According to a new report from The New York Times, a top Trump campaign aide sought proposals from an Israeli company that would work to build an army of fake social media profiles to sway the outcome of the 2016 election. Despite requesting these proposals, the Times could not confirm whether the campaign staff actually acted upon them.
The company, Psy-Group, would use armies of “authentic looking” sock puppet accounts to spread misinformation across social media, a tactic that has become ever more familiar following the 2016 election cycle and Russian political ad spending. Specifically, Psy-Group was able use social media to develop the profile of what a “persuadable delegate” would look like online, targeting up to 2,500 of them with messages personally crafted to convince them to back Donald Trump in the primaries. At the time, the Republican National Convention and its delegates were fraught with controversy after the Trump campaign accused Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) of bribing them for support.
Reportedly, the Trump campaign became interested in the ways in which social media could manipulate elections around the same time that the Russian online election meddling efforts were beginning to take place. Several members of the Trump campaign have already been convicted of crimes connected with foreign influence efforts, including national security adviser Michael Flynn, associate Rick Gates, and former campaign manger Paul Manafort.
Psy-Group’s messages were not simply Pro-Trump. The inauthentic accounts would barrage their delegate targets with anti-Ted Cruz (Trump’s biggest opponent at the time) messages to cast doubt on the more establishment Republican’s motives. This past July, Facebook announced that it would be testing a new feature that would notify users if they were receiving messages from suspicious accounts. According to the Times, the attacks would last for months and would even expand offline — resulting in unwanted phone calls as well.
Facebook has been facing mounting pressure from lawmakers for its role in allowing these kinds of inauthentic behaviors to take place on its platforms. Over the summer, the social media network terminated hundreds of inauthentic accounts on both Facebook and Instagram that the company claims participated in coordinated influence campaigns spearheaded by both Iran and Russia.