Cambridge Analytica and the Manipulation of Social Media

This page chronicles the use of social media and the manipulations of data aggregator Cambridge Analytica to help sabotage the 2016 presidential election away from Hillary Clinton and towards Donald Trump.

— Before 2016 —

Cambridge Analytica logo

January 2013: Private "PsyOps" Firm Begins Working for Right-Wing Political Concerns; Will Become Critically Involved in Trump and Brexit Campaigns

A young American postgraduate student meets with the head of London's SCL Elections, Alexander Nix. She was once an intern at the firm. According to a former employee: "She said, 'You really need to get into data.' She really drummed it home to Alexander. And she mentioned to him a firm that belonged to someone she knew about through her father."

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The student is the daughter of Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, a major investor in Facebook, and a vocal supporter of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential candidacy. Thiel also owns Palantir, a private data-mining and surveillance firm that works with contacts all over the globe, including the US's NSA and Britain's GCHQ. At this time, the former employee will tell Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr, "That was before we became this dark, dystopian data company that gave the world Trump. It was back when we were still just a psychological warfare firm." Cadwalladr asks if he meant to use the term, and he responds: "Totally. That's what it is. Psyops. Psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. It's what they mean by winning 'hearts and minds.' We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don't have many rules." The intern will go on to say: "It was like working for MI6. Only it's MI6 for hire. It was very posh, very English, run by an old Etonian and you got to do some really cool things. Fly all over the world. You were working with the president of Kenya or Ghana or wherever. It's not like election campaigns in the west. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit." Cadwalladr will write that the SCL/Cambridge Analytica story "is one of the most profoundly unsettling of our time. What's clear is that the power and dominance of the Silicon Valley – Google and Facebook and a small handful of others – are at the center of the global tectonic shift we are currently witnessing." The firm goes on to be bought out by American hedge fund billionaire and far-right funder Robert Mercer and renamed Cambridge Analytica. Its controversial data mining and microtargeting strategies will have an enormous impact on both the Trump presidential campaign and the "Brexit" campaign in the UK. Mercer is close friends with neo-Nazi British politician Nigel Farange, a key player in the Brexit movement; Mercer will direct Cambridge Analytica to help the Brexit "Leave" campaign. Cadwalladr's source, the former Cambridge Analytica intern, will say that he feels scarred by his time with the company: "It's almost like post-traumatic shock," he will say. "It was so &hellip' messed up. It happened so fast. I just woke up one morning and found we'd turned into the Republican fascist party. I still can't get my head around it." Miller will tell Cadwalladr that Cambridge Analytica is "not a political consultancy. You have to understand this is not a normal company in any way. I don't think Mercer even cares if it ever makes any money. It's the product of a billionaire spending huge amounts of money to build his own experimental science lab, to test what works, to find tiny slivers of influence that can tip an election. Robert Mercer did not invest in this firm until it ran a bunch of pilots – controlled trials. This is one of the smartest computer scientists in the world. He is not going to splash $15m on bullshit." And New York University professor Tamsin Shaw will give a broader context: "The capacity for this science to be used to manipulate emotions is very well established. This is military-funded technology that has been harnessed by a global plutocracy and is being used to sway elections in ways that people can't even see, don't even realize is happening to them. It's about exploiting existing phenomenon like nationalism and then using it to manipulate people at the margins. To have so much data in the hands of a bunch of international plutocrats to do with it what they will is absolutely chilling. We are in an information war and billionaires are buying up these companies, which are then employed to go to work in the heart of government. That's a very worrying situation." (Guardian, image from Cubic Garden)

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[W[hat is happening in America and what is happening in Britain are entwined. Brexit and Trump are entwined. The Trump administration's links to Russia and Britain are entwined. And Cambridge Analytica is one point of focus through which we can see all these relationships in play; it also reveals the elephant in the room as we hurtle into a general election: Britain tying its future to an America that is being remade – in a radical and alarming way – by Trump. … This is not just a story about social psychology and data analytics. It has to be understood in terms of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. Us. — Carole Cadwalladr

Mid-2013: Cambridge Analytica Compiles "Criminal" Database for Police

The data mining and psyops/propaganda firm Cambridge Analytica carries out a scheme in Trinidad. Whereas the firm had previously engaged in contracts and operations to sway elections on behalf of ruling parties of various nations, in this case the firm is working on behalf of Trinidad's national security council.

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The firm uses citizens' browsing history and recorded phone conversations to construct a national police database, with scores for each citizen on their potential to commit crime. In 2017, a former employee will say: "The plan put to the minister was Minority Report. It was pre-crime. And the fact that Cambridge Analytica is now working inside the Pentagon is, I think, absolutely terrifying." As in Trinidad, private firms in the US have few laws limiting the amount of data they can collect on individuals. (Guardian)

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December 2015 and Beyond: Russian "Trolls" Flood Social Media with Fake Pro-Trump, Anti-Clinton Propaganda

The Internet Research Agency is a secretive, online Russian propaganda operation that was formerly housed in a St. Petersburg office building. The IRA produces blog posts, comments, infographics, "memes," and viral videos that push the Kremlin's various political and social agendas on both the Russian and English-language Internet.

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The IRA includes a well-established "troll farm," comprised of what Adrian Chen of the New Yorker will call "armies of sock-puppet social-media accounts [created] in order to create the illusion of a rabid grass-roots movement." "Trolling" is a particularly effective tool used by Russian officials to control a formerly freewheeling Internet culture in Russia that culminated in the 2011 mass protests against Vladimir Putin organized via social media. Chen will write, "It is used by Kremlin apparatchiks at every level of government in Russia; wherever politics are discussed online, one can expect a flood of comments from paid trolls." Chen quickly learned that pro-Kremlin "trolling" has little real impact on public opinion. Far more effective is the deliberate flooding of fake content over social media platform designed to spread "doubt and paranoia" and discredit "the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space." Opposition activist Leonid Volkov will tell Chen, "The point is to spoil [social media-based discourse], to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won't want to touch it." Towards the end of 2015, IRA trolls begin flooding American social media with retweets and reposts of right-wing conspiracy stories and memes, complete with battalions of supportive comments by fellow trolls. Their fake accounts label themselves as conservative American voters who, as time goes on, begin portraying themselves more and more frequently as Trump supporters. Chen will recall the rather "hapless" attempts by IRA trolls to smear Obama on social media, but they have improved their approach in recent years. Chen will write, somewhat sardonically, "Exposure to even small amounts of Russian politics can induce severe bouts of paranoia and conspiracy-minded thinking, and it seemed logical to me that this new pro-Trump bent might well be an attempt by the agency to undermine the US by helping to elect a racist reality-show star as our Commander-in-Chief." Chen will write that the "love affair" between Putin and Trump is overblown in the US media, and that Putin's "affection" for Trump is likely borne more from his deep-seated loathing for Hillary Clinton. (New Yorker)

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December 11, 2015: Cambridge Analytica Using Social Media "Psychographic Profiles" to Manipulate Voters on Candidate's Behalf

The presidential campaign of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is using psychological voter data from tens of millions of Facebook users to help him win the Republican nomination. The efforts are driven by a data mining company called Cambridge Analytica, which is primarily owned by Cruz's main benefactor, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer.

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Cambridge Analytica (CA) uses data gleaned from unwitting US Facebook users to build detailed psychological profiles of US voters and influence their voting decisions. CA violated a number of legal and ethical norms in garnering this information. Cruz's campaign has paid CA at least $750,000 so far this year. The firm has received about $2.5 million in the last two years from conservative superPACs either controlled or influenced by Mercer. Mercer has donated over $11 million to Cruz's own superPAC. Cruz told a British reporter that his is "a data-driven, grassroots campaign" in the mold of the Obama campaigns from elections before, but President Obama never used data gleaned by privacy violations inflicted on millions of Americans. CA has also worked with another GOP presidential candidate, Ben Carson, but is now working with Cruz. Digital campaign specialist Bud Jackson says: "If people begin to be turned off by [Donald] Trump, the Cruz campaign will probably have a better strategic understanding of the implications and how to capitalize upon them. Where a candidate's campaign may be afraid to go outside the boundaries of ethical behaviour because of a potential public backlash, an outside group may be less afraid." Cruz campaign spokesperson Rick Tyler says of CA, "My understanding is all the information is acquired legally and ethically with the permission of the users when they sign up to Facebook." Tyler is either lying or misinformed. As for Facebook, it is aware of CA's actions. It says in a statement that "misleading people or misusing their information is a direct violation of our policies and we will take swift action against companies that do, including banning those companies from Facebook and requiring them to destroy all improperly collected data," but so far Facebook has taken no action against CA. Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, says CA's actions are "troubling" and adds that the FEC lacks the regulatory power to limit campaigns' use of data: "What it essentially means is there is no one regulating campaigns' privacy data and security practices. So it means you have a wild west, where the campaigns can do whatever they want and get away with it." The researcher who gleaned the Facebook data, Aleksandr Kogan, paid freelance employees of an Amazon subsidiary to take a survey and provide him with their Facebook data. He promised them their anonymity and privacy would be protected. Instead, Kogan used their Facebook data to illicitly glean data from their Facebook friends and contacts, and built a huge database of what he claimed were "40+ million" Americans "for each of whom we have generated detailed characteristic and trait profiles." Kogan's firm, Global Science Research, made its data available to CA's parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL). Kogan now says confidentiality agreements prohibit him from giving details of his research, or what he did with that research. He insists, falsely, that he has always protected his targets' anonymity. CA CEO Alexander Nix has been quite blunt about his company's offering, telling potential clients in a promotional video, "The more you know about someone, the more you can align a campaign with their requirements or their wants and needs." Professor and ethics specialist Michael Zimmer accuses firms like CA of "packaging voters like they're consumers." He adds, "It's one thing for a marketer to try to predict if people like Coke or Pepsi, but it's another thing for them to predict things that are much more central to our identity and what's more personal in how I interact with the world in terms of social and cultural issues." CA has worked with a number of Republicans since 2014, most notably former UN Ambassador John Bolton. (Guardian)

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— 2016 —

January 26, 2016: A Trump campaign ad attacking the "corrupt" Veterans Administration depicts Soviet-era soldiers, not American veterans.

Summer 2016: Cambridge Analytica Reaches Out to WikiLeaks Regarding Clinton Emails

Cambridge Analytica co-founder and chief Alexander Nix contacts WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to ask whether his firm can assist in finding and disseminating Hillary Clinton's "missing" emails. Nix is referring to some 30,000 emails former Secretary of State Clinton deleted as "personal and private" after turning over emails from her private server to the State Department. Cambridge Analytica works for the Trump campaign.

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Nix will confirm the contact to Assange in October 2017, after Congressional investigators learn of the contact. Nix copies Cambridge backer Rebekah Mercer, of the billionaire Mercer family who supports both Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign, and others on the email contact. Apparently Assange declines Nix's offer. In a statement, Assange will say, "We can confirm an approach by Cambridge Analytica and can confirm that it was rejected by WikiLeaks." Steve Bannon, who heads the Breitbart news, propaganda and conspiracy theory organization, is a board member of Cambridge Analytica. Bannon will join the Trump campaign as senior policy advisor. The Mercers also fund Breitbart. In October 2017, Trump campaign executive director Michael Glassner will try to downplay the critical role Cambridge Analytica plays in the election, saying that the RNC, not Cambridge Analytica, is the campaign's "main source" for data analytics. After Trump secures the Republican nomination, Glassner will say: "We were proud to have worked with the RNC and its data experts and relied on them as our main source for data analytics. … Any claims that voter data from any other source played a key role in the victory are false." Glassner will make a similar statement in October 2017: "Once President Trump secured the nomination in 2016, one of the most important decisions we made was to partner with the Republican National Committee on data analytics. Leading into the election, the RNC had invested in the most sophisticated data targeting program in modern American in history, which helped secure our victory in the fall. We were proud to have worked with the RNC and its data experts and relied on them as our main source for data analytics. We as a campaign made the choice to rely on the voter data of the Republican National Committee to help elect President Donald J. Trump. Any claims that voter data from any other source played a key role in the victory are false." In both instances, Glassner is lying. After the election, Forbes will report that senior Trump campaign advisor Jared Kushner retained the firm "to map voter universes and identify which parts of the Trump platform mattered most." FEC data shows that the campaign paid, or will pay, Cambridge Analytica $5.9 million between July 29, 2016, the week after Trump accepts the nomination, and December 12, 2016. (Campaign digital strategist Brad Parscale will claim that the FEC data is "mislabeled," but will provide no proof. Parscale will downplay Cambridge Analytica's role in the campaign in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.) An anonymous Republican digital strategist who works with Cambridge Analytica during the campaign will insult Nix's credibility, calling him "a consummate salesman" prone to making "claims that [a]re not just factually wrong – they were total fabrications." The anonymous Republican will go on to say that Nix may well have reached out to Assange: "I wouldn't put it past him, if you consider every other thing that he's done, every other way that he's conducted business. I absolutely can see him reaching out and making an inquiry, hoping to find another way that Cambridge could become the heroes." The source makes his disparaging statements about Nix before Assange confirms the outreach. (Daily Beast, CNN, Guardian)

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August 20, 2016: Russian Propaganda Group Uses Facebook to Organize Pro-Trump Political Events in Florida

A Russian propaganda organization using the name "Being Patriotic" organizes large pro-Trump "flash mobs" in 17 Florida cities. The organization uses Facebook to organize and facilitate the events. At least one of the demonstrations is promoted online by local pro-Trump activists.

