Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's speech is seen on a television screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York. (AP)

Russia in the Rust Belt: Pro-Trump fake news targeted Michigan and Wisconsin

That unlikely trifecta of states that gave Donald Trump the presidency may not have been coincidental after all


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Bob Cesca
October 6, 2017 9:00AM (UTC)

Forgive me if this triggers awful memories, but on election night last November, as we watched the returns come in showing Donald Trump winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, something just didn’t feel right. In most polling and punditry circles, there had been literally zero chatter about Trump potentially sweeping these three states -- a feat that no Republican candidate had accomplished since Ronald Reagan in 1984. 

How had such an unlikely thing happened? After the election, we heard a wide array of theories, including the ones about how previous Obama voters in the Rust Belt didn’t believe the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party spoke to their economic grievances, so they flipped to Trump -- a whiplash-inducing switchover given the chasmic differences between number 44 and 45. There may be some threads of validity to that analysis, but was it enough of a messaging oversight by Team Hillary to flip states that hadn’t gone red in more than three decades? Instinctively, I and many others knew there had to be something else. Russian meddling, perhaps, although we were told repeatedly in the weeks that followed that the Russians didn’t have any impact on the results of the election. Well, fine.

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Now, nearly a year after the election, it’s growing increasingly obvious that Russian agents did, in fact, have a breathtaking influence on the outcome of the election. There's still no evidence that the Russians succeeded at altering actual vote totals, or even tried to. But we know with a reasonable degree of certainty that Russia’s digital propaganda attack inside the U.S. may have changed the minds of enough voters to make a difference in those three states, even before voters stepped into polling places on Nov. 8.

After all, Trump won the entire trifecta by less than one percent of the popular vote -- a 10,000-vote margin in Michigan, 22,000 votes in Wisconsin and about 44,000 in Pennsylvania. We have also learned that around 51,000 previous Bernie Sanders supporters voted for Trump in Wisconsin, around 47,000 Sanders voters went for Trump in Michigan, and a whopping 116,000 more in Pennsylvania. In every case, we’re talking about election-altering margins, especially when we combine tens of thousands of votes for Green Party nominee Jill Stein in those states.

Is it possible hundreds of thousands of Democrats voted for Trump simply because they thought Hillary was worse? Sure it is. They were profoundly mistaken in that opinion, however, both in terms of what we knew about Trump at the time and in terms of blindingly obvious hindsight. While Hillary Clinton had a well-known menu of negatives, Trump’s an unapologetic monster -- an apparent Nazi sympathizer and admitted sexual predator who has turned out to be light years worse than any other candidate who’s stepped onto the national stage. He ought to be viewed that way now by Sanders and Stein voters, for sure. But that wasn't necessarily true during the fall campaign.

In recent weeks, we’ve discovered that both Trump voters, swing voters and -left-wing voters alike were quite possibly targeted by Russian intelligence, using bogus advertising and fake news strategically distributed throughout Facebook and Twitter. At first, Facebook in particular emphatically denied the charges, but last month it was reported that hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising, paid in rubles, and reaching millions upon millions of Facebook users was purchased by Russian troll farms linked to the Kremlin. Facebook has since admitted that this true, and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface in terms of the scope of this particular prong of the attack.

In a CNN exclusive, reporters Manu Raju, Dylan Byers and Dana Bash revealed that Russian trolls purchased Facebook ads specifically targeting Michigan and Wisconsin.

Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal, two of the sources said. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages, sources said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., confirmed to MSNBC this week that Americans helped the Russians target states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

The CNN exclusive also dovetails nicely with Politico’s reporting from last week in which it was revealed that Russian ads on Facebook were supportive of Trump, of course, but also Sanders and Stein. Reporter Josh Dawsey wrote:

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The ads show a complicated effort that didn’t necessarily hew to promoting Trump and bashing Clinton. Instead, they show a desire to create divisions while sometimes praising Trump, Sanders and Stein. A number of the ads seemed to question Clinton’s authenticity and tout some of the liberal criticisms of her candidacy.

Ultimately, it appears as if Russian attackers targeted Trump, Sanders and Stein supporters with anti-Hillary messaging in key geographical regions, perhaps down to the precinct level.

As everyone knows who’s spent time on Facebook, outrageous and frequently false news items tend to circulate the globe several times over, allowing a single ad buy to appear in news feeds of millions of users. Incendiary ads reach even larger audiences, and it’s plain to see how targeted messaging against Hillary and in support of her opponents would get co-opted as standalone Facebook status updates or even blog posts, further exacerbating the impact of the Russian attack.

There’s one question that remains. The bloated orange elephant in the room is whether the Trump campaign deliberately fed its demographic targeting data to Russian intelligence and its troll farms in order to more precisely focus the attack. We can only assume that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is looking at Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale, and the head of the internet side of the Trump campaign, Jared Kushner.

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For my money, this is where we’re most likely to see evidence and, indeed, indictments on conspiracy charges: the targeting of internet propaganda. While there could be multiple lines of attack involving support from Team Trump, including Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Donald Trump Jr., the most obvious front for collusion occurred on social media. Russians may have bought the ads, but Americans allowed this to happen.

Too many of us acted as unwitting enemy combatants in Russia’s attack on our sovereignty and our democratic institutions. Our widespread habit of blindly “liking” and “sharing” news without critical scrutiny was absolutely exploited by the Russians. Millions of Americans on social media continue, to this day, to serve as middlemen for circulating fake news and agitprop, political or otherwise. While it’s mandatory to hold Facebook and Twitter accountable for their part in the attack, we also have to examine our own bad habits. We have no choice but to be more discerning about what we share online, or else we’re begging for disasters far worse than electing Trump. It’s time for social media users to grow up.


Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon.com. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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