There are two benefits for political campaigns with the social-media-spawned ability to target ads to smaller universes of people.
The first is that they can tailor a very specific message to a very specific population, like pitching a drilled-down policy position to, say, Hispanic men under age 45 who are farmers near Fresno, Calif.
The second is that, because not very many people will see that message, the odds that it rises to national attention are small. You can’t hide a television ad. If you buy a television ad on cable or on a broadcast network, someone is going to see it, and, if newsworthy, it will end up on the news.
Before social media — most specifically, Facebook — campaigns had to balance cost, reach and targeting through spending on direct mail, field programs and television. Now, they can pick out individuals from a massive crowd with a tailor-made video ad for relatively little cost — with much less of a chance that their opponents find out it ever happened.
The presidential campaign of Donald Trump embraced this explicitly. In October of last year, Bloomberg News reported that the campaign’s digital arm, run by Brad Parscale, would target possible Hillary Clinton voters for an inverse pitch. The Trump campaign would not show them ads making the case for voting for Trump; instead, they showed videos that they hoped would dampen enthusiasm for Clinton — and get the voters to stay home.
[A] young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of 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.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts” — nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.”
That “nonpublic” part is important.
Last year, people stumbled onto this tweet from Donald Trump.
If you search his timeline, this post doesn’t show up. That’s because it was created as an ad that ran in certain users’ Twitter timelines — a nonpublic tweet meant only for a small audience.
Twitter’s advertising system allows one to target users pretty precisely: by Zip code, by interest or by email address, if you upload a list into the system.
Facebook’s targeting is even more robust, as we’ve reported previously, allowing campaigns to upload full voter files that can be used to target specific people. The more narrowly you target, the more expensive it gets, but when you want to keep the profile of your post as small as possible, that’s a cost you’ll pay.
The Trump campaign paid that cost running huge targeting experiments on Facebook, including one ad campaign that pointed users to 100,000 different Web pages.
As the Trump campaign was hoping to change people’s minds about the utility of voting for Clinton, so was another group, according to U.S. intelligence agencies: agents of the Russian government.
The declassified assessment of Russian meddling in the 2016 election that was released in January spent a lot of time focusing on how Russia attempted to spread misinformation or slanted news articles to bolster the campaign of Donald Trump. They weren’t trying to hide what they were doing, as such, simply flooding the zone with so much bad information that it became remarkable as a phenomenon, not as an instance. If Trump’s “superpredators” video had leaked, it would have prompted one reaction. Yet another untrue story about Hillary Clinton was simply part of the flood.
With both the Trump campaign and the foreign power that intelligence agencies believe supported it focused on targeting social media users, it is perhaps inevitable that the investigation into Russian meddling includes a look at where those efforts might overlap. And so they are.
According to McClatchy’s D.C. bureau, both congressional and Justice Department investigators are looking to determine if the Trump campaign specifically aided the Russian misinformation efforts by pointing them to particular demographic targets.
One source familiar with Justice’s criminal probe said investigators doubt Russian operatives controlling the so-called robotic cyber commands that fetched and distributed fake news stories could have independently “known where to specifically target … to which high-impact states and districts in those states.”
The investigation is allegedly also looking to see if information flowed the other way.
Among other things, congressional investigators are looking into whether Russian operatives, who successfully penetrated voting registration systems in Illinois, Arizona and possibly other states, shared any of that data with the Trump campaign, according to a report in Time.
In other words, the investigations have expanded to include an assessment of whether the Trump campaign hinted to the Russians that targeting, say, black voters under the age of 40 in Michigan would be a more effective use of their energies. Additionally, they’re investigating if Russia passed data from state-voter databases back to Trump’s team.
That’s a tantalizing idea, and one for which there’s no public evidence at this point. In part, that’s a function of social media networks being loathe to share information about who targeted which people and where.
In May, writing for The Post, researchers from the University of Oxford demanded that Facebook release data on how and where the Russians had sought to influence the election through the use of its network. It hasn’t done so.
The site did release a report in April detailing how “information operations” — efforts by state actors — tried to influence the election results. In short, fake Facebook accounts were created to “push narratives and themes that reinforced or expanded on” stories that were created outside of Facebook, including from information stolen from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. (But, Facebook insists, “the reach of known operations during the US election of 2016 was statistically very small compared to overall engagement on political issues.”)
What campaigns look for most of all in their outreach efforts is, of course, results. In this case, it’s very hard to say what may have made the difference, in part because the end result was so close, coming down to 78,000 votes in three states. Yes, the Clinton campaign suffered from a drop-off in turnout among African American voters — but that was probably driven far more by the fact that Barack Obama wasn’t on the ticket than that Trump’s digital team was hitting people with “superpredator” ads.
But was that part of it? Was the effort by the Russians? And was there overlap between the two efforts?
Questions for which we may never know the answer. But questions which stem in large part from American politics suddenly finding itself on a whole new communications terrain.