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The Daily Beast later writes that the mobs "appear to be the first case of Russian provocateurs successfully mobilizing Americans over Facebook in direct support of Donald Trump." The events are collectively titled "Florida Goes Trump!" and are billed collectively as a "patriotic state-wide flash mob." The Facebook page proclaims in part: "On August 20, we want to gather patriots on the streets of Floridian towns and cities and march to unite America and support Donald Trump! Our flash mob will occur in several places at the same time; more details about locations will be added later. Go Donald!" It is unclear how many of the 17 cities actually experience events, because Facebook will delete hundreds of Russian accounts before the media learns of the Russian propaganda efforts. Videos and photos of at least two of the events, in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs, will remain posted on a Facebook page run by the local Trump campaign chair, Susie Wiles. "Being Patriotic" has organized at least four pro-Trump or anti-Clinton demonstrations. With over 200,000 members, it is one of the largest and most active of the Russian Facebook election pages that will be discovered. In July, the group executed a "Down with Hillary!" protest outside Clinton's New York campaign headquarters. It will organize a September 11 pro-Trump event in Manhattan, two "Miners for Trump" demonstrations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in October, and a celebratory pro-Trump rally outside Trump Tower in November after his election win. "Being Patriotic" has an affiliated Twitter account called March For Trump. The "Being Patriotic" page abruptly closes in August 2017, at the same time Facebook begins purging accounts operated by the infamous St. Petersburg "troll factory" known as the Internet Research Agency. The Facebook page featured scores of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton memes, identical to memes appearing on two other known Russian propaganda sites supportive of Trump, "Heart of Texas" and "Secured Borders." Some of the "Being Patriotic" and "March For Trump" posts include exhortations to violence, telling its members to "[a]rrest and shoot ever shithead burning our flag!" and promoting violence against Black Lives Matter protesters. The "Being Patriotic" Twitter affiliate account is suspended at the same time "Being Patriotic" disappears from Facebook. Former FBI counterterrorism expert Clint Watts will say that the pro-Trump demonstrations represent "the next level" of suspected Russian influence operations: "This would be a direct effort that they attempted that's more than online promotion. Let's organize and try to get people to move to events in a proactive way around a candidate. Again, if it traces back to Russia, you can't deny that's foreign influence in an election." After the "Being Patriotic" page closes, known Macedonian fake news distributor Nikola Tanevski purchases the BeingPatriotic.com domain, but will not post any content. Tanevski runs several popular pro-Trump fake news sites such as USATwentyFour and TheAmericanBacon. Wiles will lie to the Daily Beast, saying that the flash mob "was not an official campaign event," ignoring the fact that it was heavily promoted on the official Trump campaign Facebook page for Broward County. She will also deny that the official Facebook campaign page was actually official, another lie: the contact for the page was Dolly Trevino Rump, the campaign's chair for Broward County and then the secretary of the local Republican Party. Trump campaign officials who participated in the "Being Patrotic" events will experience massive memory loss when asked about the events, claiming no memory of them. (Daily Beast)

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August 24, 2016 and After: Media Reports Macedonian Pro-Trump, Fake News Sites Overwhelming US Social Media

Over 140 fake news sites are being run from a single small town in Macedonia, all dedicated to feeding Trump supporters false news stories, media sources report. Many of the stories are having a serious impact on US voters.

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One such site is WorldPoliticus.com, which recently declared, "This is the news of the millennium!" The story cited unnamed FBI sources claiming that Hillary Clinton would be indicted shortly after the election for crimes related to her private email server. The headline: "Your Prayers Have Been Answered." The story is, of course, entirely false, but it generated over 140,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook. Buzzfeed says the small town of Veles (population 45,000) "has experienced a digital gold rush" after launching the sites. The domains sound American – WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com, among others. With very few exceptions, they publish aggressive, pro-Trump and anti-Clinton content aimed at American conservatives. One of the first fake news sites, Daily Interesting Things, posted a story in February 2016 about Trump slapping a man during a rally for disagreeing with him. The incident never happened, but the teenager who runs the site – who plagiarized it from an American right-wing blog – made over $150 from it in Google ad revenue. He quit high school and began running the site full time. Between August and November, the site owner earned some $16,000 from his two fake news sites; the average monthly income in Veles is $371. "We can't make money here with a real job," he tells a Wired News reporter. "This Google AdSense work is not a real job." The Macedonians running the sites say they have no real interest in American politics; the sites are simply to generate revenue. Some of them tell Buzzfeed that they quickly learned that to make money, they needed to generate Facebook views. And the best way to do that, Buzzfeed writes, "is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters." The Macedonian fake news sites are having a disproportionate effect on the US election. One college student in Veles who manages one of the sites says, "Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading but the rationale is that 'if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it'." Some of the sites have associated Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of followers. A 17-year old Veles webmaster who runs a site with four friends says: "I started the site for a easy way to make money. In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money. I'm a musician but I can't afford music gear. Here in Macedonia the revenue from a small site is enough to afford many things." After the election, a BBC reporter interviews a 19-year old site owner who tells the reporter while flashing an expensive designer watch: "The Americans loved our stories and we make money from them. Who cares if they are true or false?" Asked if he worries that his posts may have influenced the election, he laughs and responds: "Teenagers in our city don't care how Americans vote. They are only satisfied that they make money and can buy expensive clothes and drinks!" Many of the post are aggregated or entirely plagiarized from conspiracy-theory and right-wing sites in the US such as Breitbart and NationalReport.com. The standard procedure, according to Buzzfeed's sources, is for "[t]he Macedonians see a story elsewhere, write a sensationalized headline, and quickly post it to their site. Then they share it on Facebook to try and generate traffic. The more people who click through from Facebook, the more money they earn from ads on their website." They say they tried to do the same with pro-Sanders or left-leaning content, but made little money. "People in America prefer to read news about Trump," says the 16-year-old who operates BVANews.com. Another tells the Wired reporter: "Bernie Sanders supporters are among the smartest people I've seen. They don't believe anything. The post must have proof for them to believe it." The most successful post found by Buzzfeed was from ConservativeState.com that announced: ""Hillary Clinton In 2013: 'I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They're Honest And Can't Be Bought.'" The story, which is entirely false, comes from an American site, TheRightists.com, which freely admits it posts fake content. The story garnered nearly half a million responses on Facebook in a single week. Other fake stories that generated huge responses claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, and that Trump's running mate Mike Pence called Michelle Obama the "most vulgar first lady we've ever had." Now the market is becoming saturated, say the Veles webmasters, but even so, some site owners can earn $5,000 per month or even more. Some, like the teenager who runs BVANews.com, say they also have non-political sites that earn revenue. He says that he expects most of his ad revenues will drop after the election: "If Trump loses I plan to redirect my site to sports. It means that there will be no more politics [worth covering]." On November 24, Google suspends the ads from many of the sites, and the Veles webmasters turn their attention to other things. One teen tells the Wired reporter that during the time he was cranking out fake news stories, he cared nothing about the possible impact on the election. Now, he is not so sure. "Some crazy man has won the election," he says. "Maybe the guy will start World War III." He says he will not produce any more fake news, and says he is disenchanted with the entire thing: "The media is washing our brains, and the people are following like sheep." (Guardian, Buzzfeed, BBC, Wired News)

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September-November 2016: Trump Campaign Inundates Social Media with Targeted Stories to Influence Voters

A spate of real and fake news stories supporting Trump and denigrating Clinton's candidacy, much of it produced by Eastern Europeans paid by Russians, are "microtargeted" to American Facebook accounts using data provided by a firm called Cambridge Analytica.

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The Trump campaign spends $5 million a week during the last weeks of the campaign spamming this false information to millions of Facebook users. Psychologist Michal Kosinski developed a remarkably accurate method of "profiling" Facebook users based on their "likes." Moreover, people with specific psychological profiles could be located merely by analyzing the "likes" given to particular memes, quotations, stories and the like. In 2014, Kosinski received a job offer from a psychology professor named Aleksandr Kogan to work for his firm, SCL, or Strategic Communications Laboratories. Kogan was particularly interested in Kosinski's method of profiling people. Kogan learned that SCL is a marketing firm that specializes in, among other things, influencing political elections. Kosinski did not know that SCL had recently formed a subsidiary company, Cambridge Analytica, with the aim of influencing US elections. Kosinski turned down the job, but believed that Kogan's company may have reproduced his measurement tool. He was right. Cambridge Analytica played a major role in influencing the 2015 referendum in Britain to have the country leave the European Union – "Brexit." According to Carole Cadwalladr of the Guardian, Cambridge Analytica is at the heart of a massive "alt-right" news conglomerate, focused primarily in the US and Britain, that foments. creates, and disseminates a flood of "fake news" and "alternate facts" that permeates social media and some news providers on the right. It isn't hard to find an entire body of purportedly real news and commentary that "proves" the Holocaust never took place, as a single example. She calls it "an entire 'alt-right' news and information ecosystem" and the right's "propaganda machine." The "ecosystem" played a key role in persuading a majority of British voters to exit the European Union – "Brexit" – and will play the same role in the Trump presidential victory. Democracy in both Britain and the US is being "subverted," Cadwalladr writes, by the strategies of this firm, controlled by far-right American billionaire Robert Mercer. The "data analytics" strategies that Cambridge Analytica will use come from "deep within the military-industrial complex," Cadwalladr will write; the firm, she will go on to say, is "effectively part of the British defense establishment. And now, too, the American defense establishment." Sociology professor and psyops/propaganda expert David Miller will say: "[It is] an extraordinary scandal that this should be anywhere near a democracy. It should be clear to voters where information is coming from, and if it's not transparent or open where it's coming from, it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy or not." In mid-2016, Cambridge Analytica is hired by the Trump campaign, and CA CEO Alexander Nix becomes a senior digital strategy and marketing advisor for the campaign. CA had successfully promoted the candidacies of Senator Ted Cruz and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and was now working on behalf of Trump. The funding came from Mercer, a shadowy US software billionaire who along with his daughter Rebekah are the biggest investors in CA. As it had done for Cruz, CA begins using psychometrics instead of demographics to craft and target Trump's message. Vice reporters Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus will later write: "Trump's striking inconsistencies, his much-criticized fickleness, and the resulting array of contradictory messages, suddenly turned out to be his great asset: a different message for every voter. The notion that Trump acted like a perfectly opportunistic algorithm following audience reactions is something" noted by a mathematician in August 2016. Nix later recalls, "Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven." He then says: "We can address villages or apartment blocks in a targeted way. Even individuals." One successful example is the Trump campaign's use of fake news stories targeting citizens in the Miami district of Little Haiti, telling voters there how the Clinton Foundation had refused to provide support for Haiti following the devastating earthquake of 2012. Targets included wavering left-leaning voters, African-Americans, and young women. The primary aim was not to convert these into Trump voters, but to keep them away from the ballot box entirely. Most of the focus of the CA-driven ads is social media, with a particular emphasis on Facebook. The Vice reporters continue, "These 'dark posts' – sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles – included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example." They write: "The decision to focus on Michigan and Wisconsin in the final weeks of the campaign was made on the basis of data analysis. The candidate became the instrument for implementing a big data model." CA board member and Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon, the Trump campaign co-chair, will become Trump's senior advisor after Trump's presidential victory. Nix is garnering clients in Europe by touting his success in the United States, and is focusing on hard-right candidates in France, Germany and Holland. After Vice publishes its story on CA in January 2017, the firm issues the following statement: "Cambridge Analytica does not use data from Facebook. It has had no dealings with Dr. Michal Kosinski. It does not subcontract research. It does not use the same methodology. Psychographics was hardly used at all. Cambridge Analytica did not engage in efforts to discourage any Americans from casting their vote in the presidential election. Its efforts were solely directed towards increasing the number of voters in the election." One of the most effective methods of influencing voters used by the company is targeting their personality traits. People who are found to be somewhat neurotic, for example, are disproportionately affected by images of immigrants "swamping" the country. Those voters don't vote their ideologies; they vote their emotions, their feelings, their neuroses. Cadwalladr writes, "The key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter." If the firm's tactics have trouble persuading targeted voters to vote for a particular candidate, it can achieve success in causing a spike in "voter disengagement," effectively persuading voters to not vote. The firm will have extraordinary success in persuading Democratic voters to not vote during the 2016 presidential election. Cadwalladr will call this effectively voter suppression, regardless of the company's claims. (According to conservative journalist/blogger Louise Mensch, Cambridge Analytica illegally obtained Facebook data via a Russian spy working at Cambridge. The Russian-owned Alfa Bank, along with Russian operative Dimitry Firtash, owns Cambridge Analytica. They also own SCL, which disseminates "fake news" generated by Russian intelligence. It must be noted that Mensch herself is not always a reliable source of information.) It is likely that some of the social media content being promoted by the Trump campaign is from a systematic Russian propaganda and hacking campaign in place to undermine the integrity of the US presidential election and promote the candidacy of Donald Trump. It should be noted that Cambridge Analytica is suing the Guardian over its reporting on its firm. (Vice, Guardian, Medium, Patribotics)

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September-November 2016: The Trump campaign uses information gleaned from Cambridge Analytica to inundate social media, targeting specific voters with carefully selected false stories and memes.

