There was something in the water going into the 2016 campaign.
A story today in the Daily Beast suggests that a company whose owner was interviewed by the special counsel simulated how a foreign power could use social media to covertly influence American politics before the 2016 presidential campaign began.
The company – Wikistrat – is owned by Israeli-Australian entrepreneur Joel Zamel, who was interviewed by special counsel prosecutors last year.
The wargaming effort yielded a report that included analysis from Wikistrat staffers on how successful such interference efforts – then speculative – might be. The Daily Beast story quotes an unnamed analyst in the report as writing that “foreign governments with a high stake in U.S. elections might be willing to hire cyber-mercenaries to influence election results.”
The concept of using mass-produced fake social media accounts to meddle in democratic processes was being discussed in many intelligence and political consulting firms at the time, the story says, calling it a “burgeoning market.”
Another, more secretive firm owned by Zamel – PsyGroup – later made a proposal to Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates on how to manipulate social media as part of the campaign’s efforts to beat Trump’s Republican primary opponents and Hillary Clinton, the New York Times reported in October.
Zamel himself appears to have cultivated connections with high-ranking Trump campaign officials during the campaign. He attended a meeting in August 2016 in Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr., Blackwater founder Erik Prince, and Middle East-U.S. relations fixer George Nader.
Prince and Nader would later meet with Russian Direct Investment Fund chief Kirill Dmitriev and an Emirati prince at a summit in the Seychelles nine days before Trump was sworn into office.
After the election, Nader reportedly paid Zamel a significant, but undisclosed sum of money. It’s unclear why the payment was made.