Call me skeptical.
I don’t believe that Facebook won the election for Donald Trump. That’s the claim put forth in this hagiographic profile of Jared Kushner in Forbes and in many other media outlets.
The traditional campaign is dead, another victim of the unfiltered democracy of the Web–and Kushner, more than anyone not named Donald Trump, killed it.
We see these stories every time a new president is elected. A while back it was Obama’s “data crunchers.” This time, the key to Trump’s victory, Kushner would like us to believe, were computer algorithms that targeted potential Trump supporters with social media to stunning effect.
The secret weapon was Cambridge Analytica’s computer algorithms that figure out who you are based and what motivates you based on all the times you click Like on Facebook, as Cambridge Analytica’s Jack Hansom explains in this video:
These algorithms turned up some surprising findings. Liking the New Orleans Saints mean you’re less likely to be “conscientious,” i.e. do the right thing. And liking the Energizer Bunny means you’re more likely to be neurotic.
So what? Well, one or two of these things don’t tell you much, but the average person has hundreds of Facebook Likes which allows Hansom and his colleagues to build a surprisingly accurate picture of your personality. You can test this on yourself here.
Facebook allows you to drill down to the kind of person in the kind of place you want. (You can even reach “Jew haters” in Idaho if you wish.) Here’s Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix showing how his company’s model could be used to drill down to find every “persuadable” gun rights advocate in Iowa:
It’s very impressive (and very creepy), and it makes for a good story, one that Silicon Valley loves in an everybody-is-stupid-except-for-me way.
But the problem with the claim that Kushner and his machine learning wizardry won the election for Trump is that everybody was doing it. Hillary Clinton had a team of mathematicians and analysts crunching data. Ted Cruz had hired Cambridge Analytica as well, but then he ran into the Trump train.
I may be wrong, but I’d wager the $1.8 billion worth of free airtime that TV networks gave Trump every time he opened his trap probably had a lot more to do with him winning the election than Cambridge Analytica.
Trump knows how to get on TV: He is a promotional genius. What will he say next? He’s a modern day PT Barnum and Jeff Zucker‘s CNN couldn’t get enough.
Setting that aside, the Facebook/Jared Kushner story is still pretty important. And what’s important about it is that Special Counsel Robert Mueller thinks it’s pretty important. Facebook may not have won Trump the election, but it may seriously damage his presidency.
CNN reported Sunday that Mueller, who’s investigating Trump’s links to Russia, had served Facebook with a search warrant. Mueller was interested in the $100,000 worth of ads purchased by bogus accounts that Facebook on Sept. 6 acknowledged had “likely operated out of Russia.”
Mueller’s search warrant for Facebook is a big deal, a former federal prosecutor explains:
Mueller would have had to show the judge that there was reason to believe that one or more foreign individuals committed a crime and the evidence of the crime could be found on Facebook’s servers.
The crime is that foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing money “or other thing of value” (like $100,000 worth of Facebook ads) in connection with an election. It’s also against the law to solicit, accept, or receive such a contribution. (Here is the statute.) And if someone on the Trump campaign knew about the Russian Facebook ads and did nothing to stop it, that is also a crime — aiding and abetting.
Did someone on the Trump campaign know about the Russian Facebook ads. We don’t know yet, but the answer lies in targeting. To put it in Watergate terms: Who targeted whom and when?
Were the Russian Facebook ads and the Trump campaign targeting the same people? And if so, how did a bunch of Russian trolls in St. Petersburg or Vladivostok or where ever know to target, say, black women in Milwaukee or rural voters in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for example?
I tried to ask Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, but didn’t get a reply.
This question intrigues Sen. Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, as he said on the Pod Save America podcast:
Warner: When you see some of the explanation and some of the fact that it appears that, for example, women and African Americans were targeted in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, where the Democrats were too brain dead to realize those states were even in play … It was interesting that those states seem to be targeted where the bots — where they could could create a lot of these fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, could in fact overwhelm the targeted search engines that would end up saying on your news feed, you suddenly got stuff that “Hillary Clinton’s sick” or “Hillary Clinton’s stealing money from the State Department.”
I get the fact that the Russian intel services could figure out how to manipulate and use the bots. Whether they could know how to target states and levels of voters that the Democrats weren’t even aware really raises some questions. I think that’s a worthwhile area of inquiry.
How did they know to go to that level of detail in those kinds of jurisdictions?
Vietor : I wonder if they just asked Jared [Kushner] like Trump does with all of his questions. We’ll find out.
Warner : We’ll find out. More to come on that.
Sen. Warner thinks it’s a worthwhile line of inquiry, and it’s a good bet Mueller does too. The information Facebook handed over to Mueller included the targeting criteria the bogus Russian accounts used, The Wall Street Journal reported.
An unnamed Trump campaign staffer told CNN that the key to the whole inquiry may be found on Facebook’s servers.
Only Facebook can answer three critical questions: were the same databases used by the Trump campaign and Russian operatives to coordinate targeting of voters; was money used to promote pro-Trump posts, and, if so, how much was spent and by whom; and will Facebook reveal if bots were successfully used to push fake news posts?
Hopefully, Robert Mueller knows the answers.