November 28, 2016 and After: Cambridge Analytica Sells Trump Supporter Info to Right-Wing Think Tank

After Trump's election, the data mining and analysis firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), owned by the billionaire Mercer family who provided enormous amounts of financial assistance to the Trump campaign, begins selling massive amounts of Trump supporter records to the far-right Heritage Foundation. The Mercer family helps run Heritage, with patriarch Robert Mercer sitting on the board and the family donating $1.5 million or more to the organization since 2013.

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As the Daily Beast's Lachlan Markay explains: "Trump didn't just bring an idiosyncratic set of political priorities with him to Washington. He brought a massive amount of first-time voters and supporters as well – individuals that establishment institutions like Heritage would want to mine for dollars." The business agreement filed by CA reads in part: "Cambridge Analytica will provide data and data analytics to inform a data-driven fundraising project for [Heritage] among the Trump supporter audience to enable Client to expand its donor base in light of the November 2016 election results. Cambridge Analytica will leverage proprietary predictive models for a) Trump supporters and b) political issues prioritization c) evangelical and conservative audiences to establish a target audience for Client's fundraising efforts." Heritage will pay $120,000 to CA for its services in 2016, characterizing the agreement as a "contract for data analytics." Heritage spokesperson Sarah Mills says: "Regardless of who is occupying the White House, we are always innovating to expand our base of supporters. That requires trying and employing new techniques and technologies." CA collects tremendous amounts of data on the individuals in its database, from political leanings to consumer preferences and health issues. (Daily Beast)

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December 13, 2016: Obama Administration, Others Did Not Realize Damage Fake Social Media Stories Was Doing to Clinton Candidacy

A former Obama administration admits that they underestimated the Russian propaganda campaign against Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy. They didn't realize until far too late that the torrent of "fake news" plaguing Clinton was largely being generated in Russia and promulgated through social media, and they didn't understand just how damaging that onslaught of fake stories being shared throughout Facebook, Twitter and the like proved to be.

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The official says: "During the summer, when it really mattered, when the Russian social-media strategy was happening, we did not have the whole picture. In October, when we had it, it was too late." Sanders organizer John Mattes recalls that in the weeks after WikiLeaks began leaking documents designed to hurt the Clinton campaign, his Facebook page for Sanders supporters had suddenly gained a raft of new members with fake profiles. For example, he will cite one, "Oliver Mitov," who had virtually no friends and no photos, but belonged to 16 pro-Sanders groups. Mattes will recall that on September 25, Mitov posted a fake story alleging that Clinton had been paid by Saudi Arabian sheikhs to leave Americans to die in the Benghazi attack of 2012. Mattes will say: "The fake news depressed and discouraged some percentage of Bernie voters [from choosing to vote for Clinton]. When I realized it, I said, 'We are being played'." After the election, a study by two economists, Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford and Hunt Allcott of New York University, determined that during the final three months of the campaign, false pro-Trump stories were shared on social media four times as much as false pro-Clinton stories. Another study, by Philip N. Howard, a specialist in Internet studies at Oxford University, determined that during the second Clinton-Trump debate, automated Twitter accounts known as "bots" generated four tweets in favor of Trump for every one in favor of Clinton, driving Trump's messages to the top of trending topics, which mold media priorities. Researchers and political operatives are sure that many of those bots were operated by individuals and organizations supported, and sometimes funded, by the Kremlin. (New York Times, "fake news" illustration from New York Magazine)

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December 17, 2016: Far-Right Fake News Site Impacted Election, Report Says

The New York Times analyzes a far-right website, the Patriot News Agency, that suddenly appeared on the social media scene in July 2016, shortly after Donald Trump became the inevitable Republican presidential candidate.

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While the site sported a patriotic logo and the motto "Built by patriots, for patriots," it was not operated by Americans, but instead by an extremist activist in Britain, James Dowson. Dowson has close ideological and financial ties to Russia. At the time of its launch, PNA featured a link to VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. Dowson himself is a far-right white nationalist who hates immigrants and has publicly called for Trump to move the US closer to Russia. The Times writes: "His dabbling in the American presidential election adds an ideological element that has been largely missing from the still-emerging landscape of websites and Facebook pages that bombarded American voters with misinformation and propaganda. Far from the much-reported Macedonian teenagers running fake news factories solely for profit, Mr. Dowson made it his mission, according to messages posted on one of his sites, to 'spread devastating anti-Clinton, pro-Trump memes and sound bites into sections of the population too disillusioned with politics to have taken any notice of conventional campaigning.'" Dowson created a huge number of fake news stories and memes, mostly denigrating Clinton, for his site, and pumped them into American social media via Facebook and other venues. He recently said: "Simple truth is that after 40 years of the right having no voice because the media was owned by the enemy, we were FORCED to become incredibly good at alternative media in a way the left simply can't grasp or handle. Bottom line is: BREXIT, TRUMP and much more to follow." The Times notes how influential fake news stories, such as the hoax that claimed Pope Francis endorsed Trump, were during the election and during the Brexit campaign in the UK. Dowson also circulated stories created by Russian propaganda sites, such as the anti-Clinton conspiracy site that labeled her a systematic murderer for political gain. Another site, Just Trump It, is a product of the International Russian Conservative Forum. Dowson spoke at one of that organization's annual meetings in St. Petersburg, where he derided President Obama and most American males as "feminized men," denied any connections to Russia, and accused criticis of trying to claim conservatives were Russian dupes. Alina Polyakova of the nonpartisan Atlantic Council says that the stories and memes from the far right "seep into the mainstream. They may have been extreme or fringe at one point in time, but they have been incredibly influential in shaping people's views about key geopolitical events in a very specific direction." Russia is very good at manipulating public opinion in the US and elsewhere through the use of social media-based propaganda, Polyakova says. In 2015, Dowson told the gathering in Russia: "We have the ability to take a video from today and put it in half of every single household in the United States of America, where these people can for the first time learn the truth, because their own media tell lies, they tell lies about Russia. We have to use popular culture to reach into the living rooms of the youth of America, of Britain, France, Germany, and bring them in. Then we can get them the message." (New York Times)

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— 2017 —

February 10, 2017: Ukrainian Report Outs, Helps Identify Russian Social Media "Trolls"

Ukraine's Euromaidan Press exposes what it calls "an army of Kremlin trolls" working to destabilize Ukraine's anti-Kremlin political movement as well as America's political system.

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The discovery began when Ukrainian journalist Lana Samokhvalova stumbled across a network of self-styled "Ukrainian patriots" urging anti-government violence at a series of commemorative events celebrating the Euromaidan Revolution. Some research proved that the leader of the group, Mykola Hayduk, was actually a Russian masquerading as a Ukrainian and working to discredit the Maidan independence movement. Social activist Liudmyla Savchuk, who spent time masquerading as a Russian "troll" to learn how they operate, says: "They're everywhere – Facebook, Vkontakte, LiveJournal, Odnoklassniki. They make their own fake news sites. They create their own news agencies. They pretend to be Ukrainian journalists. They write as if they're Ukrainian journalists. As if they're from Kyiv or Kharkiv, but they're really in Russia. They simply take a news piece, re-write it how they need it, distort the information and send it out into the world." The group she infiltrated, in St. Petersburg, has over 400 employees, she says, working 12-hour shifts for $1000 a month. "This information war they lead is mostly aimed at Ukraine and the United States," she says. "Until this information war ends, there won't be an end to any other. And never end, unless this information war is stopped. I don't even know, it's just such a tragic situation." Another Ukrainian journalist, Roman Kulchinskiy, has exposed over 2,000 Kremlin trolls. "Their aim is to lure real people into their networks and get their victims to believe in them," he says. "When people get trapped in this environment, they become surrounded by hatred, they start believing that things are worse than they were under Yanukovych. The trolls always emphasize this. That Maidan was a mistake, and that it made things worse. That the government's the same. That something needs to be done. That they need to violently overthrow the government. … Trolls register very often. One troll might register up to 70 accounts. In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, one of the most important needs is human desire to be accepted and valued by others. Just imagine a person surrounded by 70 people, who are giving you specific information. But those 70 accounts are really just one person." The aim, the article states, is to facilitate the overthrow of the Ukrainian government. Some, like Hayduk, pose as patriots, post violent propaganda, and call for violence against dissidents. Others pose as thoughtful political commentators. The third, the article notes, is quite different: "[T]he perfect Ukrainian. This is usually a very beautiful girl. She'll be dressed in blue and yellow or has blue and yellow makeup. She'll be gorgeous. She'll have very high-quality photos. They take pictures of girls in front of sunflowers or wheat and a blue sky. In short, they're very well done, carefully selected images of the perfect Ukrainian girl. But her beauty doesn't match what she writes. She will share the same outright lies and conspiracies." And the fourth, the article says, are "predators. They almost never post anything. They are administrators." But the Russian trolls in this information war can be spotted, the article notes. The trolls rarely post anything else except political commentary and calls to action – rarely, if ever, sharing personal information, posts about their friends, travels, and so forth. "If you go to their page and can't find one post about their personal life, it's a sig[n] that this isn't actually a person," the article says. "Always pay attention to what's happening on a page. Trolls might post some cute memes or cat photos. But when it comes to political issues, they toe the Kremlin line." Calls to violence are also red flags. "If they're systematically pushing violent ideas, that violence is the only way to solve your problems, then that's made for you in Lubyanka." The article advises that readers should not respond to trolls, double-check information, and find multiple sources to verify claims. "There's a legion of them. Their weapons are lies and manipulation. They need a large army of zombies to further the Kremlin's plan. But recognizing them is simple: double check your information." (Euromaidan Press)

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US counterintelligence agents learn that the Russian operation to sabotage the presidential election actually is going further than mere election manipulation, also targeting US social media.

photo illustration of Russian trolls

March 30, 2017: Warner: 1000 Russians Hired to Troll Campaign, Many Still Active

Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says in a press conference after the committee's latest hearing that the Kremlin paid over 1,000 people to create "fake news" stories attacking Hillary Clinton, and targeted key swing states with those stories, towards the last months of the US presidential election.

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In a joint appearance with Richard Burr (R-NC), the chair of the committee, Warner says: "We know about the hacking, and selective leaks, but what really concerns me as a former tech guy is at least some reports – and we've got to get to the bottom of this – that there were upwards of a thousand internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect taking over a series of computers which are then called botnets, that can then generate news down to specific areas." He continues: "It's been reported to me, and we've got to find this out, whether they were able to affect specific areas in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, where you would not have been receiving off of whoever your vendor might have been, Trump versus Clinton, during the waning days of the election, but instead, 'Clinton is sick', or 'Clinton is taking money from whoever for some source' … fake news. An outside foreign adversary effectively sought to hijack the most critical democratic process, the election of a president, and in that process, decided to favor one candidate over another." Three key states predicted to go for Clinton instead went, by razor-thin margins, for Trump, giving him the victory. The committee intends to determine what, if any, collusion existed between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Senior White House advisor Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, will testify before the committee. New Yorker journalist Adrian Chen, who has written extensively about Russian interference, recently said on a podcast that large numbers of Russian trolls are now producing content in support of Trump. "I created this list of Russian trolls when I was researching," Chen said. "And I check on it once in a while, still. And a lot of them have turned into conservative accounts, like fake conservatives. I don't know what's going on, but they're all tweeting about Donald Trump and stuff." (The London Independent misidentifies the journalist as "Adam Chen.") (Independent, photo illustration of "Russian trolls" via Euromaidan Press)

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March 30, 2017: Facebook Gave Data on 30 Million Users to Data Collection Firm

Facebook, perhaps inadvertently, allows the data of 30 million of its users to be garnered and exploited by an unidentified data mining company working on behalf of the Trump campaign. The data almost certainly went to a firm called Cambridge Analytica.

