Why The Russians Had Insiders

REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo

Mark Macias Author, Beat the Press
Font Size:

The FBI and Congressional Intelligence Committee may still be investigating the 2016 Russian election hack but there is no doubt in my mind — based on my experience running social media and political campaigns, as well as my times working with Eastern European tech startups — that the hackers behind the multi-state attack had help from Americans.

I’m not alleging the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians. That’s an accusation far above my experience and insight. I’ll leave that collusion conclusion to Robert Mueller and the Congressional Intelligence Committee.

But as for the Russians having the know-how to run a sophisticated campaign that identified which voters to target, which zip codes to blast, which hot-button issues to attack Hillary Clinton and which xenophobic ads to promote — that required a deep nuanced understanding of American culture. It also required access to proprietary political databases that reveal deep insight into individual voting patterns and history.

This is electoral data and voter intelligence that you don’t gather from Google. It’s typically highly protected by campaigns and is rarely shared with outsiders.

I first became privy to this individual voter manifesto data when I was a college student, volunteering on a Congressional campaign for an unknown candidate in Arizona, Matt Salmon.

My job was to go through reams of paper and highlight specific names who the campaign felt fit their profile. Those were the voters the more senior campaign strategists would target.

Fast forward to 2010, I was now leading the communications campaign for another unknown Congressional challenger, Michael Grimm of Staten Island. Technology made that data mining so much easier. While I didn’t do the actual work of gathering the voter data, it was made available to me to assist with our media and social media campaigns.

And with that data, we strategized who to target; how to hit them; identify what would motive these voters; who was not motivated to vote; where did these voters live; which campaign ads would work best to identify their passionate causes, etc.

Yes, anyone can launch a Facebook account for any issue or cause and try to attract others to join their page. If you have a large ad budget, Facebook will guide you along and tell you how to target people who might like your page. You can target potential customers by city or area with Facebook — and identify people based on gender, age, military status, etc. — but all of these approaches are on a simplistic level.

Facebook doesn’t give you voting patterns or tell you which zip code has the most conservative voters. It doesn’t tell you who is angry with Clinton, who might support Bernie Sanders, and who doesn’t like Muslims. This is information that Rep. Adam Schiff on the Congressional Intelligence Committee said the Russians used in this attack.

One more analogy outside of our borders.

Do you know anything about Russian zip codes? What about neighborhoods in Minsk or Kiev? Surely, you know which Russians like Putin and who is more in favor of supporting an opposition candidate. Of course you don’t, and neither do most US political operatives. That’s not data that we collect or use because it serves no purpose to helping our political candidates win in the US.

Several years ago, I traveled to Minsk, Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg for work. I met with dozens of tech startups, entrepreneurs and Eastern European executives who were interested in bringing their products and services to the USA.

Believe it or not, outside of politics, there are many technology companies in Minsk, Kiev and Moscow that create products Americans would love. Maybe you use “WhatsApp” to communicate with friends in other countries? Before Facebook purchased WhatsApp in 2014, there was an even bigger communications app, called Viber, that allows anyone to make free calls and send free messages. It was created in Minsk well before anyone heard of WhatsApp.

Viber sold its technology to a Japanese company for $900 million. WhatsApp sold the same technology — and fewer customers — to Facebook for $16 billion. I’m sure you can see why these Eastern European entrepreneurs want to get their products in front of American consumers and investors.

But they don’t know how to reach American consumers. They don’t understand the complicated US media market that changes by geography. You target consumers in Alabama differently than Los Angeles. Likewise, you take a different media approach with New Yorkers and Bostonians. It’s a sophisticated understanding of the media and American culture that even some Americans don’t grasp.

And that is why I am convinced the Russians had help from Americans. A political team had to have shared voting patterns and databases that included information like voting history, age, address, sex, etc. My PR firm has run media campaigns for two different cyber security companies. Those coders approach the world differently than sales people. Of course, the coders had guidance from handlers on who to target, but the better question is who were those handlers.

If I had my bet, I would say they were based in New York and Washington, DC — because that is after all where the majority of this confidential data is gathered, collected and analyzed.

Mark Macias is a former Executive Producer with NBC and Senior Producer with CBS in New York. He now runs his own PR firm, Macias PR, which was recently named the 2017 “Strategic PR Firm of the Year — US” by the ACG Global Awards.

Perspectives expressed in op-eds are not those of The Daily Caller.