I’ve gotten a lot of good tips on my question about social media and Internet experts with expertise from the military intelligence and civilian intelligence agency world. Keep them coming. I wanted to give you some information I got which provides some more clarity on the question and helped me better understand the outlines of the story.
I was able to learn that by and large the assumption is correct: the Clinton 2016 campaign didn’t work with these kind of people. The same was true for Obama 2012. I was however able to learn that that there were some approaches. But they were rejected, really not even followed up on. The sense I got though was that this wasn’t a matter of any squeamishness about tactics or ethnical considerations. The reasoning didn’t even get to that point. It’s not even clear in the cases I learned about whether they even found out what the tactics were. For the 2012 and 2016 Democratic campaigns the campaigns were very confident that they had the best people in the business using the most advanced methodologies. They just weren’t interested in new consultants peddling new stuff.
This probably sounds kind of silly in retrospect. But at the time it made sense. Remember too that we don’t necessarily know how effective this stuff actually was.
But this leads me to my first takeaway, one that has many historical analogues in technological or methodological revolutions. Democrats were less receptive at least in part because they had the technology, data and staff that was the pinnacle of early 21st century American political campaign technologies. The collective experience of both parties for the first sixteen years of the 21st century led up to what they had. So why screw with what works and try something else?
On the other hand, the Trump Team had virtually no experience with modern political campaigning at all. By definition, these offers likely seemed more attractive since there were no sunk investments or seeming advantages they’d need to toss overboard to take advantage of them.
The other part of the equation is more amorphous and elusive. But I think there’s something to it. As one very knowledgable source told me, the Trump Team seemed to look at the election like one might approach one in a third world country. What exactly that phrase means needs some unpacking: one is simply more predatory and transactional, one in which very few rules apply. Or if they do apply, it doesn’t matter because you’ll either be gone by the time anyone finds out or powerful enough to withstand the blowback.
We’ve seen the stories about the work Cambridge Analytica did in Nigeria. A lot of the ways these operations work are like 21st century versions of the sort of stuff the United Fruit Company did in the mid-20th century when it got into a jam in some Central American country. The modalities are now more often privatized. A lot of the Trump story – for all the nationalist preening – is really about the global plutocracy.
Here’s one example.
In that story about Joel Zamel and George Nader meeting with Don, Jr offering the help of the Gulf princes and social media magic, the third player in the meeting was Erik Prince. Prince made his name with private paramilitaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. His most ambitious current effort is selling military know-how in China. He lives in Dubai. For all the talk about transnational cosmopolitan elites, Prince captures the real world of global plutocracy with non-states and various private entities growing in power relative to territorial states.
Prince shows up too in the story from this morning about Bruce Carter, the Blacks for Bernie guy who switched to Trump. He gets introduced to Carter along with Michael Flynn and they apparently recommended the guy who was former CIA contractor and Navy Seal for social media help. Privatized intelligence work, privatized armies – it’s all kind of the same thing. I don’t want to get too far ahead in my conjecture. But I’ve long thought that a big part of what happened in 2016 is tied to the fact that this is the Trump world: global capital, global ambitions, global rules or what often amounts to no rules.
One final point on this front. Another emailer with experience from this world noted that what Cambridge Analytica did really isn’t much different from what every campaign does and most consumer marketing campaign does today. They just had access to a deeper dataset which they stole and they were possibly collaborating in some way with Russian intelligence operatives. But a lot of Cambridge Analytica was just marketing bullshit.
I think this is only partially true. A lot of the stuff we’ve seen from Cambridge Analytica really was just the same old same old dressed up with a lot of dramatic marketing language. But in the use of fake news, bots and other more aggressive uses of cyber tools I think there was a difference, a more aggressive, offensive posture that sounds more like what intelligence agencies do.
The other part of the equation is that I don’t think this is all they did. On the margins of the Cambridge Analytica story we see lots of examples of dirty tricks and just clearly illegal acts. Intelligence operatives by definition break laws all the time. Spying itself is illegal. It goes with the territory. Most of the countries where these operatives play – whether in their native intelligence agencies or in the private sector – are ones that lack the power or state capacity to fend off or punish bad actors. There aren’t many rules and the ones there are mainly don’t matter because, as I said, there’s no one powerful enough to catch or prosecute you.
This latter point is fuzzier. But I think this is part of the story of the 2016 campaign. They approached an American election like a plutocrat or oligarch might approach one in an underdeveloped country or weak state somewhere in what we used to call the third world.