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In 2014, internet message boards frequented by remote freelancers for the online marketplace Mechanical Turk began displaying information about an unusual survey. The freelancers, who call themselves "Turkers," work indirectly for Amazon, and do an array of repetitive tasks such as flagging pornographic images on social media sites or looking for email addresses in search engine results. The survey, offered by "Global Science Research," offered $1 or $2 for completing an online survey. It restricted itself to American "turkers," and required participants to download a Facebook app before getting paid. The firm informed users that the app would "download some information about you and your network … basic demographics and likes of categories, places, famous people, etc. from you and your friends." Amazon says it suspended the requester for violating its terms of service in 2015. The survey shut down in late 2015, but users had already noticed that the app was collecting enormous volumes of information about themselves and their Facebook friends. The survey shut down after The Guardian revealed that the data was being collected by Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge University lecturer who founded Global Science Research after the university refused to let him use its own data pool for commercial purposes. Kogan's firm was working on behalf of a military contractor called Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL). That firm has an "election division" which proclaims on its website that it uses "data-driven messaging" as part of "delivering electoral success." SCL has an American-based subsidiary called Cambridge Analytica (CA), which worked on behalf of Senator Ted Cruz's presidential campaign before being hired by the Trump presidential campaign. The money to fund CA comes largely from hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who owns much of CA. CA's former vice president is Steve Bannon, the former head of the far-right Breitbart media conglomerate, who was a senior advisor for the Trump campaign and is currently the chief political strategist for the Trump administration. Bannon claimed to have severed ties with CA after joining the campaign, but for months, checks from the campaign for CA's services continued to show up at a Los Angeles address for Bannon. Kogan had enticed as many as 185,000 people to complete the survey and download the Facebook app, from Mechanical Turk and another company, and the input from the initial users generated some 30 million usable profiles. The Intercept writes, "No one in this larger group of 30 million knew that 'likes' and demographic data from their Facebook profiles were being harvested by political operatives hired to influence American voters." Kogan refuses to speak on the matter, but in 2014, he gave a talk in Singapore where he claimed to have "a sample of 50+ million individuals about whom we have the capacity to predict virtually any trait." Kogan claimed to have changed his name to "Spectre" after getting married, writing online: "My wife and I are both scientists and quite religious, and light is a strong symbol of both." Kogan's work for SCL was to develop an algorithm for the "national profiling capacity of American citizens" as part of SCL's work on American elections, according to an internal document. (CA spokesperson Lindsey Platts claims: "We do not do any work with Facebook likes" and CA currently "has no relationship with GSR." She refuses to speak about CA's involvement with Kogan or GSR in 2014 and 2015.) CA's work on US elections in 2015 was based on research "spanning tens of millions of Facebook users, harvested largely without their permission," a claim initially disputed by Kogan but bolstered by information from multiple sources within CA and SCL. In September 2016, CA's CEO Alexander Nix claimed that his firm built a model based on "hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans" filling out personality surveys, generating a "model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America." In late 2015, after the Guardian article went live, Facebook asked GSR to delete the data it had collected from Facebook users. Facebook says it believes Kogan and GSR complied with the request, which was made before CA switched from working for Cruz to working for Trump, but it cannot prove the claim. The Intercept writes, "It remains unclear what was ultimately done with the Facebook data, or whether any models or algorithms derived from it wound up being used by the Trump campaign." Facebook says "Our investigation to date has not uncovered anything that suggests wrongdoing." The Intercept retorts, "Facebook appears not to have considered Global Science Research's data collection to have been a serious ethical lapse." Moreover, Joseph Chancellor, Kogan’s main collaborator on the SCL project and a former co-owner of Global Science Research, is now employed by Facebook Research. Facebook says that Chancellor's work at Facebook has nothing to do with his former career. CA's voter classification tool (called OCEAN, for "Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism") is not conclusively shown to have made a quantifiable difference in the 2016 presidential election. Facebook's predictive power based on "likes" is quite well established: a 2013 study by Kogan and his colleagues showed that likes alone could predict ethnicity with 95% accuracy and political party with 85% accuracy. It is not as clear whether Facebook analysis can be used successfully for targeted persuasion, an argument that Cambridge Analytica makes, saying that OCEAN scores can be used to drive voter and consumer behavior through "microtargeting," meaning narrowly tailored messages. Nix has claimed that "neurotic" voters tend to be moved by "rational and fear-based" arguments, while introverted, agreeable voters are more susceptible to "tradition and habits and family and community." He has said he has "a massive database of 4-5,000 data points on every adult in America," and took credit for the Trump win immediately after the election. The Trump campaign has proclaimed its success on Facebook. Breitbart editor Joel Pollak has written about Trump's "armies of Facebook 'friends' … bypassing the gatekeepers in the traditional media," while former Trump advisor Roger Stone has written about using "geo-targeting" methods to promote the false claim that former President Bill Clinton had fathered a child out of wedlock, and narrowing down the audience "based on preferences in music, age range, black culture, and other urban interests." Cambridge Analytica is now under investigation by Britain's Information Commissioner's Office to determine whether its work threatens voter rights; the investigation was triggered after CA's work in persuading British voters to leave the European Union in the "Brexit" campaign. Nix once boasted about his firm's work in that effort, but CA now denies that it had any paid role in the campaign. There is no such investigation going on in the US, and CA is pitching its firm's services to several federal agencies, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff. SCL has new offices near the White House and is being advised by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. (The Intercept)

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April 26, 2017: Albanian Fake News Site Owner Closes Sites

Albanian IT expert Hysen Alimi closes down his network of at least seven pro-Sanders websites that he maintained throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Alimi's sites pushed pro-Sanders and anti-Clinton stories throughout the election, successfully salting American social media with his content.

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The anti-Clinton material he promoted was almost all fake news, and often quite virulent. Alimi created a site called "Bernie Sanders Lovers" for Facebook, which falsely claims it is based in Burlington, Vermont. As of July 2017, that Facebook group is still open and has over 88,000 followers, though Alimi says he has since turned the site over to Sanders volunteers and no longer controls it. Alimi's network of sites, which went online after Sanders had already effectively lost the primary election to Clinton, was designed to alienate Sanders supporters from supporting Clinton. Almost all of Alimi's content was sourced from other websites, many of which were Russian-promoted fake news outlets. Alimi heavily promoted the dangerously false news that Clinton was the head of a pedophilia ring centered around a pizza restaurant in Washington, that her advisor Huma Abedin had ties to ISIS, and other such inflammatory propaganda. Sanders online campaign coordinator John Mattes says the sites "raise serious questions" about whether Alimi and others were directly and knowingly coordinating their efforts with Russian propagandists working with the Kremlin. Mattes notes that Alimi's sites went live in March 2016, about the same time that the Russian fake-news operation went into high gear. Alimi, however, claims his sites were designed to be "serious" reporting, and claims he is a sincere Sanders supporter. Alimi, who speaks poor English, tells a reporter in his native Albanian: "Not a single article is written by us. I am not to blame; people who have worked with me on the websites have not written any articles. We only tried to be a serious newspaper. … The idea came up with one friend, when we were following the US elections and the movement of Bernie Sanders. The page has been operating since March 2016. We have never been an official page of Bernie Sanders. Everyone has the right to open his own fan page to give his opinions but not to make fake news." Mattes is beyond skeptical. "How did he set up the sites if he barely reads English? How did he know what to copy every day? And who fed him copy?" Alimi denies any connections to Russia: "I really feel bad I am being accused of having a connection to Russia. I feel very bad some people have said we are writing fake news, that we are working for Russia and so on. It is true that people have only been focusing on us, but all the news [on our sites] has not been written by us. We asked by email if we could republish the articles. Most said yes. Our goal was to make a serious newspaper, and if you see one story written by us you are free to judge us. Look at what sort of news other pages publish. We have nothing to do with fake news." He then admits that at least one of his sites began by trafficking in fake news, but says with others of his sites, "we check first if news is real then post." He says he never made a great deal of money from the sites: "It was not a big sum of money. It was not a full-time job, and we didn't have a lot of likes. Other pages had more likes; we didn't make fake news like the others, to get more web visitors like the Macedonians." He wants to set up an online news site in the US, but admits he lacks the funding and the English-language skills. Aidan King, who ran a pro-Sanders Reddit page in 2013 and later worked for the Sanders campaign, says he noticed a shift in tone on many pro-Sanders Facebook pages after the primary: "I've gone back and forth on it. I wouldn't feel comfortable saying with any authority it's a coordinated effort by trolls, but also wouldn't feel confident saying it was exclusively pissed-off Bernie supporters." (Huffington Post)

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May 26, 2017: Facebook Integral Part of Trump's Campaign Appeal to Racist White Voters

Investigative journalist Violet Blue, writing for the tech site EnGadget, observes, "The hacking of the DNC and tonnes of raw crude in propaganda mined out through WikiLeaks, Breitbart and Daily Stormer was black gold for the Trump campaign." But, for Trump's "racist, anti-immigrant base … the accelerant was Facebook itself. Facebook's internal rulebook could be considered the Trump campaign's blueprint for its highly successful ad strategy's race-fueled messaging on the social network."

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She quotes Sue Halpern of the New York Review of Books who writes: "His team figured out how to use all the marketing tools of Facebook. They understood that some numbers matter more than others – in this case the number of angry, largely rural, disenfranchised potential Trump voters – and that Facebook, especially, offered effective methods for pursuing and capturing them." Blue says that those methods were effective precisely "because Facebook's own rules around speech and censorship appear to make the social media site a safe space for racists and terrorists in equal measure. We knew it wasn't a safe place for LGBT populations, vulnerable teens and certainly not for domestic violence victims or women who talk about human sexuality." A recent investigative piece by The Guardian proves conclusively that Facebook caters to a particularly ugly segment of American society, writing that critics call Facebook "a playground for misogynists and racists – a forum for fake news, threats, crudity and bad taste." Blue writes: "Racists, revenge porn perpetrators, Holocaust deniers and people who think immigrants are filth: One look at the company's rulebook on content moderation reveals these upstanding members of Facebook's community get a free pass on cultivating hate. As long as they don't run afoul of a very slim, arguably subjective set of edge case rules, that is." Facebook has staunchly defended Holocaust deniers, she notes, and only takes down posts from Holocaust deniers in nations that it fears may sue it, according to its training manual: France, Germany, Israel and Austria. The manual states: "Some 14 countries have legislation on their books prohibiting the expression of claims that the volume of death and severity of the Holocaust is overestimated. Less than half the countries with these laws actually pursue it. We block on report only in those countries that actively pursue the issue with us." (Facebook gingerly denies the claim.) Facebook has a record of censoring posts by pro-LGBTQ members, such as a gay man calling Trump supporters "a nasty, fascistic lot," but refuses to censor racists calling immigrants rapists, robbers or any number of ethnic slurs. A number of Facebook users were suspended in 2016 because they subscribed to the liberal Australian website New Matilda, after the site published a piece commemorating International Women's Day and illustrated it with a photo of two bare-breasted indigenous Australian women. Facebook said the photo was unacceptable because "some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content." Blue writes that Facebook users are free to post such screeds as :"Islam is a religion of hate. Close the borders to immigrating Muslims until we figure out what the hell is going on." "Migrants are so filthy." "Migrants are thieves and robbers." "Mexican immigrants are freeloaders mooching off of tax dollars we don't even have." All of these posts, according to The Guardian, were reported to Facebook security and allowed to remain: apparently Facebook is less worried about the Muslim, Mexican and immigrant members of its global community. Blue calls Facebook "a clean, well-lit place for fascism," and explains: "[T]he moderation rulemakers either really don't understand how hate groups form and grow, or they're fine with whatever as long as there's no bad press and everyone remains an active user. Gotta chase those ad dollars, yo." She says Facebook has become an "incubator" for hate groups and the fake news that they generate, in spite of Facebook's claim that it is working to minimize the amount of fake news its users see. Blue observes: "Not surprisingly, fake news is weighted by neo-Nazi, pro-Trump propaganda, though Facebook won't quite admit that key piece of information that could stop its spread. Instead, Facebook's weak excuse of a program to mark fake news as 'disputed' is being seized upon and promoted, shared widely (wider than it likely would've) by alt-righties who marshal their sizable Facebook troops and disseminate it with cries of 'censorship!'" Blue mentions how Cambridge Analytica exploited and manipulated Facebook users, as did another unidentified company that exploited the data of another 30 million Facebook users; that company was almost certainly Cambridge Analytica. However, according to Halpern, "Facebook's real influence came from the campaign's strategic and perfectly legal use of Facebook's suite of marketing tools." The Trump campaign's digital manager, Brad Parscale, was the leader of that effort. He claims he "had a hunch from reading Breitbart, Reddit, Facebook, and other nontraditional news sources, and from the campaign's own surveys, that there were whole segments of the population – people who were angry and disaffected – that were being missed by traditional pollsters and the mainstream media." Parscale bought $2 million in Facebook ads for the campaign during the primaries, and by the end of the campaign, was spending $70 million a month, mostly on Facebook ads. Campaign official Gary Coby said, "On any given day … the campaign was running 40,000 to 50,000 variants of its ads … On the day of the third presidential debate in October, the team ran 175,000 variations." Coby used Facebook's Custom Audiences tool to match supporters with like-minded Facebook users, and parsed them by race, ethnicity, gender, location, and other identities and affinities. Using another tool, Lookalike Audiences, he found users with interests and qualities similar to those of his original target audience, and included them in the targeted ad campaign. The Clinton campaign never figured out how to use Facebook to its benefit, but Parscale and his colleagues certainly did, succeeding in, Halpern writes, "sell[ing] a candidate that the majority of Americans did not want." Blue writes: "They used Facebook's own tools, refined at targeting those most vulnerable to suggestion, to influence those ripening under Facebook's own rules that coddle Holocaust denial, and anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim sentiment. This could be plainly seen in Trump's Facebook ads." She concludes that in the US, racist speech is considered free speech because it is opinion, and hate ground are not illegal but are restrained by a number of federal laws. But: "Facebook is not a country, yet it is assigning and removing rights about censorship and speech. It is not a civil rights organization, yet it decides that immigrants don't have protected status within its walls. It's a company. One that is creating censorship tools so it can do business in China. It is a behemoth that complies with censorship demands from the governments of Thailand, Turkey, India, Israel, Pakistan and Vietnam. It's also a company to which there is no alternative." (EnGadget, New York Review of Books, Guardian)

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Facebook's internal rulebook could be considered the Trump campaign's blueprint for its highly successful ad strategy's race-fueled messaging on the social network. — Violet Blue

Donald Trump is our first Facebook president. — Sue Halpern

June 8, 2017: Trump Campaign Combined Legal, Unethical Means on Social Media to Drive Voters

Susan Halpern, writing for the New York Review of Books, writes that the evidence shows "Donald Trump is our first Facebook president." The Trump campaign used the work of a controversial British-American data mining firm, Cambridge Analytica, to target American voters with a pervasive, inflammatory social media campaign driven by false facts and incendiary memes.

