Stealing an election

If you followed the U.S. presidential campaign in 2016, you probably became aware of reports of Russian interference.

Maybe you heard about twitterbots, hacked emails, stolen voter rolls, or fake news. Talk about examples of technology being used for nefarious purposes.

In light of that, let me go one step further: our current president and his campaign colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Controversial? Maybe, but here’s how I think they did it:

  • By using stolen Facebook profiles and hacked voter databases from swing states
  • By micro-targeting those voters with carefully crafted fake news; and
  • By reinforcing that fake news in rallies and on television

If you’re the Trump campaign, and you can get enough disillusioned Bernie supporters, millennials (particularly women), and African-Americans in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and other swing states to either not vote or to vote for someone other than Hillary, you could win the election.

Remember, Trump really turned the election in his favor by winning three states that had previously been solid blue: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. And he won those states by a combined tally of 107,000 votes. Had Hillary Clinton won those states, she would be our president.

Now, if Trump and his campaign accomplished their goal of turning those blue states by cooperating with a coordinated Russian-led hacking scheme, that’s collusion with a foreign power to disrupt the American democratic process.

That’s certainly an impeachable offense. It may even be treason. At the very least, it makes Trump an illegitimate president.

You might very well say that the accusation of actual collusion is far-fetched, unbelievable, incredible, and, at the very least, impossible to prove. On the last point, you might be right.

We don’t have all the evidence yet—the smoking gun. But, damn if there isn’t a lot of circumstantial evidence out there that, to my eye, looks very convincing. And who knows what evidence the FBI is currently sitting on?

Let’s look at what we do know.

Russian angle

On January 6 of this year, the CIA, NSA, and FBI released a declassified report that concluded that the Russian government actively interfered with the 2016 presidential campaign. The report stated in part:

We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.

On March 20 of this year, James Comey, FBI director, testified in an open hearing of the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI was investigating whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow while Russia was interfering in the presidential election. Typically, when the FBI opens an investigation, there’s probable cause to do so.

Just this week, it was reported that Vladimir Putin ordered a Russian think tank to develop a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system.

So there’s a preponderance of evidence of Russia’s interference in our election, and at the very least, the possibility of collusion by the Trump campaign.

Stolen data

As anyone on Facebook knows, the social media site became a hotbed of political polarization during the recent presidential campaign. What if that polarization was further stimulated by outside forces?

It’s been reported that millions of Facebook profiles were obtained over the last few years without the users in question knowing or approving it. See here and here for examples.

We also know that a large segment of the Facebook membership is made up of fake accounts (as reported here).

In fact, it was reported just last week that Facebook was working to shut down over 30,000 accounts that the company said were purveyors of spam and fake news.

Could someone have used those legitimate Facebook profiles to pinpoint gender, race, political views, and so on, and organize those users into categories of potential voters? Could that someone also have used fake Facebook accounts to mirror those user categories, sharing out carefully crafted fake news stories?

Micro-targeting

Whether related or not, it was also reported some months ago that voter rolls were hacked in Illinois, Arizona, and other states, including Pennsylvania, a key swing state.

Match voters up with their Facebook profiles, and you can imagine how those people could be targeted with very specific fake news on Facebook that might impact how they would vote in the election.

The Trump campaign was reported back in August 2016 to be working with a company called Cambridge Analytica, which claims to be able to target voters based on their unconscious psychological biases.

Wikipedia describes the company this way:

Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a privately held company that combines data mining and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process. It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company SCL Group to participate in American politics. In 2014, CA was involved in 44 U.S. political races. The company is heavily funded by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund billionaire.

If you are not familiar with the name Robert Mercer, you should be. He is a billionaire hedge fund manager who made large donations to the Trump campaign. He is also the force behind Breitbart, the far-right (some call fascist) “news” organization of which Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategy advisor was previously managing editor.

Mercer was also the primary benefactor of the conservative superPAC, Make America Number 1, which also heavily supported the Trump candidacy.

The puzzle pieces begin to fall into place.

Fake news

It’s been well documented that fake news was widespread and widely shared on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere online during the presidential campaign. See here and here for examples.

From a technological standpoint, it’s arguable that the dissemination of information on the Internet and through social media plays a role in how we view the world.

Whether that information was leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee or fake news carefully targeted at millions of potential voters with certain psychological biases, the effect could have been significant.

Given the sheer volume, fake news became a weapon and, arguably, made a difference in who is sitting in the White House this very day.

I could spend time on the hacking and choreographed release of the DNC and John Podesta’s emails during the campaign. But I won’t other than to remind you of that time during the campaign when Donald Trump said, “WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks!” That was pretty surreal. In fact, Trump mentioned WikiLeaks 164 times during his campaign.

The leaks were real news and, although somewhat embarrassing for the DNC and the Clinton campaign, no illegal activity was revealed. And the tactic of releasing private emails was highly publicized, if controversial.

But fake news? That was kept on the down low as the campaign unfolded. After all, if the existence and impact of fake news was widely reported before the election, maybe people would have been more aware and less likely to be affected by it.

Reinforcing the message

Aside from Donald Trump’s declaration of love for WikiLeaks, it’s important to note that he was very vocal during his many campaign rallies in support of the misinformation that was disseminated by so-called Russian active measures.

During his testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent, said that Trump actually strengthened the fake news that came out by repeating it at rallies and on TV.

“Part of the reason that (Russian) active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the Commander-in-Chief has used (these) active measures at times against his own opponents,” Watts told the committee. “They (Trump and his campaign staff) parrot the same lines (as the fake news).”

Watts cited specific dates when fake news was disseminated, directly followed by Trump and his staff repeating the falsehoods as fact. This is arguably more than coincidence.

Getting to collusion

Anyone following this story closely would probably agree that the House and Senate investigations into Russiagate are moving at a snail’s pace. Some would argue that their Republican chairmen are purposely stonewalling, and there are articles (see here and here) that support this viewpoint.

American citizens who want to know the truth might have to hang their hats on the FBI investigation. There are reports of the FBI having obtained a FISA warrant on at least one of Trump’s campaign staff, Carter Page.

FISA warrants usually indicate probable cause of crimes having been committed, and those crimes are typically related to espionage or terrorism. We don’t know all the facts about who and what the warrant or warrants cover, but clearly this is serious stuff.

Still, it’s troubling to consider that this investigation could take months, even years, to complete. Watergate took 27 months, and we know how that ended.

For me, the prospect of 27 more months of Trump is depressing, but I remain hopeful that the facts will emerge and that the appropriate punishments will be meted out.

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