The (Thus Far) Flimsy Case for Republican Cooperation on Russian Targeting

A number of credulous people are reading this article this morning and sharing it, claiming it is a smoking gun supporting the case that Republicans helped the Russians target their social media, in spite of this line, six paragraphs in.

No evidence has emerged to link Kushner, Cambridge Analytica, or Manafort to the Russian election-meddling enterprise;

Not only is there not yet evidence supporting the claim that Republican party apparatchiks helped Russians target their social media activity, not only does the evidence thus far raise real questions about the efficacy of what Russia did (though that will likely change, especially once we learn more about other platforms), but folks arguing for assistance are ignoring already-public evidence and far more obvious means by which assistance might be obtained.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m acutely interested in the role of Cambridge Analytica, the micro-targeting company that melds Robert Mercer’s money with Facebook’s privatized spying (and was before it was fashionable). I first focused on Jared Kushner’s role in that process, which people are gleefully discovering now, back in May. I have repeatedly said that Facebook — which has been forthcoming about analyzing and sharing (small parts) of its data — and Twitter — which has been less forthcoming — and Google — which is still channeling Sargent Schultz — should be more transparent and have independent experts review their methodology. I’ve also been pointing out, longer than most, of the import of concentration among social media giants as a key vulnerability Russia exploited. I’m particularly interested in whether Russian operatives manipulated influencers — on Twitter, but especially in 4Chan — to magnify anti-Hillary hostility. We may find a lot of evidence that Russia had a big impact on the US election via social media.

But we don’t have that yet and people shooting off their baby cannons over the evidence before us and over mistaken interpretations about how Robert Mueller might get Facebook data are simply degrading the entire concept of evidence.

The first problem with these arguments is an issue of scale. I know a slew of articles have been written about how far $100K spent on Facebook ads go. Only one I saw dealt with scale, and even that didn’t do so by examining the full scale of what got spent in the election.

Hillary Clinton spent a billion dollars on losing last year. Of that billion, she spent tens of millions paying a 100-person digital media team and another $1 million to pay David Brock to harass people attacking Hillary on social media (see this and this for more on her digital team). And while you can — and I do, vociferously — argue she spent that money very poorly, paying pricey ineffective consultants and spending on ads in CA instead of MI, even the money she spent wisely drowns out the (thus far identified) Russian investment in fake Facebook ads. Sure, it’s possible we’ll learn Russians exploited the void in advertising left in WI and MI to sow Hillary loathing (though this is something Trump’s people have explicitly taken credit for), but we don’t have that yet.

The same is true on the other side, even accounting for all the free advertising the sensationalist press gave Trump. Sheldon Adelson spent $82 million last year, and it’s not like that money came free of demands about policy outcomes involving a foreign country. The Mercers spent millions too (and $25 million total for the election, though a lot of that got spent on Ted Cruz), even before you consider their long-term investments in Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica, the former of which is probably the most important media story from last year. Could $100K have an effect among all this money sloshing about? Sure. But by comparison it’d be tiny, particularly given the efficacy of the already established right wing noise machine backed by funding orders of magnitude larger than Russia’s spending.

Then there’s what we know thus far about how Russia spent that money. Facebook tells us (having done the kind of analysis that even the intelligence community can’t do) that these obviously fake ads weren’t actually focused primarily on the Presidential election.

  • The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn’t specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.
  • Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.
  • About one-quarter of these ads were geographically targeted, and of those, more ran in 2015 than 2016.

That’s not to say sowing discord in the US has no effect, or even no effect on the election. But thus far, we don’t have evidence showing that Russia’s Facebook trolls were (primarily) affirmatively pushing for Trump (though their Twitter trolls assuredly were) or that the discord they fostered happened in states that decided the election.

Now consider what a lot of breathless reporting on actual Facebook ads have shown. There was the article showing Russia bought ads supporting an anti-immigrant rally in Twin Falls, ID. The ad in question showed that just four people claimed to attend this rally in the third most Republican state. Another article focused on ads touting events in Texas. While the numbers of attendees are larger, and Texas will go Democratic long before Idaho does, we’re still talking relatively modest events in a state that was not going to decide the election.

