Facebook should be treated like a crime scene. The social media company likely has troves of data that could provide critical leads for the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
The effort to investigate possible coordination between the Trump team and Russia has so far centered on the growing number of meetings and interactions between the campaign and Kremlin-linked figures.
These meetings already tell us a lot about intent. For instance, with the revelation of the June 9 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr.; Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law; Paul Manafort, the chairman of the Trump campaign at the time, and a handful of Russians with various ties to the Kremlin, we now know that at the very least the Trump campaign at the highest levels were interested in workingwith the Russians during the election.
And likewise, from the Jan. 6 Intelligence Community report, we know that Russians also wanted to help elect Donald Trump and effectively set up a campaign to do so. This meant there were essentially two campaigns to elect Trump president in 2016: the Trump campaign and the Russian campaign.
Knowing these two efforts were open, if not eager, to work together, the question then becomes: Did they and to what end ?
In other words, what were they meeting about?
In trying to investigate this question, it is worth thinking through how a campaign could benefit from working with a foreign power.
One, now well-explored, area would be utilizing foreign intelligence capabilities for “opposition research.” As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) explained at a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, “Imagine being able to do [opposition research] with the power of a nation state, illegally acquiring things like emails and being able to weaponize by leaking.”
This of course is what the hacking and leaking of information from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, former chairman of the Clinton campaign, is all about.
Other potential areas involve utilizing foreign cyber capabilities to hack into election machines and cause mischief at the polls. Another more basic area would be to coordinate messaging or lines of attack, with the outside power covertly advancing messages that are too controversial for the campaign.
But the most direct way a foreign power could help a campaign is through giving money. Campaigns always need more money, usually to buy more ads. While the Russians could have laundered money to the campaign – indeed Christopher Steele alleges this in his infamous dossier – they could have also just covertly bought campaign ads themselves using a front group or proxy.
Along with posting memes, the Being Patriotic page also tried to organize four rallies, according to the report. One of those was supposed to be a “patriotic state-wide flash mob” occurring simultaneously in 17 cities across Florida in support of Trump. The Daily Beast says it found evidence that at least two of those rallies materialized — Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs — and were documented on Facebook by the local campaign chair for Trump.
The Being Patriotic account reportedly had over 200,000 followers at the time it was shut down, and had tried to organize other pro-Trump or anti-Hillary events in New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. A related Twitter account also posted at least one comment promoting violence against Black Lives Matters supporters.
The Daily Beast suggests the Being Patriotic account came from the Internet Research Agency, a Russian group that US intelligence has identified as “professional trolls” funded by a “close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence.”
While this isn’t the first Facebook account that’s been publicly tied to Russian propagandists, this appears to be the first time we’re seeing Russian efforts to organize Trump supporters for physical demonstrations. That it ultimately worked, to at least some extent, shows that the propaganda campaign had real and tangible effects beyond the spread of memes.
Facebook said earlier this month that it had found evidence of Russians buying political ads during the campaign, spending $100,000 under fake accounts. That’s not a huge amount of money for Facebook, but it’s clear their work led to some results.
The Trump campaign is certainly aware of how effective targeted Facebook posts can be. BuzzFeed reported today that the president’s and vice president’s Facebook pages are paying for ads that are only visible to groups of users — likely their own supporters — that they choose to target. The ads are asking for donations.