Send up the Frog Signal

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This week was bonkers. We now know for a fact that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Here are a few resources to help make sense of it all

Image from The_Donald subreddit

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Send Up the Frog Signal!

This week, McClatchey News reported that the three government investigations looking into possible Russian collusion are probing the campaign’s digital operation.

Congressional and Justice Department investigators are focusing on whether Trump’s campaign pointed Russian cyber operatives to certain voting jurisdictions in key states — areas where Trump’s digital team and Republican operatives were spotting unexpected weakness in voter support for Hillary Clinton, according to several people familiar with the parallel inquiries.

Also under scrutiny is the question of whether Trump associates or campaign aides had any role in assisting the Russians in publicly releasing thousands of emails, hacked from the accounts of top Democrats, at turning points in the presidential race, mainly through the London-based transparency web site WikiLeaks.

We don’t yet know if the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in this particular way but we do know that someone with knowledge of American politics almost certainly was. Hillary Clinton said as much in her keynote interview at Code Conference earlier this year:

“The Russians, in my opinion … could not have known how best to weaponize that information unless they have been guided … by Americans. I think it’s fair to ask, how did that actually influence the campaign, and how did they know what messages to deliver? Who told them? Who were they coordinating with, and colluding with?”

Pepe as Batman.

Politico pointed out that trying to figure out where fake news fits in could be particularly vexing. While several experts quoted in the article agree that there was almost certainly someone directing fake news efforts 2016, they also acknowledged the problem of investigating what data was shared and how. Tech companies aren’t required to disclose who buys digital ads and as Reuters reported this week, it’s not illegal for foreign nationals to purchase digital ads targeting Americans during an election.

My best guess is that a lot of these communications between the Trump campaign, Russian operatives, and the Frog Squad is a form of signaling, much in the way that American political campaigns communicate publicly with independent expenditure groups.

What is signaling? Campaigns are legally barred from telling outside groups when, where, and how to direct their resources AKA coordinating. Signaling is how they get around this, releasing information publicly that the voters won’t have much interest in but technically is available to them. Here are a few real world examples:

  • Regularly posting information on the campaign’s website such as that the campaign will be focusing on a positive message about the economy, or that they’re going to focus voter contact efforts in the Springfield metro area. This information is often put into a colored box on the homepage or in a press release on the website that often doesn’t get emailed to reporters.
  • Using anonymous Twitter accounts to share internal polling numbers. Both Republicans and Democratshave done this in past cycles.
  • Uploading hours of footage to YouTube that outside groups can use to make their own TV ads.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how the Trump Administration communicates with their online army both domestic and foreign. Last week I covered likely outreach efforts with the Frog Squad, but even with the revelations about Junior this week, I doubt most of the communications Trump and his team had with Russia would be that direct.

Collusion with Russia, past and present, would almost certainly happen via signaling. Communities like 4chan, 8chan, and The_Donald not to mention lesser known ones like GAB and Discord are places where anyone could signal without setting off alarm bells. Most people, even within those communities, who stumble upon information like that wouldn’t think anything of it. Operatives and allies looking for marching orders would know what it means. If any of the Trump campaign’s efforts to share data with foreign actors is traceable I suspect it will look something like signaling, not a document dump or data transfer, but information hidden in plain sight.

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Coming Soon to an Inbox Near You…

Factual Democracy Project, the organization I’m co-founding with Jennifer Fiore, officially launches next week. We’ve been working hard to put this together and I can’t wait to share it with the Ctrl Alt Right Delete community. Stay tuned…

The above is an excerpt from Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly newsletter devoted to understanding how the right operates online and developing strategies and tactics to fight back.

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Melissa Ryan

Politics + technology. Author of Ctrl Alt Right Delete newsletter. Subscribe here: Coffee drinker. Kentucky basketball fan.