Robert Mueller’s far-reaching Russia investigation is expected to delve into one of the biggest political phenomena of the Donald Trump era — fake news.
The special counsel’s team is stacked with prosecutors and FBI agents well equipped to investigate the Moscow-connected Twitter bots and Facebook trolls that churned out campaign-related headlines boosting Trump’s candidacy. And more than a dozen sources from Congress, law enforcement and white-collar criminal cases who are familiar with such probes say the question of potential collusion between Trump’s aides and the invasive social media accounts is a crucial one.
“For sure,” former FBI agent and counterterrorism expert Clinton Watts said when asked whether Mueller’s focus would be on the Trump campaign’s potential connections to the Russia-based online activity. “Where money and connections and influence come together is where it will play out.”
“When they talk collusion that’s one of the things they’ll look at,” added a former federal prosecutor. “The question will be: Did they do that all on their own or did they do that in coordination with the blessing, with a direction or any connection, to people from the campaign?”
But Mueller — who is keeping mum on the scope of his investigation — faces a steep challenge. He has to prove that Trump’s aides and allies directly assisted the Russia-linked mischief makers, thereby running afoul of a federal law that prohibits presidential campaigns from accepting or coordinating contributions or expenditures — directly or indirectly — from foreign nationals.
“It’s hard to imagine there wasn’t some coordination on this,” said Nick Akerman, a former federal prosecutor with expertise in computer technology and fraud cases and who worked on the Watergate special task force that helped force President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
But he added, “I don’t know if we have the ability to pin this down short of finding an insider who’d detail all this stuff…I’m just not convinced it’s a very traceable sort of thing.”
Social media researchers studying the 2016 race have concluded that both real internet trolls and fake bot accounts preyed on American voters – more than 60 percent rely on social media for their political discussions – and helped create an echo chamber effect for false news stories, establishing perceived popularity, pumping up pro-Trump and anti-Clinton hashtags and even suppressing opposition.
In the weeks and months before the election, fake anti-Clinton headlines such as “Wikileaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS” and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” proliferated, as did pro-Trump headlines including “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.”
By a 5 to 1 margin, pro-Trump automated Twitter activity outnumbered similar accounts for Clinton in the days leading up to the November election, according to a post-election analysis by Philip Howard, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute. Another study by researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania found that the biggest cluster of Trump-minded bots was nearly 4 times larger than any mechanisms pumping up Clinton.
As it pursues its investigation, Mueller’s team has at its disposal the underlying assessments of the Central Intelligence Agency, FBI and National Security Agency, which in early January released a public report that stated Moscow led an “unprecedented” attack on the U.S. election blending covert hacking with open moves by state-funded Russian propaganda and paid social media users, or trolls — all in an attempt to help elect Trump.
Mueller — whose spokesman declined comment for this story — would likely take that conclusion further by examining whether the Trump campaign or his intermediaries delivered micro-targeted data to the Russian social media operators to help hone their messages, especially in critical swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Social media experts say one of the most obvious pathways for Mueller and other investigators to understand what happened in 2016 should involve the major social media companies themselves.
In May, Howard and his colleague Robert Gorwa co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post calling on the House Intelligence Committee to force Facebook’s hand and produce the underlying meta-data about any questionable accounts.
“If there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian influence operations, Facebook may be able to spot that too,” they wrote. “In many ways, massive coordinated propaganda campaigns are just another form of election interference. If Facebook has data on this, it needs to share it.”
Officials at Facebook confirmed they’ve been in touch with key congressional investigators looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who visited the company in late May at its Bay Area headquarters. But representatives from Facebook, as well as Twitter, declined to comment when asked if they’d had any interactions or were cooperating with Mueller’s special counsel team.
Brad Parscale, the Trump’s campaign’s top digital strategist, also declined to answer a series of questions about the Russia investigation, though in previous interviews with other media outlets he has insisted the Republican’s campaign didn’t pay for bots during the presidential race. Asked by Fox News in May whether he’d noticed“anything weird” on social media during the campaign, Parscale responded “absolutely not,” adding that the data Trump’s campaign had been using “directly came from the Republican National Committee.”
“The other side wants to believe this false narrative because they don’t want to believe their candidate was so bad that this was even possible,” Parscale said. “The truth is that data was already there and we just used it to beat a bad candidate with a great candidate.”
According to a CNN report from last month, the House Intelligence Committee wants to interview Parscale as part of its Russia investigation. Both Democratic and GOP officials from the panel declined comment on whether an invitation has been sent.
Bots and trolls that overloaded Americans’ social media accounts during last year’s campaign has already come up repeatedly during Capitol Hill hearings, including a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last month probing Russian interference in European elections.
“The ability to find a site that looks like a real news place, have them run a story that isn’t true, have your trolls begin to click on that story, it rises on Facebook as a trending topic, people start to read it, by the time they figure out it isn’t true, a lot of people think it is,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who lost in his 2016 primary race against Trump and who has complained that former members of his campaign were nearly victimized by Russian hackers as he launched his Senate re-election effort.
In an interview, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said his panel is studying both how the Russia-based social media accounts operated during the 2016 campaign and “whether they had any help of U.S. persons, whether there was any coordination of those efforts either in the timing or targeting of those fake stories.”
“It does concern me,” Schiff said. “It is something we’re looking at.”
Whether either the Mueller or congressional investigators will be able to get to the bottom of the Russian social media accounts is unclear.
Watts, now a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said he doesn’t doubt Russian social media accounts were posing as conservative voters in the U.S. who supported Trump. But he’s also not convinced Mueller will be able to find clear evidence of collusion between the Republican’s campaign and Moscow. That’s in part because the operators of those accounts are more than capable of doing their work without getting any inside data or intelligence from the Trump campaign. “You don’t need Americans. You can do it from Russia,” he said.
And even if Russian bots were operating in force in the 2016 cycle, some Republicans doubt they would have had much effect on voters.
“I think you can annoy people. I think you can push a news cycle. I think you can intimidate people even. But I don’t think you can influence people,” said Chris Wilson, a senior research and analytics strategist from the Ted Cruz 2016 campaign.
Democrats see things differently. In the closing days of the November election, then-President Barack Obama criticized the proliferation of fake news stories circulating online, arguing at a Michigan rally: “And people, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it. And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”
Ron Fein, legal director for the government watchdog group Free Speech for People, which has filed several investigation requests with the Federal Election Commission seeking a probe of the Russian hacking, said the incessant pro-Trump and anti-Clinton social media messages were “like any type of influence or ad marketing campaign… designed to influence and it can often have subtle or even unconscious effects.”
“There’s good reason why our laws prohibit these kinds of efforts from foreign governments or even private citizens,” Fein told POLITICO. “Even if they’re not 100 percent effective on every voter, they have an influence and they wouldn’t be doing them if they didn’t.”