Facebook ads run by Trump’s re-election campaign appeared more than 500 days before election day. Photograph: Facebook
All-in on digital
That Trump’s re-election campaign would go all-in on digital became clear in February 2018, when Brad Parscale was appointed campaign director. Parscale was a digital marketing consultant with little political experience when he was tapped to run Trump’s 2016 online operation. He was not shy about taking credit for Trump’s unlikely presidential victory, touting the sophistication of his Facebook strategy, which he said involved running as many as 60,000 ad variants at a time, taking the concept of A/B testing to extremes.
In many ways, that 2016 presidential campaign never ended. Trump filed for re-election on the day of his inauguration and has held dozens of campaign rallies since. Evidence of this permanent campaign is even more apparent online.
The Trump campaign’s spending on Facebook and Google advertisements leading up to the 2018 midterm elections dwarfed every other candidate besides Beto O’Rourke – and Trump wasn’t even on the ballot. In the first six months of 2019, Trump spent more than $11.1m on Facebook and Google ads alone, according to disclosures by the social media companies. For the corresponding six months of the most recent presidential race with an incumbent – January through June 2011 – Barack Obama spent just $850,000 on online advertising, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings.
A Trump campaign official, who insisted on speaking on background, offered only vague generalities about the current iteration of the digital campaign. Hesaid it was rooted in a Silicon Valley mindset and was akin to high-frequency trading. He described the format of the ads as “direct response marketing”, meaning that they are designed to induce a response – either a donation, an email signup, or a mobile phone signup – from the target.
The official denied a Bloomberg report that the 2016 campaign used Facebook ads as part of a voter suppression effort designed to dampen enthusiasm among likely Democratic voters, and refused to commit not to run such ads in the 2020 campaign.
An analysis of the content and targeting of Trump presidential campaign ads by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital campaigning firm that has built an interactive tool to compare spending across campaigns, found thatmore than half (54%) of Trump’s ads have mentioned immigration issues and nearly half (44%) are targeting voters over the age of 65.
The campaign’s demographic and geographical targeting so far hasn’t been particularly out of the ordinary, said Mike Schneider, a partner at Bully Pulpit. But the general tone of the ads has been surprisingly reactive and negative, he said. Since Facebook began archiving political ads in May 2018, Trump has run about 26,000 that mention “fake news”; 14,000 that reference the border; and 3,600 that include the phrase “witch hunt”, the Guardian found. Ads hawking an “executive membership card” (2,700) appear to be more common than ads that address issues such as healthcare.
Eric Wilson, the Republican strategist, said that such metrics reveal more about what topics and communication styles resonate with Trump voters on Facebook than they do about the overall message of the campaign.
“The campaign is putting out messages that are going to convert the most donors and supporters at the lowest cost possible,” he said. “The only thing we can read into Facebook advertising is what’s working on Facebook. There is a science and art to driving conversions on Facebook, and that is separate to a broader political strategy. It’s in harmony, but it’s not wagging the dog.”
‘Politics is way behind’
While Trump may be dominating the digital field at this stage, his tactics are not particularly groundbreaking, several experts told the Guardian. His opponents simply haven’t fully gotten into the game yet.
“I don’t think Trump’s campaign is incredibly sophisticated compared to corporations and how they use digital. It’s just that politics is way behind,”said Jessica Alter, co-founder of Tech for Campaigns, a volunteer organization that is connecting Silicon Valley tech talent with Democratic campaigns. “Trump spent 44% of his media budget on digital. Other campaigns are closer to 6-8%. Industry standard for corporations is 54%. It starts there.”
Alter’s organization undertook a comprehensive analysis of the political ads run by both parties in the 2018 midterms. Among other things, their findings help explain why the Trump campaign is targeting older people.
“There’s this myth that digital is for young people,” said Alter. “People 55 years and older have a three times higher propensity to click on a digital ad than the younger generation.” That higher click rate means more donations, more email addresses, and more cellphone numbers, all of which are key to staying competitive and, 16 months from now, turning out the vote.
‘A corrupting influence’
Still, the concerns are many. Digital campaign ads, and the data used to target them at tiny subsets of the electorate, were an important part of the Russian troll farm’s efforts to influence the 2016 election, as well as the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
And the ability to micro-target various groups with finely tuned messages pushes campaigns toward anti-democratic behavior, warned Anthony Nadler, an associate professor of Media and Communication Studies at Ursinus College.
Nadler compared the use of A/B testing on users – whose reaction to an ad is recorded whether they click on it or not – to turning Facebook users into “unwitting subjects in what is more or less psychological testing”.
“It has a sort of corrupting influence, turning campaigns as a whole toward trying to mobilize people in very niche ways, trying to influence people in a very niche way, and trying to demonize the other side,” Nadler said.
Nadler has called for a ban on A/B testing in online digital campaigning, a somewhat far-fetched proposal that would require campaigns to stick to a single version of an ad, rather than constantly test minor variations on users.
While companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have made it easier following the 2016 election to monitor what campaigns are doing on their platforms by setting up new public transparency tools to monitor the ads campaigns are putting out on their platforms, those tools won’t be a true bulwark against the kind of dirty tricks that Russia’s Internet Research Agency deployed in 2016, Nadler warned.
“Dark money groups are particularly dangerous because they have no reputation to protect,” he said, referring to not-for-profit organizations that can engage in political campaigning without disclosing the source of their funding. Although Facebook now requires political ads to disclose the name of the organization funding the ad, Nadler noted that it is “pretty easy” for motivated bad actors to create new not-for-profit groups through which to funnel money for campaigning.
“I think they’re going to be the pioneers of pushing these tactics to the furthest reaches,” he said.
These strategies could include efforts to create division or suppress enthusiasm within the opposition. A dark money group could even pose as being part of a certain political coalition, without it being true, as the Russian troll groups did.
“As opposed to persuading individual voters, you can just get certain groups of people to not be too excited, or cynical and sour,” Nadler said. “That matters, and that’s what social media can do.”