To show Russia’s Facebook spending had a measurable impact on last year’s election, you’d want to focus on MI, WI, PA, and other close states. There were surely closely targeted ads that, particularly in rural areas where the local press is defunct and in MI where there was little advertising (WI had little presidential advertising, but tons tied to the Senate race) where such social media had an important impact; thus far it’s not clear who paid for them, though (again, Trump’s campaign has boasted about doing just that).

Additionally, empiricalerror showed that a number of the identifiably Russian ads simply repurposed existing, American ads.

That’s not surprising, as the ads appear to follow (not lead) activities that happened on far right outlets, including both Breitbart and Infowars. As with the Gizmo that tracks what it claims are Russian linked accounts and thereby gets credulous journalists to claim campaigns obviously pushed by Americans are actually Russian plots, it seems Russian propaganda is following, not leading, the right wing noise machine.

So thus far what we’re seeing is the equivalent of throwing a few matches on top of the raging bonfire that is the well established, vicious, American-funded inferno of far right media. That’s likely to change, but that’s what we have thus far.

But as I said, all this ignores one other key point: We already have evidence of assistance on the election.

Except, it went the opposite direction from where everyone is looking, hunting for instances where Republicans helped Russians decide to buy ads in Idaho that riled up 4 people.

As I reminded a few weeks back, at a time when Roger Stone and (we now know) a whole bunch of other long-standing GOP rat-fuckers were reaching out to presumed Russian hackers in hopes of finding Hillary’s long lost hacked Clinton Foundation emails, Guccifer 2.0 was reaching out to journalists and others with close ties to Republicans to push the circulation of stolen DCCC documents.

That is, the persona believed to be a front for Russia was distributing documents on House races in swing states such that they might be used by Republican opponents. Some of that data could be used for targeting.

Now, I have no idea whether Russia would risk doing more without some figure like Guccifer 2.0 to provide deniability. That is, I have no idea whether Russia would go so far as take more timely and granular data about Democrats’ targeting decisions and share that with Republicans covertly (in any case, we are led to believe that data would be old, no fresher than mid-June). But we do know they were living in the Democrats’ respective underwear drawers for almost a year.

And Russia surely wouldn’t need a persona like Guccifer 2.0 if they were sharing stolen data within Russia. If the FSB stole targeting data during the 11 months they were in the DNC servers, they could easily share that data with the Internet Research Association (the troll farm the IC believes has ties to Russian intelligence) so IRA can target more effectively than supporting immigration rallies in Idaho Falls.

Which is a mistake made by many of the sources in the Vanity Fair article everyone keeps sharing, the assumption that the only possible source of targeting help had to be Republicans.

We already know the Russians had help: they got it by helping themselves to campaign data in Democratic servers. It’s not clear they would need any more. Nor, absent proof of more effective targeting, is there any reason to believe that the dated information they stole from the Democrats wouldn’t suffice to what we’ve seen them do. Plus, we’ve never had clear answers whether or not Russians weren’t burrowed into far more useful data in Democratic servers. (Again, I think Russia’s actions with influencers on social media, particularly via 4Chan, was far more extensive, but that has more to do with HUMINT than with targeting.)

So, again, I certainly think it’s possible we’ll learn, down the road, that Republicans helped Russians figure out where to place their ads. But we’re well short of having proof of that right now, and we do have proof that some targeting data was flowing in the opposite direction.

Update: This post deals with DB’s exposure of a FB campaign organizing events in FL, which gets us far closer to something of interest. Those events came in the wake of Guccifer 2.0 releasing FL-based campaign information.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

27 replies
  1. Willis Warren says:

    The Idaho and Texas ads weren’t meant to influence the election.  They’re part of a broader attempt to infiltrate anti gov’t/libertarian groups over the last five years.  I suspect we’ll find this predates the 2012 election, as that’s about the same time that zerohedge was outed as run by the son of a Bulgarian KGB agent.

    The Russians had this infrastructure in place and used it to help Trump.

    Another thing people are ignoring is that the Koch network spent (only) 750 million on this election, mostly down ballot but a LOT on anti Clinton prop in MI, WI, PA, and NC.  They probably had a much greater effect than the russkies did, but the russkies tilted the election with targeted data and the Trump team knew it.

