Cambridge Analytica and Russian Bots Used the Same Strategy

One of the big stories over the weekend was about the fact that the Trump campaign’s data firm, Cambridge Analytica, stole the Facebook data of millions of people in order to psychologically profile them for targeting.

The firm had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.

So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.

I’ll have more to say about all of that later, but in digging into this story, I found a very interesting connection. What Mueller and his team of investigators will be interested in is whether or not there was a connection between this voter profiling with the kind of intrusion into social media he has already included in recent indictments of Russians.

One clue that might merely be coincidence is the timing. Here is what we learn from the indictment:

Starting at least in or around 2014, Defendants and their co-conspirators began to track and study groups on U.S. social media sites dedicated to U.S. politics and social issues. In order to gauge the performance of various groups on social media sites, the ORGANIZATION tracked certain metrics like the group’s size, the frequency of content placed by the group, and the level of audience engagement with that content, such as the average number of comments or responses to a post.

According to Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who is the main source for the article linked above, he met Steve Bannon in the fall of 2013 and by 2014 their work was underway.

But there is another confluence of events that is even more interesting. Back in October 2016, just days before the election, Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg did some reporting on the Trump campaign and the work of Cambridge Analytica in particular. Here is how they described their strategy at the time:

Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans…

On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

Those Facebook “dark posts” seem to be a favorite tool used by Parscale and the Cambridge Analytica consultants. I’d bet that we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of how those were used during the campaign. But compare the above to what the Mueller investigation included in their indictment of the Russian bots.

In or around the latter half of 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, through their ORGANIZATION-controlled personas, began to encourage U.S. minority groups not to vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or to vote for a third-party U.S. presidential candidate.

In other words, in the final stages of the 2016 election, both the Trump campaign and the Russian bots engaged in a voter suppression strategy with core Clinton supporters. Is it possible that was merely a coincidence? You tell me.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.