Did the Trump Campaign Help Russia Target Voters on Social Media?

The Washington Post provided another piece of the puzzle in the Russia/Trump investigation yesterday.

Representatives of Facebook told congressional investigators Wednesday that it has discovered it sold ads during the U.S. presidential election to a shadowy Russian company seeking to target voters, according to several people familiar with the company’s findings.

Facebook officials reported that they traced the ad sales, totaling $100,000, to a Russian “troll farm” with a history of pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda, these people said.

A small portion of the ads, which began in the summer of 2015, directly named Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, the people said. Most of the ads focused on pumping politically divisive issues such as gun rights and immigration fears, as well as gay rights and racial discrimination….

Facebook discovered the Russian connection as part of an investigation that began this spring looking at purchasers of politically-motivated ads, according to people familiar with the inquiry. It found that 3,300 ads had digital footprints that led to the Russian company.

Facebook teams then discovered 470 suspicious and likely fraudulent Facebook accounts and pages that it believes operated out of Russia, had links to the company and were involved in promoting the ads.

This report includes only what Facebook was able to find in their investigation. So it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. As Josh Marshall writes:

It also seems to be highly unlikely, to me least, that this is all that happened. Was it just this $100,000 of ads? I doubt it. It seems to me that most of this kind of stuff would be done through digital cut-outs, proxies and other ways to hide who was behind them.

I think there’s much more to learn.

An interesting element to the story is that a Facebook official said that there is some evidence that these accounts are linked to a troll farm in St. Petersburg—the same one that Adrian Chen wrote about back in June 2015. If you haven’t already read that one, I strongly recommend that you do so now. Chen was on to this story long before it became news.

To explain why the Washington Post report is important on the question of whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, let’s go back to something Paul Wood wrote a few months ago.

The voter rolls are said to fit into this because of “microtargeting”. Using email, Facebook and Twitter, political advertising can be tailored very precisely: individual messaging for individual voters…

This would take co-operation with the Trump campaign, it is claimed.

As the Washington Post article mentions, this is a line of inquiry that has been of particular interest to Sen. Mark Warner, ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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…It was interesting that those states seem to be targeted where the bots — where they could 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 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.

The person in the Trump campaign that all of this puts right in the crosshairs is Jared Kushner.

During the campaign, Kushner helped oversee digital operations that unleashed social media barrages targeted at the local level in an attempt to shift the opinions of voters in key states, former Trump aides say. Russia similarly directed anti-Clinton or pro-Trump social media blitzes.

Some of you might remember that back during the campaign, Kushner was heralded as the digital data genius who worked with Cambridge Analytica. This is exactly the kind of thing they do.

Cambridge Analytica is the data mining firm hired by the Trump campaign to help it collect and use social media information to identify and persuade voters to vote (or not vote), through an activity known as political microtargeting.

The company is principally owned by Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire who supported Trump and was a leading investor in Breitbart.

Stephen Bannon, Trump’s campaign chairman (after Manafort) and now chief strategist at the White House, was the vice president of Cambridge Analytica’s board as well as the executive chairman of Breitbart before joining Trump’s team in August.

To summarize, we now know that Russia engaged in microtargeting U.S. voters on Facebook with fake news during the 2016 presidential election. If an effort like that requires cooperation with someone in the United States with access to digital data, then the only remaining question is whether or not it was the Trump campaign that provided it to them. The key to answering that question lies with the area of the campaign supervised by Jared Kushner—who used a company that had exactly that kind of experience.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .