It’s no longer difficult to believe that Donald Trump’s data and research team, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Cambridge Analytica, helped the Russians use Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms to target American voters last year. In fact, that possibility is sure to be one focus of Robert Mueller’s relentless Russiagate inquiry.
With the indictment and house arrest of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, and Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy and business partner, Mueller’s special-counsel investigation is drawing closer to the White House. And, because of Manafort’s tangled ties to Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs, it draws Mueller closer to the question of whether there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. Even more interestingly, Mueller has reached a plea agreement with George Papadopoulos, a member of Trump’s foreign-policy team in 2016, who reported to then-Senator Jeff Sessions, now the US attorney general. For months last year, according to Mueller’s legal filing, Papadopoulos maintained contact with a range of Russians, who promised to deliver “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails.” And Papadopoulos discussed all this—including his efforts to arrange a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin—with top campaign officials, including at least once in the presence of Trump himself.
Russia’s use of social-media and other Internet resources was extensive during the 2016 US election. Evidence uncovered so far indicates that the Russians sought to stir up and exacerbate racial, religious, and political divisions in a manner designed to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign. As I reported in Part I, executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google will appear jointly on November 1 at an open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), as several members of Congress are backing legislation to regulate Internet political advertising.
But if we know, at least in rudimentary form, what the Russian-backed bots and trolls did last year, we don’t know yet whether or not they had help. In the opinion of the two senators leading the SSCI investigation, it’s an open question as to whether there was collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. But many wonder: How did the Russians know when and where to place their ads, whom to target, and which voters might be persuadable?