"This is not just about Facebook and Facebook data, but about a surveillance infrastructure that has been married together with marketing techniques, with lobbying firms, with intelligence contractors," she said. "But these firms deploy as P.R. [public relations or campaign] contractors."
Everything Can Be Traced, Tracked
As 2020's elections approach, many voters may not realize the extent to which they will be in the digital targeting cross-hairs.
The big difference between 2016 and now is that today virtually everything that passes through one's digital devices -- computers, tablets, phones -- can be tracked, traced and answered in real time or soon after it appears, by commercially available tools. This level of scrutiny and interaction is not new in cyberspace's black-market world. But it is now in the tool kits being used in political campaigns to send, track and counter disinformation.
For example, the Dewey Square Group, a Washington political consulting firm allied with Democrats, has a new service called "Dewey Defend." They scan the fire hose of unfiltered data from the big online platforms to see whether the firm's clients, such as Black Lives Matter, or client adversaries, such as Blue Lives Matter, are cited or contain key words. What then unfolds is yet another dimension of information warfare in what Silicon Valley has labeled as the "social media listening" space.
Dewey Square says that it can trace a message's origin back to as early as the tenth time that it appears. That operation can involve piercing efforts to hide or mask the real sender's identity. It also traces the recipient's engagement. Was the content deleted, read or shared? And, more critically, who received it? They can identify recipient devices so that countermeasure content can be sent back -- via a spectrum of channels and not just a single social media account.
Dewey Square's tools are at the cutting edge of a growing industry of players specializing in online information warfare. There are other iterations of this level of tracking technology in play, such as the ability of campaigns to create an electronic fence at rallies. Here, unique IDs are pulled off attendees' smartphones to follow them home. Attendees -- via their devices -- are subsequently sent messages: anything from donate to get out and vote. Campaigns can also trace their friends, family and contacts.
Security researchers discovered the basis for such spying -- called "fingerprinting" -- in 2012. Only recently has it been more openly discussed and marketed. If you use the web, your browser sends out information about your device so apps can work and content can appear correctly on the screen. This activity opens a door to online surveillance and information warfare, experts say.
What is new in 2019, however, are the tools and efforts to call out what is happening behind users' screens -- including the range of deceptive communications such as doctored videos; bot-fed traffic; fake personas, pages and groups; and hijacked hashtags.
Today's cyber detectives will report malfeasance to the platforms, hoping that it will be removed. They will share findings with the journalists to spotlight bad actors. They will give clients addresses of disinformation recipients' devices to send counter-messages. This is a far bigger battlefield than 2016.
The Democrats' Strategy
The Democrats are doing other things that they hope will counter disinformation. The DNC has rebuilt its data infrastructure to share information between candidate campaigns and outside groups, said Ken Martin, a DNC vice-chair, president of the Association of State Democratic Party chairs, and Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chairman.
Martin, who helped lead this data redesign, said there are many independent voters in the swing states -- perhaps a better term is ambivalent voters -- whom party officials will seek to reach. These are people who voted for Trump in 2016, but, come 2018, voted for Democrats, he said. They helped to elect Democratic governors, retake the U.S. House majority, and elect Doug Jones as U.S. senator from Alabama. Martin is hoping to outsmart online micro-targeting -- the crux of Trump's early re-election effort -- by relying on what's called "relational organizing."
Starting after the 2016 election, activist Democrats in tech circles started creating companies and apps for the party and candidates. Instead of relying on Facebook to identify likely voters at the zip code or district level, the overall idea was that Democrats across the country had friends and family in key contests with real prior relationships.
Democrats are hoping that people will share social media contacts and other lists, which, once analyzed, would identify voters in key locations, Martin explained. This strategy, relying more on peer pressure than online profiling, is seen as being potentially effective with fundraising, organizing and turning out voters.
Martin wants to believe that appeals from "trusted messages and validators" will work. Inside the party, however, there is a debate about using disinformation, he said. In fall 2018, a few tech executives experimented with online disinformation in Jones' Senate race, raising questions about whether some in the party would do so in 2020.