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Are Foreign-Influenced Social Media Campaigns Part of the New Political Playbook?

Foreign governments, taking a page from the Russian election playbook, have begun to realize the outsized impact subliminal social media campaigns can have on Americans. Have social media campaigns become the new lobbying de rigueur?
Doha, Qatar.

Doha, Qatar.

On the first day of November of 2017, the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled contrite representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google about their companies' roles in the Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential election. The senators spent nearly three hours chastising the social media platforms for their dereliction. In between the grandstanding, the senators expressed genuine concern about how foreign nations used these platforms, and whether media companies would be able to stop the next country from copying the Russian scheme. But even as lawmakers reflect on the Russian interference, new foreign influence campaigns are already underway.

This time, rather than trying to choose a president, the campaigns sought to affect President Donald Trump and America's reaction to the Qatar diplomatic crisis, which began on June 5th, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and established an air, sea, and land blockade around the country.

Since the blockade began, these countries have spent tens of millions of dollars and hired at least 20 American and British communications and lobbying firms to run public influence campaigns in the United States, according to documents filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The campaigns themselves are nothing new. What is striking, however, is that they've moved past traditional Washington, D.C., lobbying, using American media to broadcast their narrative beyond the beltway. They've bought ads and promotions with Facebook, Twitter, and Google. They've created Snapchat filters and bought full-page ads in publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Politico. Dozens of pro- and anti-blockade commercials were placed on networks including Fox, CNN, NBC, and MSNBC. The Qatari government even purchased a billboard in Times Square.

Both Qatar and its Middle Eastern opponents, the Saudi-led blockade coalition, are fighting to control the narrative stateside. Both sides tout a similar message, highlighting the terrorist activities of its diplomatic opponent while boasting itself as America's partner for peace in the Middle East (Qatar and Saudi Arabia's governments have both been implicated in funding terrorism, and each denies it vehemently). But what is most alarming is that both the Saudi-led coalition and Qatar are using a tactic central to the Russian meddling: setting up websites and social media accounts that are designed to resemble grassroots American organizations.

The websites and social media accounts Lift the BlockadeBoycott Qatar, and Qatar Insider are all funded by one of these Middle Eastern countries.

"It seems to me that they're saying, 'Well if Russia was so successful in using Twitter and Facebook to change public opinion, then maybe we can do the same thing,'" says Richard Lau, a political science professor at Rutgers University who specializes in political persuasion and the effects of media on political campaigns.

One of the firms recruited by the Saudi-led coalition was the Podesta Group, which recently fell into turmoil after being named in the indictments of Paul Manafort and Richard Gates. According to the indictments, Manafort hired the Podesta Group to work on a U.S. communications campaign for a pro-Russia Ukrainian group. Tony Podesta stepped down as chief executive officer the day the indictments were announced, and the firm folded soon after that.

Prior to the Podesta Group's downfall, the company was able to orchestrate a public-relations campaign for the Saudi-led coalition. It was hired last summer by the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, which is funded by the Embassy of Bahrain as well as the Saudi millionaire Salman Al-Ansari, who is also SAPRAC's founder and president. SAPRAC receives no direct funding from the government of Saudi Arabia, but its relationship resembles that between AIPAC and the Israeli government: legally unassociated, but curiously in sync.

According to the contract between the Podesta Group and SAPRAC, the Podesta Group ran a communications campaign with the goal of "raising awareness of Qatari support for and funding of terrorism ... reinforcing Saudi Arabia's role as a leader in stabilizing the region ... [and] building on President Donald Trump's calls on Qatar to stop financing terrorism."

The central vehicle for distributing their message was the Qatar Insider website and social media pages. They paid to place the Qatar Insider homepage at the top of Google search results. They also paid to promote posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube, targeting social media users based on behavior, voter registration, and demographic data. The Podesta Group then used this data "to follow users across devices, from smartphone to tablet to desktop to digital televisions," according to the documents, allowing them "to track, retarget and re-message users on the Qatar Insider's behalf, as they move through their daily lives."

Particularly revealing is the Podesta Group's explicit attempts to obscure the state-funded source of Qatar Insider's content and make it appear editorial. The Podesta Group emphasized a native ad campaign that placed Qatar Insider content into related articles. "Instead of merely leading to the campaign landing page, the links may also lead to longer-form content that is designed to feel like site editorial," the contract says. The key was to design advertisements "that are woven into the look and feel of each site." They also began to identify digital influencers who would be useful in amplifying the native content.

The Qatari government used many of the same maneuvers, spending at least $4.7 million and hiring nine communications firms to promote their own message in the U.S. One of these communications firms, the DDC subsidiary Bluefront Strategies, was given a budget of nearly $1.8 million. The message was the antithesis of SAPRAC's: Saudi Arabia funds and supports terrorism; Qatar is America's partner in peace.

Their promotional tactics included full page ads in major newspapers and digital publications. They aired dozens of television advertisements and bought YouTube pre-roll ads. And just like SAPRAC, they relied on a state sponsored website and social media account, Lift the Blockade, to disseminate their narrative.

These communication campaigns don't match the size or scope of Russia's social media interference. There have yet to be allegations of illegality or misconduct, and rather than targeting an election, these campaigns largely revolved around the United Natiins General Assembly meeting in New York in September. Still, the strategy was eerily akin to the Russian tactics.

The U.S. plays an outsized role in nearly every geopolitical conflict in the world, and countries have long jockeyed for positions among D.C. lawmakers and power brokers. But appealing directly to the masses through media is a new strategy, made possible by the low bar of access to social media and abetted by a media culture that encourages the blind consumption of headlines.

Whether this international publicity battle had any effect on the White House is unclear. The biggest takeaway is that foreign countries are already taking notice of Russia's meddling in 2016. It may be that social media campaigns are now part of the standard playbook for any country that wants the U.S. to lean in its favor.