WIRED has a new article up that techbro-splains how Russia’s Facebook ad campaign was not nearly as important to the Trump campaign as was his own propaganda.
In “How Trump Conquered Facebook – Without Russian Ads”, Antonio García Martínez, a former-Facebook monetization team member and now a writer, explains how the Trump campaign exploited two vital parts of Facebook’s advertising system, specifically the “Orwellian… Custom Audiences (and its diabolical little brother, Lookalike Audiences).”
Because the Trump campaign’s ads were “provocative” clickbait that caused Facebook users to interact with them, Facebook systematically charged the Trump campaign less to run the ads than what they were charging Clinton’s campaign.
Imagine if a television network gave a discount to one political campaign while charging their campaign opponent 5 to 10 times more to run their ads based on the ad’s message. If this happened in the traditional media world, it would likely seem like an in-kind campaign contribution, which our laws supposedly regulate.
Facebook subsidized the Trump campaign into the White House.
During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters.
But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook’s click model, effectively winning him more media for less money.
In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone’s screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices. Facebook users in swing states who felt Trump had taken over their news feeds may not have been hallucinating.
The system Facebook uses to give trolls a discount is their ads auction. If the ads will drive traffic to Facebook, then the social media company will give its advertiser a discount. Martínez explains:
Facebook has a piece of ad real estate that it’s auctioning off, and potential advertisers submit a piece of ad creative, a targeting spec for their ideal user, and a bid for what they’re willing to pay to obtain a desired response (such as a click, a like, or a comment). Rather than simply reward that ad position to the highest bidder, though, Facebook uses a complex model that considers both the dollar value of each bid as well as how good a piece of clickbait (or view-bait, or comment-bait) the corresponding ad is. If Facebook’s model thinks your ad is 10 times more likely to engage a user than another company’s ad, then your effective bid at auction is considered 10 times higher than a company willing to pay the same dollar amount.
Trump was able to trigger (I think with the help of Russian bots, but Martínez doesn’t go there) the Facebook “self-reinforcing feedback loop” which is based on engagement: likes, shares, and comments. Facebook claims the Russians spent a measly $100,000 on ads, compared to the millions of dollars Trump spent. But, once a Facebook use clicked the bait, his or her page would find more and similar campaign propaganda targeting them.
One of the ways the Trump campaign leveraged Lookalike Audiences was through its voter suppression campaigns among likely Clinton voters. They seeded the Audiences assembly line with content about Clinton that was engaging but dispiriting.
Toward the end of his piece Martínez quotes from a 2016 Bloomberg article about Brad Parscale, who Jared Kushner picked to lead Trump’s online campaign. Parscale “considers nearly a brother”.
“I always wonder why people in politics act like this stuff is so mystical,” Parscale said. “It’s the same shit we use in commercial, just has fancier names.” He is already working on the Trump 2020 campaign.
The Bloomberg article reported that Parscale used data from Robert Mercer’s company to target Trump ads:
Cambridge Analytica’s statistical models isolated likely supporters whom Parscale bombarded with ads on Facebook, while the campaign bought up e-mail lists from the likes of Gingrich and Tea Party groups to prospect for others. Some of the ads linked directly to a payment page, others—with buttons marked “Stand with Trump” or “Support Trump”—to a sign-up page that asked for a name, address, and online contact information. While his team at Giles-Parscale designed the ads, Parscale invited a variety of companies to set up shop in San Antonio to help determine which social media ads were most effective. Those companies test ad variations against one another—the campaign has ultimately generated 100,000 distinct pieces of creative content—and then roll out the strongest performers to broader audiences.
Parscale online strategy was so cheap and effective that Kushner (heh) was “worried that the agency’s efforts might have to be classified as an in-kind contribution.”
In his article, Martínez thinks the problem is campaigns link Clinton’s who failed to win Facebook’s feedback loop. “The Like button is our new ballot box, and democracy has been transformed into an algorithmic popularity contest,” Martínez writes. He believes the “fate of our 242-year-old experiment in democracy” depends on understanding how to exploit Facebook’s Custom Audiences and Lookalike Audiences products.
”Plotting Russians make for a good story, and external enemies frequently serve an internal purpose, but the trail of blame often leads much closer to home,” he concludes. The problem is gullible American voters on social media.