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Cambridge Analytica became a focus of discussion after the Swiss weekly Das Magazin published an article that was reprinted in English by Vice. The article shows that Cambridge Analytica (CA) used psychological data culled from an enormous amount of Facebook profiles to develop algorithims that the firm claimed would allow them to parse the psychological makeup – "psychographics" – of every voter in the US. They then developed political messages targeting selected users that were designed to appeal to their own emotions and leanings. The New York Times wrote: "A voter deemed neurotic might be shown a gun-rights commercial featuring burglars breaking into a home, rather than a defense of the Second Amendment; political ads warning of the dangers posed by the Islamic State could be targeted directly at voters prone to anxiety." Moreover, the firm used unethical and possibly illicit methods to collect the data, basically paying users to fill out surveys which allowed CA to "scrape" data from their Facebook friends and contacts.

Influence of the Mercer Family

Trump's chief financial supporter, billionaire Robert Mercer, owns 90% of Cambridge Analytica; SCL owns the remaining 10%. Former CA vice president and board member Steve Bannon is the chief strategist of the Trump administration. Robert Mercer's daughter Rebekah was on the Trump transition team and is now an advisor for the administration; she runs the pro-Trump advocacy organization "Making America Great," which pushes a largely white-nationalist influence campaign. MGA is run by former CA vice president Emily Cornell. CA also works for the Trump Organization.

Use of Legal Facebook Marketing Tools

Halpern writes that the Swiss article does not give enough credit to what she calls "the campaign's strategic and perfectly legal use of Facebook's suite of marketing tools." CA's chief data scientist Matt Oczkowski told a Google panel after the election, "I don't want to break your heart; we actually didn't do any psychographics with the Trump campaign." Oczkowski says that because the firm was only brought in five months before the general election, "we had five months to scale extremely fast, and doing sexy psychographics profiles requires a much longer run time." It is unclear whether anything Oczkowski claimed is true. Certainly it did some deployment of its "psychographics" on behalf of the Ted Cruz campaign. One of Parscale's most successful efforts was on Election Day. The campaign bought all of the ad space on YouTube and ran five different ads, all hosted by different surrogates – Ivanka Trump to appeal to women, Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson to appeal to hunters and Southern voters, and so on. At the end of each ad was a link to find your local polling place. Oczkowski claims that "hundreds of thousands of people" used the polling place locator. "When you're talking about winning by thousands of votes, this stuff matters," he adds.

Based on Earlier Campaign Strategies

Some experts have dismissed CA's claims to be able to manipulate voters via social media, saying that political campaigns have been doing this in one way or another for years. After the success of the Republican voter profiling efforts in 2004, she writes, Democrats struck back in 2008 with what then was cutting-edge technology incorporated in its own "VoteBuilder" program, which used huge voter databases combined with commercially available data. In 2016, the Trump campaign relied on three databases: CA's program that profiled some 220 million American voters; the RNC's own "Voter Vault," which is claimed to have microtargeting data points on some 200 million voters, and its own custom database, "Project Alamo," culled from donor lists and information gathered at rallies and on social media. Project Alamo incorporated information from the other two databases as well. (Ironically, the Parscale efforts seem to be based in part on President Obama's 2012 digital outreach efforts.) Trump digital campaign director Brad Parscale headed the data efforts. He is close to Eric Trump and particularly to Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. His firm recently hired Eric Trump's wife to work on Trump's 2020 re-election campaign. Parscale describes himself as loyal to the Trump family.

Huge Campaign Spending on Social Media

In the early days of the Trump campaign, Parscale spent his entire $2 million budget on Facebook ads, then used Facebook marketing tools to subdivide and categorize the lists of Trump supporters by any number of personal attributes. By the end of the campaign, Parscale was spending $70 million a month, largely on Facebook and other social media outreach. They used rotating and ever-changing series of Facebook ads and outreach messages, constantly user-testing and tweaking for maximum market penetration and impact. The campaign now claims none of the money it spent was generated from CA's Facebook data, and after the election, CA began downplaying its contributions to the campaign.

"Dark Ads" and Voter Suppression

Unlike Obama, Parscale also spent heavily on negative campaign against Hillary Clinton, using so-called "dark posts" on Facebook that are only visible to the recipient. Facebook calls them "unpublished" posts that "allow you to test different creative variations with specific audiences without overloading people on your Page with non-relevant or repetitive messages." Parscale used the "dark posts" to whip up anger, fear and hatred towards Clinton, and either drive Trump voters towards the polls or Clinton voters away from the polls. A campaign spokesperson told Bloomberg quite candidly, "We have three major voter suppression operations under way." The focus: idealistic white liberals, mainly Bernie Sanders supporters, whom the Trump campaign was quite successful in alienating against Clinton; young women, some of whom were susceptible to the campaign's relentless attack on "sexual predator" Bill Clinton; and urban African-Americans, whom the campaign tried to alienate by claiming Clinton's decades of support for, and work on behalf of, civil rights was a sham, "We've modeled this," the campaign official said before the election. "It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out." The official was right; Democratic turnout in battleground states was weaker than expected, which helped Trump take some of those states. David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager, noted: "In Detroit, Mrs. Clinton received roughly 70,000 votes fewer than Mr. Obama did in 2012; she lost Michigan by just 12,000 votes. In Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, she received roughly 40,000 votes fewer than Mr. Obama did, and she lost the state by just 27,000. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, turnout in majority African-American precincts was down 11 percent from four years ago."

WikiLeaks, Russian Bots and Neo-Nazis

It remains an open question whether the Trump campaign willfully coordinated its campaign efforts with Russian "bots," but the Russians worked diligently throughout the campaign to promote Trump and attack Clinton. Trump himself used Twitter liberally and consistently promoted WikiLeaks, which released emails from the Clinton campaign hacked illegally from the campaign by Russian intelligence operatives. The campaign also actively promoted fake news from far-right conspiracy sites like Breitbart and InfoWars. The neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer claimed to have created a thousand Twitter "bot" accounts to promote Trump and vilify Clinton. Halpern writes: "Together, all this sent a river of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton messages coursing into cyberspace, giving the Trump campaign a continually self-reinforcing narrative. And then there was the candidate himself and his blustery, contradictory pronouncements, often pandering to voters' racially tinged resentments. This might have been the undoing of another candidate, but for the Trump team it turned out to be an asset." According to Catalist's Linda Quinn: "Trump didn't have a lot of 'Here is my agenda, here is my narrative, I have to persuade people to it.' The Trump world was more like, 'Let's say a lot of different things, they don't even necessarily need to be coherent, and observe, through the wonderful new platforms that allow you to observe how people respond and observe what works, and whatever squirrel everyone chases, that's going to become our narrative, our agenda, our message.' I'm being very simplistic, but that was the very different approach that truly was creative, different, imaginative, revolutionary – whatever you want to say."

Turning Expectations on Their Head

Parscale and the Trump campaign never anticipated winning a majority of Americans. They subdivided the electorate and targeted the ones they thought they could influence, positively or negatively. Using a model called Battleground Optimizer Path to Victory, they broke down the different states and compiled a model for winning 270 electoral votes. The digital team identified 13.5 million persuadable voters in sixteen battleground states, and modeled which combinations of those voters would yield the winning number. While polling firms and the mainstream media predicted a rout for Trump, and even a CA spokesperson rated Trump's chances of winning at 20% before the election, Parscale kept the faith. He was certain that "shadow voters" who normally didn't vote could be influenced to come out for Trump, and was equally certain that his voter suppression efforts were alienating key voters Clinton needed to win. Parscale's model took those voters into account and refocused the campaign's efforts on Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the final days. Ockzowski says that "[Clinton's] strategy was … 'if I turn out enough people in urban areas, Republicans can't make up those numbers in rural areas. Little did she know that almost every rural voter in the country was going to show up in this election." Halpern says that the Trump victory "can be attributed in large measure to their expert manipulation of social media: Donald Trump is our first Facebook president. His team figured out how to use all the marketing tools of Facebook, as well as Google, the two biggest advertising platforms in the world, to successfully sell a candidate that the majority of Americans did not want. They understood that some numbers matter more than others – in this case the number of angry, largely rural, disenfranchised potential Trump voters – and that Facebook, especially, offered effective methods for pursuing and capturing them. While this is clearly the future of campaigns, both Republican and Democratic, it also appears to be Trump’s approach to governing. … What our Facebook president has discovered is that it actually pays only to please some of the people some of the time. The rest simply don't count." (New York Review of Books)

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July 5, 2017: Federal, Congressional Investigators Probing Possible Coordination between Kremlin, Pro-Trump Websites

Federal and Congressional investigators are examining possible collusion between pro-Trump websites and the Kremlin. They suspect that those sites deliberately worked with Russian officials to spread fake news stories intended to damage the Clinton campaign, and/or paid to boost those stories on Facebook. Trump's digital media chief Brad Parscale is slated to testify before the House Intelligence Committee.

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Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that at least a thousand "paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia" worked to flood anti-Clinton fake news into social media before the election. Warner, whose committee is conducting a parallel inquiry, says the fake news campaign focused on key voters in swing states. It is possible US political operatives working on behalf of Trump coordinated with the Kremlin in directing the release and targeting of the fake news stories. It is clear that the news stories helped depress the voter turnout in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all states that Clinton needed to win and instead lost by razor-thin margins. The probe is part of a larger investigation into the enormous number and depth of contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials during the campaign, as well as the likelihood that the Kremlin has what the Guardian calls "personal or financial leverage over members in the Trump camp, including the president himself according to his own remarks on Twitter." John Mattes, who helped run the online arm of the Bernie Sanders (I-VT) campaign, says the wave of fake news posts began to surge in March 2016, and continued throughout the election. "In a 30-day period, dozens of full-blown sites appeared overnight, running full level productions posts," he says. "It screamed out to me that something strange was going on." Of the sites he could trace, 40% of them were housed on Eastern European servers. Many Facebook accounts sharing and commenting on the stories were also fake, Mattes says. He cites as one of very many examples the Facebook account(s) of "Oliver Mitov." The Mitov persona had four identical accounts with the same name, all sharing the most virulent of the false Clinton stories – among others, claiming that Clinton was guilty of murder and pedophilia, and had profited personally by selling guns to ISIS extremists. The accounts all had a very small number of friends, including one which was shared by all four Mitov accounts. Mattes tried to friend and contact all four, and got no response. Many of the anti-Clinton fake news sites were based in Albania and Macedonia, and the same is true of some of the pro-Sanders sites that primarily trafficked in anti-Clinton fake news. One pro-Sanders site was run by an Albanian IT expert who, when interviewed, spoke very little English; interestingly, his page consistently featured stories written in flawless English. Mattes became interested in the sudden surge of "popularity" of Sanders among Eastern European social media denizens, and found a spike on the anonymous browsing tool Tor in Macedonia that coincided, or possibly coordinated, with the launch of the fake news campaign. Mattes believes that the surge of Tor usage may represent Russian handlers contacting potential east European hosts to help them set up automated websites. He says: "This is a cost-effective hands-free method with no blowback to you if you are in St Petersburg creating this product." Had those pro-Sanders sites been driven by profit, he continues, they would have moved on to different subjects after the election. Instead, 95% of them disappeared from the Internet. "What I found was that 95% of them has gone dark," he says. "So my question is: what are they hiding and why did they run as soon as the investigation began?" Mattes believes the sites had two goals: to damage Clinton, and then to minimize the number of Sanders voters who switched their support to Clinton in the general election. He recalls an August 10 report in the Steele dossier that quoted an unnamed Trump official discussing a Russian-helmed campaign to alienate Sanders supporters from Clinton. "He was writing in real time about things I was seeing happening in August, but I couldn't articulate until September," Mattes says. Because the Sanders online campaign was so open and unregulated, Mattes says, "We basically set ourselves up to be victims of an international cyberwarfare campaign. We were pawns in this but very effective pawns." Former FBI counterterrorism official Clint Watts says a similar Russian-backed operation influenced voters during the Republican presidential primaries. Watts recently told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the fake news campaign "may have helped sink the hopes of candidates more hostile to Russian interests long before the field narrowed." Watts says investigators should examine how those fake news sites were funded and how they coordinated their efforts with "alt-right" and pro-Trump websites in the US: "What you have to look at now is how were these sites financed and you have look at their ownership. How did they get the funds to get started? … They synchronize so quickly it looks as if they know when a particularly story was going to come out. And they all parrot the Kremlin narrative." (Guardian, Forbes, The Hill, Mediaite, Politico)

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July 12, 2017: Investigations Underway into Russian Use of Trump Campaign "Digital Operation" to Target Voters, Possible Collusion

Congressional and Justice Department investigators are probing into whether the Trump campaign's vaunted "digital operation" helped Russia target its fake news and social media attacks on Hillary Clinton. The operation was overseen by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Kushner credits it with Trump's surprise victory in November.

