The common refrain floating around Washington argues that Russian operatives hoping to target American voters with fake news about Hilary Clinton would need someone on the inside—like, say, a Trump campaign staffer—to tell them which voters to target. Representative Adam Schiff raised the prospect in a widely-shared McClatchy article published Wednesday, which reported that the team led by Robert Mueller, the Department of Justice-appointed special counsel, is investigating ties between the Trump digital operation and Russia. Senator Mark Warner made a similar suggestion in an interview with Pod Save America recently, asking if the Russians could, on their own, “know how to target states and levels of voters” that Democrats weren’t even targeting. It’s a question worth asking, certainly. But the answer may be far simpler—and less fishy—than Warner, Schiff, or the many Americans seeking a smoking gun in the Russian meddling investigation might expect. It also may be even more worrisome. One of the most alarming parts of this story is that in this day and age, bad actors wouldn’t even need a mole to launch a pointed propaganda campaign. The fact is, targeting voters with propaganda isn’t that hard.
“It’s easier than ever for anyone with an agenda to promote news, and the targeting is the least important part of it,” says Andrew Bleeker, president of Bully Pulpit Interactive, which ran Clinton’s digital advertising. “It’s not like it’s a real secret we had to win Cleveland or Detroit.” In other words, there’s nothing preventing a Russian actor or anyone else from reading the news and understanding the American electorate, and thanks to readily available digital tools, targeting that electorate is simple.
Voter rolls in most states are either readily (legally) downloadable or purchasable. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter make it easy for anyone to buy and target ads to narrow audiences. The country’s campaign finance laws don’t hold digital platforms to the same standard as television or radio when it comes to disclosing who’s paying for campaign ads. And for-profit publishers of fake news can easily promote their political stories to target audiences based on things like location, interests, age, and gender without even registering as a political organization. Taken together, this creates a sort of wild west in which anyone can spread misinformation far and wide, with or without a campaign’s input.
“I don’t think you necessarily need to be a campaign insider to identify voters to target,” says Adam Sharp, who ran news, government, and election operations for Twitter through the 2016 election before starting his own consulting firm. “I think that’s a leap.”