Hillary Clinton Was the First Casualty in the New Information Wars

Jun 01, 2017, 10:26 AM

Hillary Clinton came to Recode’s Code Conference with her gloves off. In an interview with the journalists Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, she delivered a fully baked articulation of the ways technology was “weaponized” against her campaign to aid Donald Trump.

“I take responsibility for every decision I made,” Clinton said, “but that is not why I lost.”

In previous elections, the internet was primarily used to identify likely donors and voters and then get them to give money and turn out to cast their ballots, she said. That was definitely the story of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, as I encountered them as a journalist.

But that changed in 2016, Clinton said.

“What we thought we were doing was going to be Obama 3.0: better targeting, better messaging, and the ability turn out our voters as we identified them, and to communicate more broadly with voters,” she explained. “Here’s what the other side was doing, and they were in a different arena. Through content farms, through an enormous investment in falsehoods, fake news, call it what you will—”

“Lies,” Mossberg interjected.

“Lies, that’s a good word, too,” Clinton continued. “The other side was using content that was just flat-out false, and delivering it in a very personalized way, both above the radar screen and below. And, look, I’m not a tech expert by any stretch of the imagination, [but] that really influenced the information that people were relying on.”

She called out fake news stories on Facebook, which she said were spread by 1,000 Russian agents, as well as bots running on social media to amplify the disinformation. “It was such a new experience. I understand why people on their Facebook pages, [said] ‘Oh, Hillary Clinton did that. I did not know that! Well, that’s gonna effect my opinion about her,’” Clinton said. “And we did not engage in false content.”

Mossberg asked her why the Democrats were not better at combatting that false information. “There’s a way to weaponize tech that doesn’t involve lying or having Russians help you,” he said. “It is a political weapon. It’s a fact of life. But how do you do it?”

At that point, Clinton claimed that the data candidate Trump received from the Republican National Committee was much better than what she received from the Democratic National Committee.

“I get the nomination. I’m now the nominee of the Democratic party. I inherit nothing from the Democratic party,” she said. “I mean, it was bankrupt. It was on the verge of insolvency. Its data was mediocre to poor, non-existent, wrong. I had to inject money into it. “

(I’ve reached out to multiple contacts at the DNC and no one immediately responded for comment.)

Meanwhile, Clinton continued, the Republican National Committee spent $100 million on its data infrastructure between 2012 and 2016, which it handed over to Donald Trump’s campaign.

“Then you’ve got Cambridge Analytica,” Clinton said, referencing the political analytics start-up backed by the wealthy and right-wing Mercer family.

In the run up to and aftermath of the election, Cambridge Analytica got tons of press for its targeting abilities. “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump's extraordinary win," the company’s CEO said in a press release. Later reports tended to be more circumspect about the firm’s importance.

“You can believe the hype on how great they were or how not great they were, but the fact is they added something. And I think we better understand that,” she said. “The Mercers did not invest all that money just for their own amusement.”

She described a deal that Cambridge Analytica cut with the Trump campaign that put Steve Bannon, who had been running Breitbart, into the center of Trump’s world.

“They marry content with delivery and data. And it was a potent combination,” Clinton said. “The question is where and how did the Russians get into this.”

Then, like a prosecutor wa...