Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband, was very much behind her father’s presidential campaign. He focused on message tailoring, sentiment manipulation and machine learning or artificial intelligence. His friends in Silicon valley are some of the best digital marketers in the world. He also focused on micro-targeting on Facebook: “I called somebody who works for one of the technology companies that I work with, and I had them give me a tutorial on how to use Facebook micro-targeting,” Mr Kushner said. Mr Kushner’s inexperience in political campaigning and his understanding of the world online became an advantage. Mr Kushner also looked at campaign spending differently by getting a maximum return on every dollar spent. “We played Moneyball, asking ourselves which states will get the best ROI for the electoral vote,” Mr Kushner explained. “I asked, How can we get Trump’s message to that consumer for the least amount of cost?” He tapped into the Republican National Committee’s data machine and he also hired Cambridge Analytica (CA) to help identify which voters mattered the most for Mr Trump to win. Be it trade, immigration or change. There are digital tools out there such as Deep Root, which drove his TV spend by identifying shows popular with voter blocks in different regions. The TV show NCIS had ads directed at anti-Obamacare voters and for folks worried about immigration it was shows like The Walking Dead. “It’s hard to overstate and hard to summarize Jared’s role in the campaign,” says billionaire Peter Thiel, the only significant Silicon Valley figure to publicly back Trump. “If Trump was the CEO, Jared was effectively the chief operating officer.”
This week Facebook publically acknowledged that its platform has been exploited by governments manipulating public opinion in other countries. Including during the presidential elections in the America and France. In a white paper, they detailed well-funded as well as low-funded techniques that are used by nations and organisations to spread disinformation and lies for geopolitical goals. It explained that these tactics go further than “fake news” as they include content seeding, targeted data collection and fake accounts to help amplify a particular view. “We have had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people,” said the company. Facebook didn’t mention any nation states involved, but that their investigation ‘does not contradict’ the report [PDF] by the US Director of National Intelligence, outlining Russian involvement in the US election.
The white paper [PDF] doesn’t go into much detail about micro-targeting or what are known as “dark posts”. These are paid, sponsored Facebook posts that can only be seen by those that you want to manipulate. Mr Kushner also employed this technique during the Trump campaign. The paper does talk about targeted data collection that uses phishing malware to infect an individual’s or organisation’s computer. The malware steals their identification and information in emails and in their social media accounts. This information helps hackers to better target their phishing campaigns or ‘advance harmful information operations’.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) had their emails hacked due to a phishing campaign by Russian hackers in the run up to the election last year. One of these was sent to the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, John Podesta. One of his assistants, Charles Devalan, noticed the email that was sent to Mr Podesta’s private email account. It asked Mr Podesta to change his password. Mr Devalan could see that it was a phishing attack and forwarded it to a computer technician. Instead of saying that ‘This is an illegitimate email’ and ‘John needs to change his password’ he typed that it was ‘legitimate’, meaning that they unwittingly gave the hackers access to about 60,000 emails.
This week it was revealed that Russian intelligence has been allegedly sending phishing emails to officials and others involved in Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in the French presidential election. Security researchers at cybersecurity company, Trend Micro noticed a hacking group sending emails with links to fake websites that baits them into turning over their passwords. They believe that Russian intelligence are behind this and the registering of decoy web addresses, were as recent as April 15th this year. The websites are registered to a group of web addresses that they say belong to the Russian intelligence unit that they refer to as Pawn Storm, also known as Fancy Bear, APT28, Sofacy and STRONTIUM. US and European intelligence agencies as well as US private security researchers have determined that they were responsible for hacking the DNC last year.
Trend Micro also released a thorough report [PDF] detailing phishing attempts by Pawn Storm that they have blocked, including their email headers. They also provide visual examples of how hackers target high profile email users. Mainstream media has also been utilised by Pawn Storm to publicise their attacks as well as to attempt to public influence. One example is reputable German magazine Der Spiegel, that reported about doping in sports in January this year. They admit to having been in contact with the “Fancy Bear hackers” for months. They say that in December last year that they received “several sets of data containing PDF and Word documents in addition to hundreds of internal emails from United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and WADA, the World AntiDoping Agency.”
In April 2015, the British army created a special force of Facebook warriors, with skills in journalism, psychological operations or PsyOps, and in using social media to engage in unconventional warfare. They join the US and Israeli armies that already heavily engage in PsyOps. Counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan has inspired the creation of the force. An army spokesperson said: “77th Brigade is being created to draw together a host of existing and developing capabilities essential to meet the challenges of modern conflict and warfare. It recognises that the actions of others in a modern battlefield can be affected in ways that are not necessarily violent.”
In the last article in this series, I mentioned Michael Flynn’s 2010 report, when he was the top US intelligence officer in Afghanistan. It was about wanting intelligence in counterinsurgency to act more like journalists.
The purpose of this series of articles is to provide you with as much background as I can, by researching and analysing information that can only be backed up with evidence. I believe that this story is onion-like with many layers as well as foreign players involved. A multi-layered attack on democracy around the world is currently at play. Because this story is playing out in real time, new information, once validated, will also be woven into the series.
My next article will explore Wilson Woodrow’s contribution to propaganda and how this has helped lead us to the likes of Breitbart News and Fox News.