- Date published:
9:33 am, December 26th, 2016 - 72 comments
Categories: International, making shit up, Media, the praiseworthy and the pitiful, us politics, you couldn't make this shit up - Tags: donald trump, facebook
In a year of many political surprises the election of the Donald must rank at the top of the unexpected list.
How did he do it? How after a string of embarrassing revelations, little funding and after most of the senior Republican party including living Republican Presidents stating they would not support him did he get over the line?
One theory is that it had a lot to do with his Facebook campaigning. He may have been pilloried in the press, had no on the ground campaign, and lost the popular vote but the result points to either incredible good luck or impressive and effective targeted campaigning using that medium.
Facebook is an interesting campaign tool. I used it quite a bit for local campaigning this year. The problems with general political posts are self evident, it becomes clear that there are bubbles of mostly similar thinking friends and acquaintances liking your profound thoughts but there is little initial cut through to other groups of people. The posts that worked best were those on local issues that received attention on community pages. And all news is treated of equal quality. The more extreme and newsworthy the more clicks.
Facebook also has a sophisticated way of driving impressions to selected users, and potential permutations include age, geography, links to friends and interests. With a degree of surgical precision paid advertising can be delivered to all sorts of different groups and individuals.
Trump clearly had a two pronged approach. One prong was aimed at depressing turnout of Clinton supporters. From a post by Joel Winston:
“We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” a senior Trump official explained to reporters from BusinessWeek. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.”
The goal was to depress Hillary Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” the senior Trump official said. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”
For example, Trump’s digital team created a South Park-style animation of Hillary Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” Then, Trump’s animated “super predator” political advertisement was delivered to certain African American voters via Facebook “dark posts” — nonpublic paid posts shown only to the Facebook users that Trump chose.
And this aspect of the campaign worked. Turnout for Clinton was demonstrably lower than the turnout for Obama.
On Election Day, Democratic turnout in battleground was surprisingly weak, especially among sporadic and first-time voters. David Plouffe, manager of President Obama’s 2008 campaign, noted that, “in Detroit, Mrs. Clinton received roughly 70,000 votes fewer than Mr. Obama did in 2012; she lost Michigan by just 12,000 votes. In Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, she received roughly 40,000 votes fewer than Mr. Obama did, and she lost the state by just 27,000. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, turnout in majority African-American precincts was down 11 percent from four years ago.”
Trump’s presidential election victory is the most successful digital voter suppression operation in American history. The secret weapons in Trump’s digital arsenal were Project Alamo, his database of 220 million people in the United States, and the Facebook Advertising Platform. By leveraging Facebook’s sophisticated advertising tools, including Facebook Dark Posts, Facebook Audience-Targeting, and Facebook Custom Audiences from Customer Lists, the Trump campaign was able to secretly target Hillary Clinton’s supporters and covertly discourage them from going to the polls to vote.
Trump also used Facebook to expand the list of supporters and raise money as well as support. Again from Winston:
To start, [head of of Trump’s digital operation Brad] Parscale uploaded the names, email addresses, and phone numbers of known Trump supporters into the Facebook advertising platform. Next, Parscale used Facebook’s “Custom Audiences from Customer Lists” to match these real people with their virtual Facebook profiles. With Facebook’s “Audience Targeting Options” feature, ads can be targeted to people based on their Facebook activity, ethic affinity, or “location and demographics like age, gender and interests. You can even target your ad to people based on what they do off of Facebook.”
Parscale then expanded Trump’s pool of targeted Facebook users using “Lookalike Audiences”, a powerful data tool that automatically found other people on Facebook with “common qualities” that “look like” known Trump supporters. Finally, Parscale used Facebook’s “Brand Lift” survey capabilities to measure the success of the ads.
And to increase further the level of unease Team Trump created a database with the unusual name of Project Alamo which contains up to 4 to 5,000 data points on 220 million Americans and let them target the different audiences with precision. From Joshua Green at Bloomberg:
Although his operation lags previous campaigns in many areas (its ground game, television ad buys, money raised from large donors), it’s excelled at one thing: building an audience. Powered by Project Alamo and data supplied by the RNC and Cambridge Analytica, his team is spending $70 million a month, much of it to cultivate a universe of millions of fervent Trump supporters, many of them reached through Facebook. By Election Day, the campaign expects to have captured 12 million to 14 million e-mail addresses and contact information (including credit card numbers) for 2.5 million small-dollar donors, who together will have ponied up almost $275 million. “I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump, if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine,” says Bannon. “Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.”
Since Trump paid to build this audience with his own campaign funds, he alone will own it after Nov. 8 and can deploy it to whatever purpose he chooses. He can sell access to other campaigns or use it as the basis for a 2020 presidential run. It could become the audience for a Trump TV network. As Bannon puts it: “Trump is an entrepreneur.”
A great deal has been written about the use of fake news particularly on Facebook feeds and the effect this had on perceptions of the candidates. Unbelievable stories such as the Pope had endorsed Trump, or Hillary Clinton had a romantic relationship with Yoko Ono in the 1970s found their way onto people’s feeds. But there may have been a simple explanation for the proliferation of these stories and the associated websites unconnected to Trump’s political ambitions and caused purely by human greed and its motivation on a bunch of teenagers in a small village in Macedonia. From Jonathan Vankin on Buzzfeed:
… the [fake news] sites in Macedonia are run mostly by teenagers looking to turn a quick buck. While U.S. publishers struggle to build revenue streams from Facebook shares and search engine clicks, the small amounts of money paid by those sources can be substantial in a struggling economy such as Macedonia’s.
The Macedonian teens interviewed by BuzzFeed earlier experimented with fake or often plagiarized stories about Bernie Sanders, but found that even Sanders with his devoted cult following did not generate the same level of traffic as Trump.
“People in America prefer to read news about Trump,” the 16-year-old proprietor of pro-Trump site BVANews.com told BuzzFeed.
While not all stories even on the Macedonian sites are flatly false, BuzzFeed found that false stories on average generated significantly more internet “clicks” than accurate news stories. A false story claiming that Clinton in 2013 had described Trump as “honest and can’t be bought” generated 480,000 Facebook shares, comments and reactions in one week — compared to the New York Times bombshell revealing that Trump had likely paid no income tax since 1995, which produced 175,000 Facebook engagements.
And how and why did it work? Paul Horner a fake news veteran gave this very clear description of the current state of affairs. From the Washington Post:
Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Issy Lapowski in Wired concludes:
Whether fake news did or didn’t affect the election’s outcome, Facebook as a platform did. The winning candidate was not just willing, but eager to break with traditional models of campaigning. His team invested in new ways of using the digital tools and platforms that have come to dominate the media landscape. Anyone who wants to defeat him in the future will have to do the same.
Trump may have been heavily outspent by Clinton in terms of mainstream media. But clearly he made his spend count. And by judicious use of existing bubbles, whether it was to suppress enthusiasm among likely Democrat supporters or to peddle fake stories amongst those willing to believe his tactics worked.
The world’s democracies may never be the same …