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Forbes reporter Steven Bertoni wrote in November 2016: "The traditional campaign is dead, another victim of the unfiltered democracy of the Web – and Kushner, more than anyone not named Donald Trump, killed it." Now, it seems, the operation – deliberately or inadvertently – led Russian cyber operatives to target certain voting jurisdictions in key "battleground" states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the Kushner digital voting team had discovered unsuspected weakness in voter support for Clinton. The investigations are also inquiring into whether Trump associates or campaign aides played any role in assisting the Russians in publicly releasing thousands of illegally obtained emails from the Democrats throughout the campaign. The investigators are determining whether Russian operatives shared the information they hacked from state voter registration files with the Trump campaign, and whether Trump officials told the Russians that they were interested in targeting specific groups of voters, for example "black voters under the age of 40 in Michigan," as the Washington Post hypothesizes. House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff (D-CA) says he wants to know whether Russia's "fake or damaging news stories" were "coordinated in any way in terms of targeting or in terms of timing or in terms of any other measure … with the (Trump) campaign." The Russian operation used both paid human beings – "trolls" – and computer programs – "bots" – to collect and expand the reach of fake, anti-Clinton propaganda. A source familiar with the Justice Department investigation says they doubt Russian operatives controlling the bots that distributed the fake news stories could have themselves "known where to specifically target … to which high-impact states and districts in those states." The source adds that Kushner's "role as a possible cut-out or conduit for Moscow's influence operations in the elections," including his role in the digital operation, will be closely examined. Former Pentagon official Mike Carpenter says he has suspicions about collusion between the campaign and Russia's cyber operators: "There appears to have been significant cooperation between Russia's online propaganda machine and individuals in the United States who were knowledgeable about where to target the disinformation," Carpenter says. Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner (D-VA) recently said: "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 [of] really raises some questions … How did they know to go to that level of detail in those kinds of jurisdictions?" Women and African-American voters in Wisconsin and Michigan were targeted, Warner says, "where the Democrats were too brain dead to realize those states were even in play." The search engines of Twitter and Facebook were overwhelmed with fake news in the weeks before the election, he continues: "On your news feed, you suddenly got … 'Hillary Clinton's sick' or 'Hillary Clinton's stealing money from the State Department'." The Russian troll/bot attack began during the Republican primary, according to recent testimony by former FBI agent Clint Watts, working on behalf of Trump and against his Republican opponents. In May 2016, the operation then shifted to attack Clinton, according to intelligence intercepts. Kushner's digital campaign emulated the Russians in its embrace of targeted social media advertising. The Post will explain that using targeted ads via social media has two major benefits: the ads can target very specific groups of people, "like pitching a drilled-down policy position to, say, Hispanic men under age 45 who are farmers near Fresno," California; and the ads tend not to gain national attention. Ads on Facebook and the like rarely draw attention outside of their targeted individuals. The Trump campaign's digital arm, run by Brad Parscale of a San Antonio-based computing firm hired by Jared Kushner, used this tactic quite successfully. One example is the use of ads directly targeting Clinton voters, not attempting to convince them to vote for Trump, but to sour them on the idea of voting for Clinton. One Parscale ad used what the Post calls "a South Park-style animation" showing Clinton calling young black gang members "super predators" in 1996, omitting the larger context of her speech, and claiming in a headline, "Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators." The ad was delivered to African-American Facebook users through so-called "dark posts," nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls. Parscale explains that "only the people we want to see it, see it." Another example is a nonpublic Twitter message from Donald Trump, posted on October 10, 2016, reading: "It's US vs the RIGGED system and we still WON! I WILL fight for YOU!" The tweet contained a link to donate to the Trump campaign, and a short video clip implying that as president, Trump would jail Clinton. The tweet never appeared on Trump's public feed. Twitter allows users to post to relatively specific targets, and Facebook gives even more fine-grained control. Some of the Facebook and Twitter posts directed their targets to fake news sites. Kushner knew he was on to something good when he hired some microtargeting experts and put them to work on selling Trump merchandise via Facebook: within days, sales soared from $8000 a day to $80,000 a day. Soon, Kushner was producing low-tech "viral videos" of Trump discussing (or ranting about) a variety of policy initiatives and social issues. Many of those garnered millions of hits on Facebook and other outlets. Kushner hired Parscale after the primary win. He hired Cambridge Analytica, provided it with an enormous amount of RNC-provided data, and began microtargeting voters. Potential Trump voters who liked the television show "NCIS," for example, got anti-Obamacare ads on their Facebook feeds, while "Walking Dead" fans got anti-immigration ads. Parscale says of Kushner: "He put all the different pieces together. And what's funny is the outside world was so obsessed about this little piece or that, they didn't pick up that it was all being orchestrated so well." Parscale is also being investigated, and is expected to testify. (McClatchy News, Washington Post, Forbes, Newsweek, San Antonio Express-News)

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There appears to have been significant cooperation between Russia's online propaganda machine and individuals in the United States who were knowledgeable about where to target the disinformation. — Former Pentagon official Mike Carpenter

September 6, 2017: Facebook Admits Selling Ads to Russian Company that Targeted Voters During 2016 Election

Facebook admits to Congressional investigators that it has "discovered" it sold ads during the 2016 presidential election to a Russian firm that targeted voters in order to influence the election. Facebook sold over $100,000 in ads to a Russian "troll farm" with a history of pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda. Some of the ads directly promoted Donald Trump and attacked Hillary Clinton.

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Facebook officials allow investigators to see copies of the ads, but refuse to give them copies or any documentation, angering some lawmakers. A Facebook representative says: "We are continuing to cooperate with appropriate authorities and have shared the results of our internal inquiries to this point. And of course, we will continue to review what Russians could have done to manipulate the platform." Most of the ads, says Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos, "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." The fact that the Russian firm, the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, was able to specifically target selected voters with tailored political ads once again raises the question of whether the Russians received guidance from people in the United States. One House source says that Russia's use of Facebook ads to sign users up for propaganda streams was "insidious." Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, says that Facebook's admission confirms one of the ways Russia sought to interfere in US politics and serves as a "profound warning to us and others about future elections." Schiff goes on: "This is a very significant set of data points produced by Facebook. Left unanswered in what we received from Facebook – because it is beyond the scope of what they are able to determine – is whether there was any coordination between these social media trolls and the campaign. We have to get to the bottom of that." Schiff's committee has heard brief testimony from Facebook testimony in a closed session. Facebook has denied accusations of serving as a willing platform for the spread of false and inflammatory information as part of a larger attempt to influence the election. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has promised to look into those accusations, but says that 99% of what is posted on Facebook is accurate. The company promised months ago that it would begin flagging articles that had been deemed false or fake, with the assistance of fact-checking organizations. A Facebook official says it will not release any ads for examination due to its data policy and federal law. Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who studies Russian online influence campaigns, says that the admission validates findings by himself and his researchers. Watts says they were finding Russians posing as Americans on Facebook to press political messages as early as 2015, with the aim to sow division and identify other Facebook users susceptible to their messaging. Those users were among the ones targeted with political ads in 2016. He says: "We had these suspicions, but we could never see who was purchasing the accounts. Facebook's being brave. They probably could have buried this, and they did the right thing by coming forward." Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says: "This is just the tip of the iceberg. The Russians used resource and media platforms to try to interfere with our elections, and I think the fact that they may only have mentioned a particular candidate in a few of the ads is reflective of the fact that there's ways to do voter suppression without mentioning a candidate's name. I think that the American people deserve to know both the content and the source of the information that is being used to try to affect their votes." As recently as May, Facebook publicly denied evidence obtained by US intelligence officials that proved Russian agents had purchased ads on Facebook to target specific populations with propaganda. A Facebook spokesman told the magazine that the company had no evidence of such buys. (Washington Post, CNN)

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Russian Facebook ad

September 7-21, 2017: Facebook to Allow Congress to See Russian Political Ads

After two weeks of refusing to allow Congress to see ads purchased by Russian trolls and "bots" during the election, Facebook relents and says it will provide those ads to Congress, who in turn can release them to the public. The Mueller investigation has had those ads in hand for some time.

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Facebook bows to pressure from Senate Democrats, particularly Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. After the announcement, Warner and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) announce legislation that would require Facebook, Google and other digital platforms to disclose more information about the political ads they show and the entities who buy them. The two senators say that digital platforms warrant further scrutiny because they reach much larger audiences than broadcasters, and yet are not subject to the same disclosure requirements. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says his company's top priority is to protect "the integrity of free and fair elections." Warner calls Facebook's move "an important and absolutely necessary first step," and adds that "the American people deserve to know the truth about Russia's interference in the 2016 election." Zuckerberg says his company will also delve deeper into how Russian bots and other outside parties used its platform in 2016 to sway voters. "We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government on it," Zuckerberg says. It will also require advertisers to disclose their sponsorship and post all versions of paid ads on their Facebook pages. "We are in a new world," Zuckerberg says. It is a new challenge for internet communities to have to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections. But if that's what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion." Clinton campaign digital strategist Teddy Goff says the campaign was well aware of the misinformation and lies spread by the Russian ads on Facebook: "This is something we were very aware of [but] saw zero percent chance Facebook was going to be compliant or work with us during the election." Initially, Zuckerberg publicly derided the idea that Facebook ads and Facebook-posted fake news stories influenced voters "in any way," saying that "voters make their decisions based on lived experience." But after Facebook disclosed that Russians had purchased over 3,000 political ads worth over $150,000 during key times of the election, usually supporting Trump or attempting to dissuade Democrats from voting for Clinton, it admitted what had happened and revealed that at least 470 of the ads had come from the notorious Russian "troll farm" called the Internet Research Agency. Zuckerberg explains: "We have been investigating this for many months, and for a while we had found no evidence of fake accounts linked to Russia running ads. When we recently uncovered this activity, we provided that information to the special counsel." Facebook showed samples, but not all, of the ads to Congressional members in a private hearing. At the time, Facebook said making the ads public would violate its privacy rules even though the Facebook entities purchasing and running the ads were registered under fake names and have since been deleted from the platform. Campaign finance experts said Facebook could find itself prosecuted for criminal violations. Ron Fein of Free Speech for People, whose organization has filed complaints with the FEC demanding an investigation into Russian sabotage of the election, said: "I think this is shocking. Facebook has another thing coming if it thinks it can use its self-created privacy rules to prevent an honest accounting of what happened in the 2016 election." (Politico, Yahoo News, Russian Facebook ad via Mark Warner)

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September 8, 2017: Investigative Journalist Says Facebook Trying to Dodge Responsibility for Russian Misuse of Its Product

Investigative journalist Violet Blue, writing for the tech site EnGadget, discusses Facebook's recent admission that it provided data about its users to a Russian propaganda outlet, the Internet Research Agency. In turn, that outfit used Facebook's data to try to sabotage the election in favor of Donald Trump.

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Facebook has promised to cooperate with ongoing investigations. Blue writes: "What this week's revelations about Facebook mean is that Facebook ads are now undeniably a form of political campaigning, one with no checks and balances. And people have been taking advantage of this, big time." Blue doubts that Facebook has admitted the sum total of its culpability or its involvement. She believes that Facebook's estimate that the Russians bought some 3,000 ads is likely far too low, and does not give any credence to its claims of innocence. Of Facebook's claim that it "discovered" the rampant violations by the Internet Research Agency, she writes: "The language that Facebook 'discovered' this is disingenuous. As if it had no way of monitoring its ad program, and a Russian troll farm blasting propaganda were akin to finding a coin purse someone left under a cushion. Whoa! Who knew, or had any way of knowing? Well, Facebook did. Pretending otherwise is fool's errand; no one could be that incompetent at running advertising and metrics and simultaneously have the entire industry in a chokehold. Facebook is working hard and fast to minimize everything about this." Facebook's stance that it is solving the entire problem by admitting to a few ad buys and deleting a few obviouosly fake accounts is, Blue writes, "like minimizing gangrene. As if the accounts belonging to Putin's Internet Research Agency are a just tiny speck of bad actors and now they're gone, so phew, rest easy, everyone." The main problem remains entirely unaddressed. Russians, or anyone else, can continue to manipulate users, spread lies, racism and vitriol, and influence elections as long as they don't break Facebook's self-imposed rules againsts fake accounts. Blue wonders why "Facebook can't just admit how toxic and monstrous and effective as a tool to manipulate people its advertising really is. Or that, thanks to all its talented engineers and skill at navigating big-picture trends to rake in billions, the company has a hell of a lot to do with why we're now a nation at war against itself – neo-Nazis murdering people in the streets, immigrant children set for deportation by the hundreds of thousands, our country on the brink of nuclear war and more, so much more." Facebook's ad system is chillingly effective, and the company apparently has no desire whatsoever to limit the ways that system can be used by political campaigns, Russian intelligence operatives, or anyone else. Blue then goes further: "Who else, besides Russian state operatives, was running ads about the same topics, at the exact same time? The Trump campaign. There is a connection between Russian efforts to influence the election and Facebook-ad buys, just as there was the same connection with the Trump campaign, at the same time, with ad content covering the same issues in parallel – race, immigration, LGBT rights and more." Blue finds Facebook's contention that the ads bought by the Russians spanned the gamut of issues from "LGBT community, black social issues, the Second Amendment and immigration." The vast majority of the ads were designed to either drive voters towards Donald Trump or away from Hillary Clinton, and did so by promoting racism, xenophobia, and hatred, as well as inundating the site with fake news about Hillary Clinton's "fatal illness" or her husband's clandestine existence as a "sexual predator." She writes: "Trump's team no doubt saw in Facebook's ad platform the same things that Putin's propaganda mill had already learned to love. It used Facebook's ad tools, refined at targeting those most vulnerable to suggestion, to influence those ripening under Facebook's own rules that coddle Holocaust denial, and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment." She even touches on an Internet ad from Trump's campaign that praised US veterans, but depicted images of Soviet-era Russian soldiers. "You have to wonder how a mistake like that is made," she observes. "It's easy to wonder if it was an ad made by a Russian house and its pool of files, where topics have stock images labeled by campaign, and if even more of the misapplied images in Trump's Facebook ads came from an organization that used the same ones for the same topics, too. It's more urgent to know if it was an ad run by both foreign and domestic Trump Facebook ad campaigns, because that would surely be something." Facebook is so far refusing to give details about the ads purchased, including details about who was being targeted by those ads. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) says that Facebook's disclosure is just the "tip of the iceberg," and reminds listeners that in late 2016, when Facebook was first asked about the issue, it claimed no knowledge of anything amiss: "The first reaction from Facebook was: 'Well you're crazy, there's nothing going on.' Well, we find yesterday there actually was something going on." Currently, Facebook is focusing on fake accounts and little else. "We're given the impression that Facebook has no accountability or role in this other than racing to the rescue to protect its users. The same users it sells out to Facebook's real customers: its advertisers. Or more specifically, anyone with enough money to rank high in its class system of ad buyers." Facebook has no interest in accepting any responsibility for its actions, she says, and it likely is not going to. (EnGadget)

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September 15, 2017: Facebook Gives Mueller Investigation Detailed Info about Russian Ad Buys

Facebook gives the Mueller investigative team detailed records about Russian advertisement buys on its platform. The information Facebook gives the Mueller investigators goes well beyond what it provided to Congress last week. It includes copies of the ads, details about the accounts that purchased them, and the targeting criteria they used.

