The Trump Campaign and Russians Shared a Social Media Strategy

Last February, the special counsel released indictments against Russia’s Internet Research Agency, two other companies, and 12 individuals for their attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The details included in that document are similar to what has been described from a report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The Russian influence campaign on social media in the 2016 election made an extraordinary effort to target African-Americans, used an array of tactics to try to suppress turnout among Democratic voters and unleashed a blizzard of activity on Instagram that rivaled or exceeded its posts on Facebook, according to a report produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The report adds new details to the portrait that has emerged over the last two years of the energy and imagination of the Russian effort to sway American opinion and divide the country, which the authors said continues to this day.

When it comes to social media, here is what the report found:

While the right-wing pages promoted Mr. Trump’s candidacy, the left-wing pages scorned Mrs. Clinton while promoting Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. The voter suppression effort was focused particularly on Sanders supporters and African-Americans, urging them to shun Mrs. Clinton in the general election and either vote for Ms. Stein or stay home.

That aligns with the indictments issued by the special counsel.

By 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used their fictitious online personas to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump…

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.

Whenever these allegations surface about what the Russians did via social media to influence the election, it is helpful to go back to reporting by Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg from October 2016 on the social media strategy that was adopted by the Trump campaign. Keep in mind that it was all Jared Kushner’s baby.

Beginning last November, then ramping up in earnest when Trump became the Republican nominee, Kushner quietly built a sprawling digital fundraising database and social media campaign that’s become the locus of his father-in-law’s presidential bid…

To outsiders, the Trump campaign often appears to be powered by little more than the candidate’s impulses and Twitter feed. But after Trump locked down the GOP nomination by winning Indiana’s primary, Kushner tapped [Brad] Parscale, a political novice who built web pages for the Trump family’s business and charities, to begin an ambitious digital operation fashioned around a database they named Project Alamo.

So while Russian bots were urging Sanders supporters and African Americans to either vote for Jill Stein or stay home on election day, what was the Trump campaign’s strategy?

Still, Trump’s reality is plain: He needs a miracle…Yet neither Trump’s campaign nor the RNC has prioritized registering and mobilizing the 47 million eligible white voters without college degrees who are Trump’s most obvious source of new votes, as FiveThirtyEight analyst David Wasserman noted.

To compensate for this, Trump’s campaign has devised another strategy, which, not surprisingly, is negative. 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.

Could it be that both the Russian bots and the Trump campaign were independently attempting to suppress the votes of Sanders supporters and African Americans (while the campaign added young women to the mix)? In a universe where far-fetched things happen, I guess it’s possible. However, the much more likely explanation is that when two entities adopt the same strategy, they are probably coordinating their efforts in order to have maximum impact. That isn’t direct evidence of a conspiracy, but it certainly points in that direction.

Nancy LeTourneau

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