    The takehome message from this will be that online propaganda is incredibly inexpensive and effective.  Russians love the anti-gov’t/libertarian sects because they favor eliminating the federal reserve and getting rid of those pesky regulations that keep Putin from hiding his money here.  That will persist long after Trump is out of office.

    • emptywheel says:

      Where do you have a shred of evidence that “the russkies tilted the election with targeted data and the Trump team knew it”?

      • Radical Lefty says:

        heh

        I’m sure Rachel Maddow has heavily implied it once or twice.
        That’s enough for all the folks with quick trigger baby cannons…

  2. orionATL says:

    i thought the most interesting info from the vanity fair articles (or summaries which is where i read about its content) was that stephen bannon worked for cambridge analytica – was v. p. ! before, i’d only read that robert mercer had “introduced” the trump campaign to cambridge analytica.

    in any event, i don’t see why it would be necessary for the russians and the trumpsters to overtly collaborate with each other (say thru agents holding meetings) if they had developed a sense of common purpose – like a man and a woman dancing flirtaciously with each other from across a dance floor. each could have sensed what the other was about.

  3. orionATL says:

    i don’t know why the russians (or their russian patriots placeholders :) ) would bother a lot with facebook ads when they had a neat and effective free scheme worked out – set up sites like dcleaks and gucifer 2.0 + a co-op arrangement with wikileaks, then set up facebook accounts using stolen id’s and/or phantom people, then use those individual accounts to point real facebook users to their anti-clinton material, thus setting in motion the potentially vast social chaining among people who trade information thru facebook.

    certainly cheap and maybe widespreading.

  4. Ben says:

    “Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

    Hmm. I dont believe there is a dogma requiring Putin to favor Trump over any other gadfly in the Democratic ointment. Inciting to riot could lead to any number of outcomes not conducive to US. The pertinent question is did Trumps interests operate in spite of this and ignorance will hardly suffice as a defense under the circumstances.

    • orionATL says:

      i wonder if some of the same stuff that might turn voters toward trump could also turn a person(s) into an anti-gay, anti-muslim, anti-xxx terrorist? and at the same time.

      it only takes one person to shoot up a march.

      headline: “russians supporting trump may have been inciting terrorism too”

      well, we definitely won’t see confirmation of that possibility from the current dept of homeland security.

  5. Charles says:

    OT (but relevant to Marcy’s Twitter feed): Missing book on Vietnam: The Phoenix Program. This explains why every American occupation since Vietnam has failed.

    On topic: Certainly the Facebook ad buys we have seen reported were small. They were sufficient to generate something like 400,000 clickthroughs. If those are random voters, not a big deal. If those are on-the-fence voters in key battlegrounds, it might be enough to swing the election. So it depends on how good the targeting was.

    Also, FB has been far from forthcoming. There might be a lot more to that iceberg. Now is not the time to say there’s proof of Republican-Russian collaboration in the online campaign. But given the degree of stonewalling so far, FB’s disclosure looks like the limited hangout. It seems likely that there’s something more substantial waiting to be forced out.

    Finally, any foreign interference in elections is wrong. It was wrong when the US did it to other countries, including Russia. It’s not just wrong but exceedingly dangerous for Russia to have done it, whether just $100,000 worth or a gazillion dollars worth.

    • emptywheel says:

      Charles

      FB did this study, of their own accord. They shared it publicly of their own accord. They shared it with Congress of their own accord. And they shared more of it after asking Mueller to get legal process to do so.

      None of the other social media companies have done that. Only Twitter is going to do it without legal process. Google is still waiting to be ordered.

      How is that stonewalling? Yes, I think they can do more. But thus far this has all come from Facebook.

      • Charles says:

        Issuing denials for two months after being personally requested by the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee to produce material on a criminal act when you have known all along that the criminal act was committed because you were paid in rubles is what I call stonewalling.

         

        YMMV.  Mine doesn’t.

