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From Obama to Cambridge Analytica: how did we get here? (Podcast)

Where did the controversial 'influence campaigns' come from? Two Obama volunteers look back at the revolution they started in 2008 – and how a grassroots effort in Virginia – people before party – could be key to vanquishing Trump.

Intro music: Dinoavion - Kuso CC A-NC 3.0

Kellen Squire was a blue collar disillusioned Republican and a new Dad. Chris Blask had just sold a cyber-security company and was similarly impressed with what Obama had to say. The Hillary Clinton/ Obama wars is where Kellen and Christopher first came into contact with each other... Podcast - 53 minutes.

“I ended up spending 15 hours a day, seven days a week focusing on this Obama Rapid Response (ORR) thing. On the Obama website you could just join, create blogs and get involved with the ORR, whose core group had 200 members, but there were hundreds maybe thousands of state, regional, local, municipal rapid response teams who were all connected and could all communicate with each other.”

How much was there innovation tech-wise? "In short, little, but important. The best comparison was between the Hillary Clinton campaign website and the Obama campaign website at that time. They were both using existing technologies that could have been used by anybody, but the Obama campaign had adopted it in a very open fashion. Volunteers could do little things, large things, big things, whatever they wanted."

"The Clinton campaign was much more traditional. You would request access to something and someone would maybe approve to let you do something. But from the technology perspective, it was just a point along the continuing evolutionary line that we are on. By that point, some savvy folks early in the Obama campaign would have found existing platforms they could tweak, where they could have large memberships doing the kinds of things we are used to in social media now that weren’t generally done at the time.”

“Part of what drove me, because I was so taken by the message that Senator Obama had, was that I was trying to understand where the breakdown was and why Democrats were so acrimonious with each other. We’d go into it with Clinton supporters because we were such unapologetic Obama supporters, and we were trying to bridge the divide and find out what was separating us …"

"When Chris was talking about influence campaigns – well that can be influence by both sides. I think 2008 was probably the first time we saw the start of what in 2016 is a science – using trolls and botts and sock-puppet accounts to try and create a false consensus to drive the conversation any way you want. I think Chris and I were fighting against that as well…"

"There was a lady who was ostensibly a Hillary Clinton supporter but was always framing her arguments and trying to organise it in such a way as to cause as much strife as possible. Like, 'By God if you don’t support Hillary Clinton, burn the whole thing down!' A lot of us were fighting very diplomatically, and at some point a lot of us were thinking, “How much of this is real and organic, and how much of it is being astroturfed in!?” It led to the PUMA movement  – Party Unity My A***! …."

lead Democratic Senator Barack Obama makes a campaign stop at the Marriott while campaigning for the Iowa Caucus in Coralville, Iowa on January 2, 2008. Laura Cavanaugh/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

“Already then you could see the subtle trolls. Concerned trolls, like “Oh I’m really signed up, but I’m just concerned that” … some nuance, right? But there was a huge range. A troll could be some friend of yours who is a bit of a jerk, who is always posting something to get people riled up…  Or it could be someone who has a nefarious intent and is listening to the conversation you are having to inject other issues, and you wouldn’t commonly think they were trolling… Influence campaigns – can I yell “fire!” in this theatre? – as a way of dealing that achieves an adversarial goal, these go way back in history. In those days we were seeing this evolve for the first time in a largescale political environment ….”.

About the authors

Kellen Squire is a 33-year-old Emergency Room Nurse from Charlottesville, who ran as a 2017 Democratic candidate to represent the 58th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates. Visit his blog, Blue Virginia, here and on campaigning in Trump country, here.

Chris Blask is Global Director for Industrial Control Systems Security at Unisys. During the 2008 presidential campaign for Barack Obama he was a member of the Obama Rapid Response leadership. Chris has been involved in the cybersecurity industries for more than 25 years, inventing one of the first Internet firewalls, co-founding a Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) company, and chairing global information sharing organizations. He is involved with a wide range of national and international cybersecurity efforts. Chris lives in Orlando, Florida.

Mary Fitzgerald is Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy. Before joining oD she worked for Avaaz, the global campaigning organisation, and is a former Senior Editor of Prospect Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Observer, New Statesman and others. Follow her on Twitter: @maryftz

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