Here’s a question I’d like your help with. Some questions are so sprawling and broad there’s no better way to get started than to canvass TPM Readers. So here goes. One of Trump supporters’ zanier pushbacks has been this argument: In 2008 when Barack Obama was way ahead of the curve using the Internet to run a political campaign, it was treated as an example of how smart he was. When Donald Trump did the same thing in 2016, it was treated as an example of him doing something wrong.
That’s silly on a few different levels, since in most cases the discussions are about things the Trump campaign did that were either illegal or unethical. But I wonder if there’s something to it in this particular way.
To pose the question, let’s set aside for a moment whether these things were proper or ethical. We’ll come back to that. But to frame the question, we first need to set it aside. A recurrent theme with the Trump campaign is social media expertise derived not from the tech world (or at least the public facing parts of it) or consumer research but rather intelligence work, specifically people coming out of military intelligence or civilian intelligence agencies.
We know about Cambridge Analytica, which was an offshoot of a British defense contractor. Then there was Joel Zamel. He’s the Israeli social media expert with the company PSY Group and a slew of other companies who came into the Trump circle through George Nader. The reporting to date suggests he did social media work on behalf of the Trump campaign which was paid for by the United Arab Emirates. (The reporting remains fuzzy on whether these plans were fully executed.) Then there’s this Bloomberg article I’ve been writing about today with what seems like a voter suppression effort targeting black voters. In that case, we have Jon Iadonisi, a former Navy Seal and CIA contractor with firms selling “military-grade influencer marketing and intelligence services”
Before going further, there’s an important caveat: “Military-grade influencer marketing” may just be marketing BS for services that are no more effective than the services from the Facebook consultant who’s a friend of your cousin. Who knows whether this stuff worked. But in personnel terms these firms all seemed to employ people from intelligence services. We know that intelligence agencies around the world have invested billions of dollars over the last two decades finding ways to use the internet and information campaigns to support military operations, whether that’s in Iraq and Afghanistan or in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states or the various places Israel operates. This is part of an ancient pattern: technologies and techniques devised for and honed abroad, in wars or colonies, migrate back to the home-front or imperial metropole.
So let’s start with the question. Are intelligence methodologies and ex-intelligence personnel now ubiquitous in political work? Did the 2016 Clinton team just miss this whole new arsenal at a campaign’s disposal? Was the Trump campaign playing in this space all on their own? Or was this just as prevalent on the Democratic side. Or maybe for all the ‘military’ lingo and ex-intel operatives, it’s really just the same stuff ad gurus out of consumer marketing and traditional political campaigns do?
Of course, we’re not touching on another key issue: Maybe the Democrats didn’t touch this stuff because a lot of it seemed unethical and potentially illegal. Just as important, it seems quite possible like at least some of this work may have dovetailed or even be aligned with the actual intelligence operation run out of Russia. One of the things the Mueller investigators are reportedly interested in about Joel Zamel is that he also has longstanding ties to Oleg Deripaska, the Putin-aligned oligarch who Paul Manafort owed $20 million to. But before we can answer that question, the narrowly factual one needs to be addressed. Was the Trump campaign the only campaign making active use of these resources? Or is this a trend that was as much in evidence in Democratic campaigns?
If you’re knowledgable in this area, drop me a line and tell me what you know.