Well before votes were cast in the 2016 election, I had a sickening feeling that coordination was occurring between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.
After 30 years of living, breathing and sleeping political campaigns, one learns to spot tradecraft and distrust coincidences. The precise timing when hacked Democratic emails were dropped into the news cycle, the curious number of Trump campaign advisers with ties to Russia and Trump’s inexplicable veneration of Vladimir Putin were only part of it.
There was something else. Something intangible.
Campaigns have a rhythm, like a moving subway car. When you’ve ridden enough of them, you can sense when something’s not right. It wasn’t Trump’s cacophonous candidacy, it was what was happening online to support it. There was too much material in the environment, and it was moving too quickly.
Criticism of the candidate in social media met with near-instantaneous attacks from ostensible Americans with weird name spellings. Joe-Schmoe tweeters and Facebook posters were uncannily on message. That doesn’t happen. Memes and false news stories, manufactured to look real, were ubiquitous. No way a campaign, much less one with a skeletal staff, could come up with all those words. And most of the material wasn’t coming from established independent expenditure campaigns either. It was being generated by entities with seemingly ad hoc names.
We now know the propaganda was coming from the “Internet Research Agency” in St. Petersburg, Russia. More than 100 English-speaking social media experts, known colloquially there as “the Trolls from Olgino,” were working day-and-night to damage Hillary Clinton via the internet and, eventually, to assist Donald Trump. A typical presidential campaign would have no more than five or six paid people pushing social media content. These paid Russian operatives represented an online army, interacting with about 126 million Americans via Facebook and 1.4 million via Twitter in the final weeks of the election. Google identified about 1,000 Russian-made videos created for campaign.
But it was Russian targeting, we learned about after the election, that remains most disconcerting. How did the Trolls from Olgino know which voters to target with their materials? How could they have known to communicate with individual swing voters in obscure election districts in key states like Wisconsin?
I think we’re about to find out.
News that Trump’s social media advisers, Cambridge Analytica, were building “psychographic” profiles from the possibly purloined Facebook data of 50 million Americans, explains how the Trump campaign built effective, individualized online messaging to swing voters. That’s excellent campaign work, the Facebook part aside. But it doesn’t address how third-party actors 4,300 miles away could have done the same thing. And it begs the core unanswered question: Was the Russian Facebook targeting impossibly identical to Cambridge’s? Reverse engineering should show that, and special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has to be looking into it.
If that proves to be the case — and it may not — Trump very well may not have known about it. Targeting is a detail far removed from candidates. It would also be possible that Cambridge didn’t know it either. Data are easily filched. It could have been whisked away on a thumb drive or parked in the cloud by a single bad actor for a confederate to stumble upon.
Trump’s myriad connections to Russia, and his stubborn refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin, remain deeply suspicious to this American. But time will reveal what that’s about. What I really want to know, as someone invested in the integrity of the political industry, is what made that subway car feel wrong.
We’ve got half the story now; I think we’re about to get all of it.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.