Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Facebook Acknowledges Russian Ads In 2016 Election. Will Investigations Follow?


I got as far as the title of this article before I groaned loudly.

In this topsy turvy post-political (meaning pure partisan chaos in reporting) era, I could see two directions in which this story was going to proceed.

  1. Russian collusion investigation, in other words, pure political bullcrap in pursuit of information damaging to President Trump. Usually, investigations follow a crime and then evidence is sought or evidence leads to the discovery of a crime. In this case, we have accusations and no evidence has been found.
  2. An actual investigation into Russian attempts to affect US elections.

NPR is an unabashedly liberal source, so my inclination was to expect the story to be …in search of political grape shot.  Grape shot, in case you don’t know, are anti-personnel rounds fired by tanks and artillery if enemy foot soldiers are dangerously close.

The article’s sole acknowledgment of the political nature of Mueller’s investigation is this sentence: “Mueller is investigating whether there was any collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.”

The article, however, takes a decidedly evidenced based approach to the investigation, otherwise.

A watchdog group, called “Common Cause has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that some of the ads violated federal laws that bar foreign interference in U.S. campaigns”, stating “the ads… pose a direct threat to democracy and national security.”

Common Cause is focusing on those helping Russia focus the Facebook ads, which violates US Federal election law. Banned are “U.S. citizens from giving “substantial assistance” to would-be foreign donors or spenders in elections. That could include anyone who helped these Russian trolls figure out who to target with these ads.”

Which brings up one heckuva challenge. First, they must establish which companies placed the ads, which is just a bookkeeping drill.  Because of the complexity of Facebook ads that is a challenge. Next, however, comes a legal nightmare – establishing a link to a person or persons feeding them the information. Yes, if the person is inside the US, their ISP or employer might have the record, but now there is a nightmare of privacy and Signal Intelligence laws protecting US “entities”.

Next, comes a legal nightmare – establishing a link to a person or persons feeding these companies the information. Yes, if the person is inside the US, their ISP or employer might have the record, but now there is a nightmare of privacy and Signal Intelligence laws protecting US “entities”.   That is, unless Common Cause already has this information. In that case, how and why would they have that information?

No matter what, the investigators cannot say “give us all the communications from Johnny Z in 2015 and 2016”, it is far too vague and not limited to the information needed by the investigation.  Anything more specific almost begs the question, how did they know to specify that specific information?  If the company, and I am assuming it is the Internet Research Agency of St. Petersburg, Russia, obviously Common Cause would have had to obtained Signals Intelligence collected by the NSA, and that is clearly illegal. There are also “Destroy By” dates for that type information, which may be already past.

Bottom line at the bottom.  Common Cause is rooting around, right on the edge of information so protected, that it may potential violate multiple federal laws. Is it politically motivated?  Perhaps, but the law protects US citizen’s right to unlawful search and privacy. I want to nail the Russians as much as the next guy, but I also respect the law.

I believe Common Cause is on an empty witch hunt which may turn out badly.

 

 

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