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It is likely that the Mueller team obtained a search warrant to get the Facebook information. Sources say Facebook did not give as much information to Congress as it did to the Mueller team for fear of interfering with the Mueller investigation, and because of concerns about US privacy laws. Facebook says it is cooperating fully with the investigations. Last week, Facebook disclosed that it had identified some 500 "inauthentic" accounts with Russian connections. Those accounts bought some $100,000 in ads during a two-year period that included the 2016 presidential campaign. The company also found another $50,000 in ad purchases linked to Russian accounts. In total, the accounts bought over 5,000 Facebook ads. Until that disclosure, Facebook had refused to admit that Russians used its platform to try to impact the US electorate, and had denied it had any evidence of Russian ad buys. Twitter executives are also expected to testify before Congress about Russian activity on its platform. Congressional investigators were angry about the slim amount of information it provided to them, and academic researchers have criticized Facebook for not sharing more information about Russian activity with the American public. The Senate Intelligence Committee plans on calling Facebook representatives to testify. (Wall Street Journal)

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September 16, 2017: Mueller Obtains Search Warrant for Fake Facebook Accounts that Targeted Trump, Clinton Voters

The Mueller investigate team obtains a search warrant for "inauthentic" Facebook accounts as part of its overall investigation into Russia's sabotage of the 2016 presidential election. The investigation may be looking for evidence to charge specific "foreign entities" with criminal activities. The accounts were shut down by Facebook earlier this month; many were buying targeted ads during the election attacking Clinton and promoting Trump.

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THIS STORY IS UNDER DEVELOPMENT. (Business Insider)

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September 21 - October 8, 2017: Facebook Defends Acceptance of Fake, Divisive Ads, Many from Russia, During the 2016 Campaign

Elliot Schrage, Facebook's Vice President of Policy and Communications, writes a defense of his company's decision to allow false, often Russian-sourced ads to infiltrate and sometimes overwhelm the public discussion during the 2016 election. Schrage misrepresents up front, saying that the ads were focused "on divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights." His statement is technically true, but it ignores the fact that the majority of the false and inflammatory advertisements on the site came from pro-Trump and/or anti-Clinton sources, many of them Russian.

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Schrage gives some hard numbers: about 10 million Americans saw at least some of the ads; 44% of them ran before the election and 56% after; about 25% of the ads were never seen by anyone. Most of the ads were run for very small amounts of money. Almost all the ads used Facebook's "Custom Audiences" targeting mechanism to reach people who had visited the advertiser's website or liked the advertiser's Facebook page, "as well as to reach people who are similar to those audiences." Schrage claims that "[n]one of the ads used another type of Custom Audiences targeting based on personal information such as email addresses." Facebook has shared some 3,000 of those ads with Congress. Schrage claims total innocence in its mechanism to target specific users: "Our ad targeting is designed to show people ads they might find useful, instead of showing everyone ads that they might find irrelevant or annoying. For instance, a baseball clothing line can use our targeting categories to reach people just interested in baseball, rather than everyone who likes sports. Other examples include a business selling makeup designed specifically for African-American women. Or a language class wanting to reach potential students. These are worthwhile uses of ad targeting because they enable people to connect with the things they care about. But we know ad targeting can be abused, and we aim to prevent abusive ads from running on our platform. To begin, ads containing certain types of targeting will now require additional human review and approval." He says Facebook will remove any ad "that contains a message spreading hate or violence." Many ads get through their review process, he says, and Facebook intends to make its review process more stringent. He defends Facebook's decision to accept ads paid for with Russian currency: "Currency alone isn’t a good way of identifying suspicious activity, because the overwhelming majority of advertisers who pay in Russian currency, like the overwhelming majority of people who access Facebook from Russia, aren't doing anything wrong." He implies they removed the vast majority of ads that represented a "coordinated, inauthentic operation," when in fact they did not. Schrage says the senior officials for Facebook have "debated a great deal" over allowing ads designed to sow division and social unrest, and says they ultimately came down on the side of "free political speech." He refuses to directly answer whether Facebook is working with other companies and the US government to prevent interference. Of the election, he calls it "the first where evidence has been widely reported that foreign actors sought to exploit the internet to influence voter behavior. We understand more about how our service was abused and we will continue to investigate to learn all we can. We know that our experience is only a small piece of a much larger puzzle. Congress and the Special Counsel are best placed to put these pieces together because they have much broader investigative power to obtain information from other sources." Answering a question about whether Facebook had someone embedded with the Trump campaign, he says: "We offered identical support to both the Trump and Clinton campaigns, and had teams assigned to both. Everyone had access to the same tools, which are the same tools that every campaign is offered. The campaigns did not get to 'hand pick' the people who worked with them from Facebook. And no one from Facebook was assigned full-time to the Trump campaign, or full-time to the Clinton campaign. Both campaigns approached things differently and used different amounts of support." Marketer James Towers writes, "The effort to stamp out naughty Russian hackers overthrowing elections will have wide-reaching implications for marketers too." (Facebook Newsroom, Washington Post, Washington Times, AdNews)

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October 2, 2017: Russians Manipulated Facebook, Other Social Media Sites to Spread False, Inflammatory Ads During the 2016 Election

The Washington Post clarifies and explains the self-serving justification recently given by Facebook to explain how Russian trolls and far-right agitators inundated the site with false and inflammatory ads during the election. The Post writes: "Russian operatives set up an array of misleading Web sites and social media pages to identify American voters susceptible to propaganda, then used a powerful Facebook tool to repeatedly send them messages designed to influence their political behavior …"

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American political campaigns and businesses have been doing this for some time now, delivering messages to targeted people online. The Russians, the Post reports, "exploited this system by creating English-language sites and Facebook pages that closely mimicked those created by US political activists." The pages were almost all either pro-Trump or anti-Clinton, focusing on hot Republican issues such as illegal immigration, Muslim extremists, and African-American political activism as displayed in movements such as Black Lives Matter. The Russians then used the "Custom Audiences" Facebook tool to send specific ads to people who visited those sites. "People caught up in this web of tracking and disinformation would have had no indication that they had been singled out or that the ads came from Russians." Many of the ads spoke to the racism inherent in many Republican and conservative voters as well as possibly encourage militancy among African-Americans, both prongs of the operation designed to inflame racial fears and hatreds. Many of the ads were vociferous attacks on Hillary Clinton. Facebook has minimized the Russians' use of Custom Audiences, and its officials have previously claimed that "they were caught off guard by the Russian propaganda campaign because the accounts, pages and ads appeared to be legitimate." Custom Audiences was just one of many Facebook tools used by the Russians to target groups by demographics, geography, gender and interests. According to the Post, investigators and independent researchers alike conclude "that the Russian disinformation campaign exploited the core advertising and tracking technologies that Silicon Valley has honed over a decade to serve corporate America – and that are widely available, with few if any restrictions, to political actors in the United States and abroad." Philip Howard of Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Project says: "These are the same methods and sophisticated tools that the pharmaceutical companies were using, that big oil companies were using. This was regular ad technology that regular advertisers use." The Russians "used Facebook to direct their influence campaigns to voters whom they had already tracked and to find new ones wherever they browsed the Internet," both on desktop/laptop and mobile platforms. Targeted people might also have directed that same disinformation – whether intentionally or not – to people linked to them on social networks, such as their friends on Facebook." Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute says: "This means that any American who knowingly or unknowingly clicked on a Russian news site may have been targeted through Facebook's advertising systems to become an agent of influence – a potentially sympathetic American who could spread Russian propaganda with other Americans. Every successful click gives them more data that they can use to retarget. It feeds on itself and it speeds up the influence dramatically." Twitter has shut down 201 accounts associated with Russia's Internet Research Agency (out of tens of thousands of Russian "troll" accounts), and Google said last month it has found no evidence of Russian meddling on its platform. (Washington Post, Washington Times)

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October 2, 2017: Senator Advocates Closure of Loophole Allowing Foreign Entities to Buy Political Ads on Internet

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) writes an op-ed for the Washington Post advising how to slow and perhaps stop Russian trolls and "bots" from influencing future elections.

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She begins with the example of "Melvin Redick," a Russian construct created for Facebook with a phony family history. There were thousands of accounts like the Redick construct, Klobuchar writes, "controlled by the Russians, posting on social media during the 2016 presidential election. And they weren't just creating fake accounts to spread misinformation. They were also buying political advertisements designed to influence American voters." Although it is illegal for foreign entities to buy political ads in the US, Russians bought thousands of just such political ads on Facebook, using what she calls "an enormous loophole for foreign actors to secretly violate our campaign finance laws and possibly influence our elections." Klobuchar wants that loophole, which allows foreign entities to buy ads on Internet providers such as Facebook without revealing their identities, closed. "Election security is national security, and we have to start acting like it," she writes. "Russian robots have shown us that we need to hold online platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to the same transparency requirements as traditional broadcasters, radio and satellite providers. … In the 21st century, our adversaries will continue to use cyberattacks against us. We need to be prepared to defend our networks against this growing threat to our democracy, especially the most fundamental part of our political system: our elections." (Washington Post)

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October 11, 2017: House Intelligence Committee Investigating Cambridge Analytica

The data mining and "psychographics" firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), touted by some as helping Donald Trump win the November presidential election, is now being probed by the House Intelligence Committee as part of its Trump-Russia investigation. The company is turning over requested documents to the committee.

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Former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon is a board member of CA, and has holdings in the firm worth between $1 million and $5 million. The big money behind the firm is hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who donated huge amounts to the Trump campaign and provided several top officials to the campaign and the administration, including Bannon and spokesperson Kellyanne Conway. The Mercer family are part-owners of the Breitbart media conglomerate; Bannon is chief editor for the organization. The Mercers also invest in numerous other right-wing media outlets, think tanks, and political campaigns. CA claims to go beyond typical voter targeting by compiling data from Facebook and other social media sources to give a fuller picture of a voter's political leanings and "mental state." Many experts suspect CA has links to Russian propaganda mills, with some speculating that CA helped the Russian propaganda operation target vulnerable voters in, among other places, swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin. CA is also being investigated for interfering in the "Brexit" initiative that resulted in the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union. CA and its UK affiliate, SCL, have worked in Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Iran and Moldova. A British news agency has reported, "Multiple Cambridge Analytica sources have revealed other links to Russia, including trips to the country, meetings with executives from Russian state-owned companies, and references by SCL employees to working for Russian entities." In March, Bloomberg News reported that SCL ran an operation in Latvia in 2006 designed to incite bad blood between Latvians and ethhic Russians. An SCL document read, "In essence, Russians were blamed for unemployment and other problems affecting the economy." SCL chief Alexander Nix confirmed the company's role, saying that its research showed that raising such tensions would "influence voting behavior." Daily Kos senior writer Mark Sumner observes, "Trump's data team set out to replicate that success in the United States, opening up tensions along ethnic and racial lines to enforce the idea that the white middle class wasn't getting a fair deal – a tactic remarkably similar to that used in the Russan propaganda efforts that have been revealed so far." A CA spokesperson says in a statement: "As one of the companies that played a prominent role in the election campaign, Cambridge Analytica has been asked by the House Intelligence Committee to provide it with information that might help its investigation. We believe that other organizations that worked on the campaign have been asked to do the same. As you know, CA is not under investigation, and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the company." Trump senior advisor Jared Kushner worked closely with CA during the election. Kushner is now being studied by the House Intelligence Committee and the Mueller investigation for his dealings with Russians during and after the campaign. Some Republicans are now trying to downplay CA's effectiveness in the campaign, with one saying, "People think they're dealing with evil masterminds, when they're really just Keystone Cops." A former Trump campaign staffer says: "The news on Cambridge Analytica is not whether they colluded with the Russians or not. It's how little work they did for the Trump campaign and the fact that they did zero psychographic data work." (Daily Beast, The Hill, Bloomberg News, Daily Kos)

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October 25, 2017: Trump Campaign Officials Try to Downplay Cambridge Analytica Role in Victory After News of WikiLeaks Outreach

After the news breaks that the Trump campaign data firm Cambridge Analytica reached out to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during the campaign for assistance in finding Hillary Clinton's private emails, campaign officials try to distance the campaign from the firm that it previously credited as playing a huge role in Trump's election victory.