        • Charles says:

          Adding:  On May 18th, Massimo Calabresi wrote in Time magazine:

          Russia plays in every social media space. The intelligence officials have found that Moscow’s agents bought ads on Facebook to target specific populations with propaganda. “They buy the ads, where it says sponsored by–they do that just as much as anybody else does,” says the senior intelligence official. (A Facebook official says the company has no evidence of that occurring.)

          If Twitter and Google are still not taking this seriously, then so much the worse for them.

  6. Willis Warren says:

    “Where do you have a shred of evidence?”

    Legal or prima facia? I think the “adoption” meeting is evidence that the Trump team used the Russians to help market fake news on facebook and twitter. Whether Mueller can prove it is what we’re all waiting one

    • emptywheel says:

      So, no. Not only do you not have evidence. But you’re citing a meeting that by all reports had nothing to do with Facebook and Twitter as evidence of helping Russia with Facebook and Twitter.

      That’s not evidence of what you say it is, but it is evidence that you have zero understanding of what  it would take to prove the things you want to prove.

       

  7. orionATL says:

    for a long time in political science there have been studies of the voters who make up their minds at the last minute. often the percentage is small but more than enough to swing a close election. i have had a hunch that this issue could have been very important in some states in 2016, but haven’t done the research.

    here is a not vey clear media presentation of that idea from another culture:

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/11/brexit-eu-referendum-vote-last-minute-decision-decide-lse

    and here is a summary from a science journal:

    http://www.nature.com/news/why-the-polls-got-the-uk-election-wrong-1.17511

    i’m finding it hard to find genuine academic articles. anybody know this literature and can search it for publications. ?

    on a related issue, extensive polling and discussions of poll results can affect voting decisions. this has an amusing analogy with the observer effect /uncertainty principle in quantum science – observing a phenomenon changes its position or its possible nature. if that is true, nowhere would it have been more manifest than in the vastly overpolled 2016 american election.

  8. Ben says:

    Marcy: 7:17


    A riot of four people in Idaho?”

    Does the Law proscribe prosecution for mere attempt?

    I think you are grinding a little too fine.

    • emptywheel says:

      You said,

       Inciting to riot could lead to any number of outcomes not conducive to US.

      And my response to that was to question whether a “riot” of four people in the third most Republican state would really lead to such remarkable outcomes.

      I’m pretty sure your response doesn’t address my point.

  9. Willis Warren says:

    I guess there are two things that we’re addressing.  First, did what the Russians did constitute enough votes to swing the election:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/01/donald-trump-will-be-president-thanks-to-80000-people-in-three-states/?utm_term=.6e6dc1de12a0

    80k people in three states put him where he is.  I think it’s pretty obvious that fake accounts could have delivered that.  I’m not saying it’s the biggest influence, or even in the top ten, but it’s enough to swing the election.  I’m calling in Nate Silver on this one.  I predict he’ll agree with me.

    The second thing we’re addressing is whether or not the Trump team knew the Russians were helping.  I think that’s fairly obvious as well.  We’ve gotten denials, denials, denials.  We know know Trump changed Jr’s story about the meeting to “adoption;” we know Trump talked to Putin off the record about “adoption;” we know a spook with internet propaganda specialization was at the meeting; we know Manafort has worked for Putin doing this precise kind of thing before;  we know that Trump has been laundering money for Russian Oligarchs for 30 years;  we know that Sater and Cohen were trying to get the highest levels of leadership to approve a hotel in Moscow, yada yada, yada.

    Is there anyone who doesn’t think Trump used the Russians at this point?  I would argue that takes some serious mental gymnastics.  Does it matter if they tilted the election?  Nope.  Does it matter that they tried?  yep.  Can we prove it in a court of law yet?  nope

    • dalloway says:

      We actually don’t know if we can prove it in a court of law.  From what we know  on the outside of Mueller’s investigation, no, not yet.  But there’s a lot Mueller’s doing that we have no clue about.  The most important evidence, however, may turn out to be information obtained by our intelligence agencies listening in not on the Trump campaign, but the Russians.  And even if that evidence couldn’t be used in court because of national security concerns, it would likely provide a road map for Mueller to obtain other evidence and/or confessions.  Even with no proof of collusion in the election, I think Trump is already indictable for money laundering and tax evasion dating back years.  Then the question will be whether those offenses, if they continued into his presidency, are impeachable.  Even if they’re not, I wonder if he won’t be facing state charges when he leaves office — from which, of course, he can’t pardon himself or anyone else.

