As speculation mounts about whether President Trump’s digital team helped Russia target voters with fake news during the 2016 election, the campaign’s former digital director Brad Parscale has agreed to an interview with the House Intelligence Committee. But if investigators really want to get to the bottom of how foreign propagandists tried to sway voters, the answer may lie within Facebook’s servers.
Parscale tweeted a statement about his decision to meet with committee members Friday morning, defending the work his San Antonio firm Giles-Parscale did for the campaign. Parscale rejected the notion that his team shared data with Russian operatives to help them target receptive voters. In his statement, Parscale says the campaign “used the exact same digital marketing strategies that are used everyday by corporate America.” And he specifically points out how closely the campaign worked with Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
The campaign had designated liaisons from both Facebook and Google working inside Parscale’s San Antonio-based office, who were intimately involved in the inner workings of the digital and data team, according to Parscale’s statement. They helped carry out an effort of great scale and sophistication. During the campaign, the Trump campaign ran up to 50,000 variants of its Facebook ads a day, learning which ones resonated best with voters. It also deployed so-called “dark posts,” non-public paid posts that only appear in the News Feeds of the people the advertiser chooses.
Parscale has credited that collaboration with delivering Trump’s victory. “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing,” Parscale told WIRED shortly after the election. “Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising.”
To be sure, there is nothing unusual about this arrangement. Large advertisers working with social media companies are often assigned designated representatives. “Someone from Facebook or Twitter’s ad sales will call you and be your account manager,” says Adam Sharp, who ran Twitter’s government and elections team until December 2016.
Which is why investigators exploring the Russian social-media operation may learn as much from platforms like Facebook as from the Trump campaign. Congress could subpoena the company for data on which entities made large scale ad buys—the kind that can actually help swing an election. Facebook keeps lists of who it extends lines of credit to, though of course, those lists would only reflect the agency doing the advertising and not the many entities that might be funding the ads. Facebook also allows political advertisers to upload their own voter lists for targeting purposes. Investigators could ask the company whether any advertisers used duplicate lists to disseminate pro-Trump or anti-Clinton ads. That could indicate a coordinated effort by some outsider to influence the election on Trump’s behalf, though it’s possible that data is inaccessible because of the way Facebook hashes the information in its system.
(When reached for comment, Facebook said that it has found no evidence of Russian entities buying ads during the election. If true, that would imply that Russians spread their propaganda the old-fashioned way—by creating viral content that Facebook users were compelled to share, without engaging in any demographic targeting.)
The investigation may give Congress the opportunity to shed some light on another opaque digital company, the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. Few political vendors have garnered notoriety as quickly as the data-driven campaign firm, backed by the Trump campaign’s top financier, Robert Mercer, which claims to be able to target individuals based on a uniquely detailed database of psychographic information. Some have charged the company with engaging in “psychological warfare,” while others allege that the firm has inflated its abilities.
Now, it appears the House Intelligence Committee is going directly to the source to cut through the hearsay. Parscale was among the first members of the Trump team, joining the campaign before it was even officially announced to the public. The 6-foot 7-inch digital marketer had worked with the Trump family since 2011, building websites for Trump Winery and the Eric Trump Foundation, before he received a call asking him to create a website for the real estate mogul and reality star’s presidential campaign. “When I got the phone call I was elated because of how much I respect this family,” Parscale told WIRED last year.
Parscale’s role at the campaign grew, from building the website and creating social media content for the would-be Tweeter-in-chief to managing $250 million in online fundraising. Over the course of the election, Giles-Parscale took in some $90 million, the vast majority of which went toward buying Facebook ads for the campaign. As November neared, Parscale had evolved into something of a deputy campaign manager, working alongside Trump’s son-in-law and current senior adviser Jared Kushner to strategize what was always a digital-first campaign.
Parscale’s testimony may help illuminate an often misunderstood aspect of political campaigning. Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Sen. Mark Warner, have asserted that if Russians wanted to target fabricated news stories at American voters who were on the fence about who to vote for, they would have needed inside information about those voters and where to reach them. But digital operatives on both sides of the aisle have countered such conjectures, asserting that targeting news stories and ads on platforms like Facebook and Twitter is far simpler and much more difficult to detect than some outside the industry might expect. Between lax campaign finance laws that don’t require digital platforms to disclose who’s paying for ads and social media platforms’ ability to target people based on age, gender, location, and interests, finding the right voters to bombard with propaganda isn’t all that difficult.
Parscale, for one, maintains he’s “unaware of any Russian involvement in the digital and data operations.” That may be. But that wouldn’t preclude other members of Trump’s inner circle who had access to the digital and data team’s insights—including Kushner—from transferring that knowledge to a Russian operative during one of the undisclosed meetings he had with them during the campaign.
As a former staffer put it: “When it comes to the kids and close family, I’m not really sure what the hell is going on.”
Those family members will likely be subpoenaed. But investigators don’t have to rely only on them for the answers. All they have to do is ask Facebook.