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The campaign hired Cambridge Analytica (CA) in June 2016, and very shortly thereafter the firm reached out to Assange to try to secure the emails in hopes of using them against Clinton. The firm also collected data to help target voters from around 230 million Americans. the campaign paid CA over $5 million in September 2016, in addition to other payments. But now campaign and White House officials are claiming CA had little or nothing to do with the campaign victory. Campaign executive director Michael Glassner says in a statement that the only source of information that helped the campaign came from the Republican National Committee. "Leading into the election, the RNC had invested in the most sophisticated data targeting program in modern American in history, which helped secure our victory in the fall," Glassner says. "We were proud to have worked with the RNC and its data experts and relied on them as our main source for data analytics. We as a campaign made the choice to rely on the voter data of the Republican National Committee to help elect President Donald J. Trump. Any claims that voter data from any other source played a key role in the victory are false." Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale agrees, telling the Wall Street Journal that the $5 million payment to CA in the campaign's reporting is erroneous. Parscale is the one who hired CA, in part at the urging of Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon, who at the time was the vice president of CA's board. Bannon joined the campaign shortly thereafter, and for a time served as chief strategist in the Trump White House. (Business Insider)

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— 2018 —

February 4, 2018: #ReleaseTheMemo Hashtag Dominated Twitter Due to Russian Bots, Fanatical Trump Supporters Gaming System

Information warfare expert Molly McKew, who advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's government from 2009-13 and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014-15, writes a detailed analysis about how Russian "bots" combined with deep-dyed Trump fans to push the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag to the top of Twitter and Facebook. The article is bolstered by research from the social media intelligence group New Media Frontier.

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McKew begins by asserting that the vote to release the Nunes memo was "the culmination of a targeted, 11-day information operation that was amplified by computational propaganda techniques and aimed to change both public perceptions and the behavior of American lawmakers. And it worked. By the time the memo got to the president, its release was a foregone conclusion – even before he had read it." Computation propaganda, which she defines as "the use of information and communication technologies to manipulate perceptions, affect cognition, and influence behavior," has "been used, successfully, to manipulate the perceptions of the American public and the actions of elected officials. [The] campaign was fueled by, and likely originated from, computational propaganda. It is critical that we understand how this was done and what it means for the future of American democracy." The #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag erupted on Twitter on January 18, a day before the media began writing about the memo and the possibility it would be released. Over the next few days, McKew writes, the hashtag and its accompanying posts went from being merely a marker for discussion of the memo into "multiple iterations of an expanding conspiracy theory about missing FBI text messages and imaginary secret societies plotting internal coups against the president." The hashtag "provided an organizational framework for this comprehensive conspiracy theory, which, in its underpinnings, is meant to minimize and muddle concerns about Russian interference in American politics." So many identified Russian bots – automated Twitter accounts designed to promote pro-Russian and pro-Trump issues and discussions, many known to be part of Russian disinformation efforts – began promoting the hashtag that Democrats on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees wrote to Twitter and Facebook asking them to determine whether the hashtag was being driven by Russian accounts. Twitter released a report saying the hashtag was an "organic" American campaign linked to "Republican" accounts. McKew writes that regardless of the origin of the accounts promoting the hashtag, the campaign to #ReleaseTheMemo "is computational propaganda – meaning artificially amplified and targeted for a specific purpose – and it dominated political discussions in the United States for days." The hashtag campaign went from nothing to a dominant position on Twitter within hours, making it impossible to ignore. The "fake news" discussions, McKew writes, miss the point. The disinformation campaigns are not just about spreading false information, but are about changing the behavior of the consumer.

Origins

On the afternoon of January 18, multiple Republican Congressional members began tweeting about the Nunes memo. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) appeared on Fox Business just before 4pm that day and gave an interview about the memo. The hashtag itself was not mentioned by Gaetz or his colleagues. The hashtag first appeared in a post by Twitter user "underthemoraine" five minutes after Gaetz's appearance on Fox. The account also tags Donald Trump's Twitter account. The "underthemoraine" account has been restricted by Twitter for "unusual activity." McKew believes "underthemoraine" is a real person, a Michigan resident who regularly posts about conservative issues and the latest conspiracy theories. She writes that the account has a very small number of followers, but "is followed by several accounts that are probable bots as well as by the verified account of the Michigan Republican Party," whose account used the hashtag before 6am the next morning. The Michigan GOP account probably auto-follows other accounts that engage with it, McKew says, making it a likely resource for Russian bots. Minutes after the Moraine account posts the hashtag, a probable Russian bot account called "KARYN19138585" promotes the hashtag, citing the Moraine account. The KARYN account was registered in 2012, and was nearly dormant between July 2012 and November 2013 except for a few posts deriding President Obama and praising the GOP. The account stopped posting entirely until June 2016, the time period identified by the FBI as when Russian operations designed to sabotage the US elections were at their height. KARYN began tweeting more and more frequently, and by October 11 the account was issuing dozens of posts a day, including links to YouTube officials and directly to political officials and media figures. It replied very frequently to posts by the Trump team and related journalists. The content was almost entirely political. In October, KARYN was tweeting on a near-hourly basis about radical Islam, Bill Clinton's multiple alleged affairs, and WikiLeaks – three of the most heavily promoted issues being farmed by Russian disinformation accounts. KARYN spent little time promoting Trump by this point; like the Russians, it focused almost entirely on attacking Clinton. After November 9, when Trump won the election, KARYN went almost entirely silent. McKew determines that "KARYN is a bot – a bot that follows a random Republican guy in Michigan with 70-some followers. Why?" She answers: "Bots both gather and disseminate information – the 'gathering' part is important, and rarely discussed. So, let's say KARYN was created, abandoned (as many fake accounts often are), and then reactivated and 'slaved' to an effort to smear Clinton online. Why would a bot account follow some nobody in Michigan? It would be fair to say that if you were setting up accounts to track views representative of a Trump-supporter, [the Moraine acount] would be a pulse to keep a finger on – the virtual Michigan 'man in the diner' or 'taxi driver' that journalists are forever citing as proof of conversations with real, nonpolitical humans in swing states. KARYN follows hundreds of such accounts, plus conservative media, and a lot of other bots." KARYN was the third Twitter account to use the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag, triggering a wave of automated bot networks to pick up and retweet the hashtag.

"Make It Trend"

The second was "well_in_usa," almost certainly another Russian bot account. (The account's posts have almost all been deleted.) Like KARYN, it promoted a gush of anti-Clinton content before the election, and went largely silent until it began retweeting the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag. Well's tweets targeted Matt Gaetz's Twitter account as well as Fox News reporters and other far-right conservative pundits such as Bill Mitchell. "This was, primarily, what the Well account did – retweet and reply to accounts with hashtags included, marking them into messaging campaigns," McKew writes. "Well is engaging and directing traffic to a specific group of accounts on specific discussions. These accounts often have short shelf lives, appearing as needed and disappearing when their usefulness has passed (or once flagged by Twitter)." The fourth account to push the hashtag is "Queen Covfefe," a real Trump supporter in South Carolina. She routinely bombards Twitter with some 65 tweets a day, every day, a similar level as the average Russian disinformation bot. She retweeted the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag hundreds of times in a single day, and routinely retweets "Follow this for a follow back!" lists, many of which contain bot accounts. Her work, like many others, is about what McKew calls "network, echo chamber, fake influence and amplification." Queen, a more prominent Trump supporting account called "Stonewall Jackson" (which may be a bot), and others began pushing the hashtag around 6pm, urging one another and others to "make it trend." McKew writes: "These accounts are organizers and amplifiers. Technically, they both probably qualify as 'cyborgs' – accounts with 'human conductors' that are partly automated and linked to networks that automatically amplify content." McKew calls Queen "a willing human bot," having her account set to automatically repost content with selected hashtags and memes, and working deliberately to game Twitter to "make things trend." McKew writes: "She may be a real person with real beliefs in Trump and what he represents, but when she tweets hundreds of times over the course of a week using #releasethememo, while artificially enhancing her followers (using the 'follow-back' lists, etc.) and exhorting others to amplify the hashtag, she is just as much an element of computational propaganda against the American public as a Russian bot."

Bots, Trolls and Cyborgs

McKew says the results of analysis show that most of the early promoters of the hashtag meet the criteria for what she calls "bot/troll/cyborg suspicion." The accounts post and repost tweets featuring the same keywords, emojis (usually American flags at the end of the name), specific numbers or numerical patterns associated with bots, names changed to hashtags, and quick shifts between reliable right-wing topics such as Benghazi, the NFL, boycott, the Nunes memo, and the Clinton emails. "There is little chance an organic or incidental community, even of friends or acquaintances, would look this way online so holistically, tweeting together in such tight intervals," she notes. Some of the accounts involved in the early promotion of the hashtag have now been suspended or restricted. Many of the accounts used were newly created, with many of them disappearing after the hashtag appeared. It's conclusive that the #releasethememo hashtag was "carried forward by automated accounts overnight after it begins to trend. It continued to do so from its appearance until the memo was released."

Targeting

The hashtag tweets may not have reached the sheer volume of the tweets promoting or commenting on massive nationwide events such as January 2018's Women's March or an NFL playoff game, but they didn't need to. Instead, they targeted prominent Trump supporters in Congress as well as Trump himself. Representatives Jim Jordan (R-OH), Steve King (R-IA), Mark Meadows (R-NC), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY), and others among the loudest of Trump's Congressional supporters were bombarded almost from the outset with the hashtag, augmented by reposts from "amplifier" accounts of far-right propaganda also inundating the targeted Republicans. The purpose is not just to "game" Twitter's algorithms and get the hashtag trending, but to get the attention and the cooperation of the targeted lawmakers. Zeldin was one of the first to respond, and among the most frequent tweeters/retweeters. (He first tweeted #releasethememo just before 8:30pm that same night, less than five hours after its creation. Shortly thereafter, prominent verified alt-right and far-right pundits and other figures began posting the hashtag after Zeldin posted it. WikiLeaks joined the fray before 10pm. Before midnight, King, Meadows and Gaetz had all tweeted the hashtag, as did Fox News pundit and host Laura Ingraham, who has over 2 million followers. By that point, the hashtag was being repeated 250,000 per hour. By 3am, Mitchell reposted a Breitbart article about the hashtag trending. "The hashtag had become the organizing framework for multiple stories and lanes of activity, focusing them into one column, which got a big boost from right-stream media and twitter personalities." When Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) spoke in favor of releasing the memo, his Twitter account had received over 225,000 messages featuring the hashtag. Trump was influenced by some of the congressmen whose Twitter accounts were being inundated with hashtagged posts, as was Trump's favorite Fox pundit, Sean Hannity, who soon became one of the hashtag's loudest promoters.

Conclusion

Campaigns like the Twitter hashtag offensive work because no one is effectively countering them, McKew writes. It is beyond belief for Twitter and Facebook to act as if they have no idea this is happening, or how they might curtail it. She writes that "modern Russian propaganda is highly effective because so many diverse messaging elements are so highly integrated. Far-right elements in the United States have learned to emulate this strategy, and have used it effectively with their own computational propaganda tactics – as demonstrated by the 'Twitter rooms' and documented alt-right bot-nets pushing a pro-Trump narrative." McKew is not so much worried about the "fake news" meme campaign as she is the more aggressive "information warfare" being waged on social media. Russians and far-right propagandists are working together, deliberately or not, to skew perceptions away from reality and towards their own "alternate" fact schema. The massive effort to game Twitter and push the #releasethememo hashtag was stunningly successful, McKew writes. It isn't clear how much of the effort was American and how much was Russian. What is clear is that the campaign pushed public awareness of the Nunes memo to the very forefront of the political discussion. "[S]omeone is trying to manipulate us," she writes, "tech companies are proving hopelessly unable or unwilling to police the bad actors manipulating their platforms, and politicians are either clueless about what to do about computational propaganda or – in the case of #releasethememo – are using it to achieve their goals. Americans are on their own. And, yes, that also reinforces the narrative the Russians have been pushing since 2015: You're on your own; be angry, and burn things down. Would that a leader would step into this breech, and challenge the advancing victory of the bots and the cynical people behind them." (Politico)

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A year after it should have become an indisputable fact that Russia launched a sophisticated, lucky, daring, aggressive campaign against the American public, we're as exposed and vulnerable as we ever were – if not more so, because now so many tools we might have sharpened to aid us in this fight seem blunted and discarded by the very people who should be honing their edge. There is no leadership. No one is building awareness of how these automated influence campaigns are being used against us. Maybe everyone still thinks if they are the one to control it, then they win, and they'll do it better, more ethically. For example, by using it to achieve a political goal like releasing the Nunes memo. — Molly McKew