Tip of the Iceberg

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December 28, 2018 1:39 p.m.

That story out of Alabama raises an important question. Once we have figured out just the scope of what Russia was doing in the 2016 election cycle (and going forward) we need to grapple with the fact that there are lots of entities offering and already providing these services to the highest bidder. The fact that Russia’s 2016 operation was mounted by a hostile foreign government coordinating with the beneficiary campaign is a huge, central issue. But it’s not the only issue.

If you’ve followed the Trump/Russia story closely you’ll no doubt have seen that there are a number of these companies hovering in the background of the story. They are in most cases private digital surveillance and propaganda/influence services, usually staffed or founded by ex-intelligence officers selling their services to the highest bidder.

Rick Gates got a proposal from an Israeli company for such a campaign in 2016. The same company, Psy-Group, was part of an offer of election assistance from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, via their intermediary George Nader later in the fall of 2016. The Saudis meanwhile had already been hoovering up expertise in cyberwarfare from various private companies to use in their own operations, many of which targeted people like Jamal Khashoggi. Then of course there was Cambridge Analytica, which in addition to its campaign work and social media shenanigans was, at least in other developing countries, doing similar, often illegal, work.

A lot of these offers and operations are difficult to disentangle from the larger Russian influence campaign. Indeed, the ones tied to the Saudis and Emiratis appear to have been clearly combined, with Gulf state monarchies working in an alliance of convenience with other enemies of Barack Obama and then-candidate Hillary Clinton, namely Russia. But that’s not really the point. The point is that these operations are out there and already selling their services to various autocracies, both to control their own populations and shape opinion in the United States, as well as to US individuals and corporations for the same purpose.

The Supreme Court’s current thinking on money as speech make these activities more or less impossible to combat through election and campaign finance law. But I think it’s fair to say even the older frameworks provide little obvious path toward doing so. Our legal and regulatory models are based on seriously outmoded ideas of what constitutes media, how clearly domiciled in the US media operations are and even what constitutes campaigning.

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