Exclusive: The Kremlin began supporting Donald Trump on Facebook as soon as he announced his White House bid in June 2015. Investigators want to know if the campaign colluded with Russia to use Facebook as a propaganda tool.
Brad Parscale picked up the phone on Wednesday June 17, 2015. It was real-estate mogul Donald J. Trump. The San Antonio web designer had built websites for the Trump organization before but this request from his client was far bigger than anything the then 39-year-old Kansan had ever worked on before.
A day earlier, Trump descended the escalator at his Manhattan Tower to a basement full of supporters and journalists to announce his bid for the White House. Trump told Parscale on the phone he wanted him to build a full presidential campaign website.
Parscale had no political or campaign experience but in the ensuing seventeen months he would build the most aggressive digital media campaign for a president anyone had ever seen. The 6’7″ web designer assembled a team in San Antonio, Texas where he lived while Donald Trump began doing the rounds on cable news.
“You think you’d be able to get along with Vladimir Putin,” Sean Hannity asked Trump on Fox News. “Did you talk to him?”
“I don’t want to say,” Trump dodged the question, then added with something of a wink: “Putin truly hates Obama. He thinks he’s terrible. He thinks he’s arrogant. He thinks he’s just terrible.”
At exactly the same time Trump said he was open to dealing with Putin, a Russian company funded by a “close Putin ally with ties to the Russian intelligence” began buying ads on Facebook supporting Trump campaign issues and continued doing so throughout the campaign. The social network describes the ads bought by Internet Research Agency as “amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights”
Trump launched his campaign with a tirade against Mexicans immigrants and proposed a border wall. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting,” he told supporters.
On Facebook, a Russian created community called “SecureBorders” with 133,000 followers, began publishing racists ads to amplify Trump’s message, including one of a cartoon Trump dangling a man wearing a T-shirt with a Mexican flag over a wall with the headline “You have to go back pal”.
Russian oligarch Evgeney Prigozhin hired hundreds of Russians to pose as American conservatives and post fake news on issues closely aligned to the Trump campaign.
“SecureBorders” and hundreds of other fake pages like “Spread Your Wings”, “Art Gone Conscious” and “Celebrities Against Obama” were created by the IRA which is funded by Russian oligarch Evgeney Prigozhin. Prigozhin was Putin’s chef for more than a decade. Since then, he’s built a catering empire serving Russian public sector and military contracts. He is now under sanctions by the U.S. for running a digital propaganda machine serving up fake news and memes to American voters.
Prigozhin pumped millions of rubles into the IRA to hire hundreds of well-paid 20 and 30-something year olds to generate content on a specific agenda. The New York Times Magazine revealed employees at the St. Petersburg agency had multiple fake Facebook accounts all created in the summer of 2014. They parroted, commented and shared content, amplifying the message across social media on Facebook groups by posing as American conservatives.
A former employee of the agency described a culture plagued with homophobia, racism and poor grammar. “You see these people with a lot of tattoos,” the insider told the New York Times Magazine. “They’re so cool, like they’re from New York; very hip clothing, very hip tattoos, like they’re from Williamsburg but they are stupid,” said Marat Burkhardt. “In office conversation, they used gay slurs to refer to [Ukrainian politician] Petro Poroshenko and called Barack Obama a monkey,” Burkhardt said.
Investigators want to know if the Trump Campaign coordinated efforts with a Russian propaganda army.
Facebook claims to have found $150,000 worth of ads from 470 suspicious Russian accounts but this may just be the tip of the iceberg. “This is a very significant set of data points produced by Facebook,” Congressman Adam Schiff told the Washington Post. “Left unanswered in what we received from Facebook — because it is beyond the scope of what they are able to determine — is whether there was any coordination between these social media trolls and the campaign. We have to get to the bottom of that,” Schiff said
Which brings us back to Brad Parscale. In the months after Parscale got the call from Trump to build a campaign website in June 2015, Parscale’s became something of a campaign manager involved in communicating every message for the Presidential nominee.
His company Giles-Parscale which was accustomed to billing in the double-digit thousands received $90 million dollars during the campaign, most of it destined to Facebook. Facebook was on-site at the Project Alamo headquarters in San Antonio. “They were helping us,” Trump social media director Theresa Hong told the BBC. “They were basically our “hands on” partners as far as being able to utilize the platform as effectively as possible.” Hong said.
Facebook worked alongside Cambridge Analytica in San Antonio. CA’s parent company SCL has been accused of stealing 30 million Facebook profiles through a malicious Facebook app. The social media network shut down the app in 2015. Facebook must also have been aware that Cambridge Analytica was profiling users through innocuous looking quizzes on the social network for use in the campaign.
Parscale’s team was able to identify voters in minute detail. “What I needed to do was to find smart people who came from the Republican Party, subcontractors and my own company and say how do we find these individual voters and the exact right ones,” Parscale told the Joe Page show. “I didn’t need a gut, because I had the data”.
Congressional investigation committees and Special Counsel Robert Mueller want to know if someone within the campaign helped the IRA target its Facebook ads geographically, which implies granular knowledge the campaign’s progress and local issue in specific counties across the country.
Parscale testified before the House Intelligence Committee in July he was unaware of any Russian links to the his social media campaign. We “used the exact same digital marketing strategies that are used everyday by corporate America,” Parscale said in a statement. This may be true but campaigns are not corporations and are subject to regulations forbidding foreign propaganda supporting a campaign.
The FBI is now investigating if Sputnik News and Russia Today, which use Facebook to distribute content, failed to register as foreign agents.
Investigators are also probing Facebook outlet “DC Leaks” which published the first samples of material stolen by Russian hackers from the DNC and they’re investigating the role of Russian news services like Sputnik and Russia Today, as well as Breitbart, in pushing fake news on Facebook at the Kremlin’s behest.
Andrew Feinberg, a former journalist who worked for Sputnik News told Yahoo! News he received his marching orders from his mostly Russian editors at the Washington D.C. office and claims they often said, “Moscow wants this, or Moscow wants that.” Feinberg was interviewed by the FBI recently about Sputnik’s operations to determine if it is in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
“This tells me they have good information and intelligence that these organizations have been acting on behalf of the Kremlin and that there’s a direct line between them and the [Russian influence operations] that are a significant threat to our democracy,” says Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counterintelligence agent.
Sputnik, along with Russia Today and Breitbart, relies heavily on Facebook and Google to target its news content at American consumers. If indeed Sputnik failed to register under FARA, their entire operation could become the subject of prosecution or expulsion. Dmitry Kiselyov runs Sputnik and formerly headed Russia Today and is widely referred to as Putin’s chief propagandist.
The big question now is whether the campaign coordinated its social media efforts with the Trump Campaign, and specifically Brad Parscale. If investigators are able to find this type of cooperation, it could well be the most conclusive proof of a conspiracy between Russia and Trump to influence the 2016 election yet.