from senior Democrats. Secondly, the stories based on this hacked information appear on Twitter and Facebook, posted by thousands of automated 'bots,' then on Russia’s English-language outlets, RT and Sputnik, then right-wing U.S. ‘news’ sites such as Infowars and Breitbart, then Fox and the mainstream media.”
You are correct if you think this sounds like Trump’s campaign and the Russians were running in similar circles to attack the Clinton campaign. That is essentially what Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian of early-20th-century authoritarian regimes, said in a mid-June speech. Snyder explained that Russia didn’t need to hack America’s voting machinery to mess with voters or the counts, even though they were probing those computer database systems. That’s because the Russians found a much more effective way to influence the election: bombard voters on social media.
“The main element of the Russian intervention in the election had to do with gathering political data about tens of millions of Americans, and then using Facebook and other platforms to target fake news to people who were regarded as susceptible, especially in the last weeks before the election, which probably determined the outcome in critical states that were targeted,” Snyder said. “This isn’t to say that there aren’t other reasons, and in my view, good reasons, why people could vote for Mr. Trump. It isn’t to say that Hillary Clinton ran a wonderful campaign either. It’s just to say that in a very close election, that probably made the difference.”
The question that is emerging now is not whether Trump and the Russians were targeting swing-state Democrats on social media in 2016, but whether they were operating in parallel or coordinating closely. Brad Parscale, the digital director of the Trump campaign, accepted an invitation on Friday to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I am unaware of any Russian involvement in the digital and data operation of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter, in which he said the campaign worked with the Republican National Committee, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Cambridge Analytica.