In recent months, we have learned much about how successful the Trump campaign was in micro-targeting voters in crucial swing states. In the waning days of the 2016 campaign, especially, Trump’s data team knew exactly which voters in which states they needed to persuade on Facebook and Twitter and precisely what messages to use. The question is: How did the Russians know this, too? Last week, it was reported that both Congressional investigators and the FBI are now exploring whether Russian operatives were guided in their efforts by Trump’s digital team, and the House Intelligence Committee has invited Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale, to testify. Largely ignored in this discussion, however, is another possibility: that the Russians themselves, through their hacking of Democratic Party records, was supplying crucial information to the digital team.
According to its own account, Trump’s digital team, which was run by Parscale and overseen by Jared Kushner, used standard marketing tools, especially Facebook’s, to target voters in the rust belt states that decided the election. The team’s algorithms and models, which were developed by the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, were essential to this effort. Using data culled from its database of 5,000 bits of personal information—such as religious affiliation, gun ownership, and buying habits—on 220 million Americans, Cambridge Analytica was able to determine where Trump had the best chances to motivate people who typically didn’t vote, where Clinton’s support among legacy Democrats was weak, and where the candidate himself should show up, especially in the last days of the campaign.
This granular view of the electorate apparently gave the Trump digital team the edge it needed to win the election. In April, when Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke on the popular podcast “Pod Save America,” he wondered aloud if the Trump team’s data could have been passed along to the Russians, given what he called their ability “to target states and levels of voters that the Democrats weren’t even aware of” with their social media propaganda. This followed Warner’s comments during a rare open session of the intelligence committee where he was unequivocal that Russian agents had “interfered in the election by [employing] thousands of paid Internet trolls and botnets [networks of computers running bots] to push out information and fake news.”