The Trump campaign's use of digital manipulation mirrors the Kremlin's.
Trump's former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, confirmed on Thursday that he hired a small tech company to rig online polls in favor of Trump — before the 2016 presidential campaign got started.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on the scheme Thursday morning. According to the report, Cohen paid the company, called RedFinch Solutions, to artificially boost Trump's poll numbers in a 2014 CNBC online poll ranking the country's top business leaders, as well as a 2015 Drudge Report poll of potential GOP presidential candidates.
A short time after the Wall Street Journal report was published, Cohen tweeted about the article and confirmed his involvement in the scheme to manipulate online polls, saying he had acted "at the direction of and for the sole benefit of" Trump.
The revelation provides new insight into the Trump campaign's use of digital deception, as well as its willingness to engage in efforts to manipulate the public in a bid to put Trump in the White House.
And in this incident, as with so many others, the Trump campaign seemed to take a page right out of the Kremlin's playbook.
Artificially boosting online poll numbers, as Trump allegedly did, may seem somewhat insignificant in its impact. But when used in conjunction with other forms of digital deception and propaganda, rigged polls can contribute to a phenomenon known as "manufactured consensus," defined as "giving the illusion of significant online popularity in order to build real political support."
As explained by researchers at the University of Oxford's Computational Propaganda Project, "This theoretically has the effect of galvanizing political support where this might not previously have happened. To put it simply: the illusion of online support for a candidate can spur actual support through a bandwagon effect."
Trump clearly knows this — and he has for quite some time. After all, long before he ran for president, Trump invented two fake personas to boost his own public image by calling into radio shows and bragging about himself.
Manufacturing consensus, which can be achieved through a variety of means on social media and other platforms, is also central to the disinformation operations used by the Kremlin at home and abroad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been known to rig public opinion polls in his favor, and the Kremlin often uses manipulated polls to influence public sentiment on issues that are important to the government.
While the latest revelation only pertains to two online polls, it's not yet known if the campaign made other efforts to rig polls — and whether those efforts were larger and more successful. Manipulating online polls is frighteningly easy, aided by a black market that facilitates the sale of online votes.
This news comes just a week after the revelation that Paul Manafort passed along the Trump campaign's internal polling data to a Russian operative during the 2016 primaries — some of the strongest evidence yet of collusion between the campaign and Russia.
Perhaps this collusion would explain how the campaign mastered Russian disinformation operations.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.