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In the constant flood of Trump news, there’s one development campaign professionals should keep their eye on: the Russia investigation now involves the digital arm of the winning 2016 presidential campaign.
Investigators want answers from Jared Kushner (who oversaw his father-in-law's online campaign) and Trump digital director Brad Parscale about any possible connection with Russia's work to interfere with the 2016 election. Parscale agreed to meet with the House Intelligence Committee, though I haven't seen any follow-up to date. In a statement last month, Parscale said he was “unaware of any Russian involvement in the digital and data operation” in the Trump campaign.
Investigators are looking at any potential campaign involvement in Russian distribution of stolen Democratic emails and other documents, including anything related to the now-famous campaign meeting involving a Russian lawyer. Another topic on the House committee's mind: whether Trump's campaign passed targeting data to the Russian bot nets that were trashing Hillary Clinton on social media.
For most consultants, the concept of illegal coordination would normally come up in a different context. Because of limits in U.S. campaign finance laws, campaigns can't work with "independent expenditure" groups — officially, anyway. Not everyone follows the rules, though, and strategic information is sometimes tossed over the firewall. In Trump’s case, the supposed collaborator would be foreign rather than domestic, but the techniques could be similar. Investigators will surely look for evidence more subtle than an email announcing dirt from a foreign government on a political rival.
One potential angle? Data and targeting information left online for someone to find, perhaps sitting in the open behind an unprotected (but unpublicized) URL or IP number. We’ve seen this story before with other kinds of campaign assets, most famously when long clips of high-quality, TV-friendly Mitch McConnell b-roll video turned up online and got the Daily Show treatment.
Campaign data wanders online surprisingly frequently, too, often without clear signs of who put it there. For example, a national voter file popped up on a bare IP number late in 2015, and a huge trove of voter data sat out in the open for two weeks in June of this year. The firm responsible for the latter incident, Deep Root Analytics, owned up to it—blaming it on human error. But how often does someone let it all hang out on purpose?
An organization trying to help a campaign by targeting content via a bot or orthodox content-promotion wouldn't need something as elaborate as a full voter file, in any case. Trump’s campaign made a point of aiming Facebook content at specific slices of the electorate, and a simple spreadsheet of counties or zip codes and demographic parameters would allow outside actors to hit the same voters with positive or negative messages.
Investigators apparently want to see if anyone outside the Trump campaign used Facebook audiences directly created by the campaign, but independent groups could get the same results just by knowing the targeting model.
What does this twist in the Trump-Russia story mean for campaign professionals? For a start, cyber security cannot be an afterthought. I’ve heard from digital folks on the Democratic side that “spear-phishing” and other hacks are definitely rising this year, and even local campaigns should pay close attention. Change those passwords early and often, and enable two-factor authentication for machines and accounts. No more campaign-wide login credentials.
Returning to the question of coordination, the big question is whether investigators find direct evidence of collusion between Trump campaign staff and consultants and Russian attempts to interfere with the elections. If they do, we may see watchdogs and regulators pay more attention to wink-wink connections between campaigns and home-grown IE groups, and possibly a push for new rules to limit the potential abuse. Russian election-hacking leading to U.S. campaign finance reform? In 2017, anything seems possible.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org