  10. Willis Warren says:

    Reply button is broken,

    So, no. Not only do you not have evidence. But you’re citing a meeting that by all reports had nothing to do with Facebook and Twitter as evidence of helping Russia with Facebook and Twitter.

    That’s not evidence of what you say it is, but it is evidence that you have zero understanding of what it would take to prove the things you want to prove.

    By all “accounts,” the meeting was about adoption.

    You’re being strangely specific here, Wheel. All I “want to prove” is that the Trump campaign used the Russians to help with the election. Am I stupid for believing that? Whether that evidence comes from Facebook, twitter, google, or Manafort’s notes and whether or not that evidence shows the help manifested on Facebook, twitter, google, or targeted hacking in North Carolina isn’t really the issue. We know the meeting wasn’t about adoption.

    Why you’re attacking people on the left who want to glean hope from a few news articles is your own demon. They couldn’t prove OJ did it either, but you can’t really blame the people who “know” he did it. If legal proof is the threshold, I’ve already conceded that hasn’t been made public.

    I am interested in your views of what happened on 4chan. The 4channers had to manifest somewhere to play a role. Wouldn’t that have been Twitter or Facebook? And wouldn’t the 4chan kids have understood the internet in America more than the Russians? was the “meme war” part of the plan? Wouldn’t a few well placed memes have influenced people? What people, what groups?

  11. Randy says:

    Lol. It’s a long way from Trump/Putin collusion, to telepathically, developing a common purpose “like a man and a woman dancing flirtaciously with each other from across a dance floor.”

    • orionATL says:

      [email protected]:26

      yours is a genuinely stupid comment.

      what i described was two sides working toward the same goal without overt collusion. it happens all the time in human affairs.

      the clear point of my analogy is that people can communicate without being close or “talking things thru”. all that needed be involved for russian/republican co-operation was a sense of each of the two sides that they were working toward thesame goal – a very safe, not illegal way to do business. in fact i think this is the most likely scenario – no meetings scheduled, no documents passed back and forth.

      thus no overt acknowledgement of cooperation between the partners. and no overt collusion occurring in the form of meetings or assignment of duties.

      if things work out as planned, then the partners share the spoils. yum :))

  12. Procopius says:

    Now this is the kind of contribution to the discussion I have been hoping for. I greatly respect emptywheel as a real expert on the subject matter. This article fully discloses her bias but treats the putative evidence honestly. I happen to disbelieve in the effectiveness of any Russian activities during the election, but this article has done more to make me open to the possibility than the hundreds of claims of “overwhelming evidence” which don’t provide any. Thank you, Marcy.

  13. TheOfficialHashtagResistanceSuperPAC says:

    This is a good article/analysis overall, Dr. Wheeler.  However, if you’ll allow me to nitpick one point.

    I’m not so sure Russian trolls on 4chan played a significant role in influencing anti-Clinton sentiment there.  Having spent more or less ten years familiarizing myself with that site and the types of politics expressed on there, the pro-Trump campaign there seemed totally homegrown.  This is a site that in general (and their politics board /pol/ and its predecessor /new/ in particular) has long been a “safe-space” for neo-nazis and anarcho-capitalists.  They didn’t need any help to choose Trump over Clinton or enthusiastically campaign for him.  They were 100% on the Trump train from the moment he gave that vile speech announcing the beginning of his primary campaign.  Since that day there has been at least one thread running constantly on the subject of Trump and how to support his campaign and now presidency.

    This isn’t to say that there is no Russians activity, indeed I regularly see posts by individuals that are apparently using a Russian IP address (or some sort of proxy based in Russia).  I just don’t think that any Russian influence operation would be necessary, and therefore any potential influence operation largely insignificant.  Plenty of Americans who frequent that site were ready, willing, and able to support Trump with no foreign influence prompting them to do so.

    This is really the only site mentioned in your piece that I have anything that even resembles expertise, so I thought I’d throw my 2 cents in there.  Thanks, as always, for your keen insight.

Comments are closed.