The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Technology 202: Trump leverages Facebook's powerful ad tools to push anti-impeachment message

with Tonya Riley

Note to readers: The Technology 202 is taking a holiday hiatus. Tomorrow, Dec. 19, will be the final edition of the year. The newsletter will be back in your inboxes on Monday, Jan. 6, with an edition dedicated to the tech policy issues that will shape 2020. Send your predictions about the ways disinformation, privacy, antitrust and other topics will evolve next year to Happy holidays!

Ctrl + N

President Trump believes the impeachment fight has galvanized his base to rally around him. And he's helping stoke the flames by pouring a chunk of his 2020 campaign's resources into an aggressive Facebook ad campaign in the weeks leading up to today’s historic House vote.  

Trump spent an estimated $648,713.27 on anti-impeachment Facebook ads during a three-week period beginning Nov. 23, according to an analysis of Facebook data by the Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. 

Trump’s ads take direct aim at his Democratic rivals in Congress, urging voters to add their names to a list to fight back against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.).

“Nancy and Jerry are trying to brainwash the American People like the 2016 Election never happened - like YOUR VOTE never happened,” said one ad active on Facebook this morning. “WE NEED TO FIGHT BACK.

Trump's 2020 campaign has also been running ads for months calling for donations to an “Official Impeachment Defense Fund.” “Democrats hate the idea of you being in charge of our country! Donate now! We are CRITICALLY SHORT of our goal!," one ad active today warned. 

Trump and Republicans are far outspending Democrats on impeachment-related Facebook ads, according to data collected by Bully Pulpit, highlighting how the social network’s powerful ad tools are a key prong of the president’s strategy to win reelection. 

“The impeachment issue has been a real win for them,” Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist told me. “Their supporters realize the president is under attack, and they need to chip in and get their skin in the game.”

By contrast, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was the top-spending Democratic presidential candidate on impeachment Facebook ads in the same three-week period. She spent an estimated $62,274.38 on Facebook impeachment ads,  analyzed by Bully Pulpit, with ads reminding readers she was the first 2020 candidate to call for impeachment. "It’s long past time to hold Donald Trump accountable," said one ad active today. 

The Trump campaign ads seem to be targeting likely supporters, as they're largely focused on soliciting donations and voter contact information. But given the thousands of ads being distributed on Facebook by the campaign, it wasn't immediately clear which kind of voters the campaign was specifically targeting with its impeachment messaging.

Nonethless, Trump's campaign believes the issue is a winning one. Campaign manager Brad Parscale told reporters last week that impeachment process was benefiting the campaign by every metric he tracks, including voter sentiment and fundraising. 

“This lit up our base, lit up the people that are supporters of the president. They’re frustrated, they’re upset, and that motivates voters,” Parscale told reporters during a briefing. “They have ignited a flame underneath them.”

Trump’s campaign isn’t acting alone -- other groups on the right, including America First Policies, American Action Network and the Presidential Coalition are running ads calling out individual Democratic members of Congress for supporting impeachment. These groups have been targeting Democrats like Nadler who are in the impeachment spotlight, as well as specific members from swing states, according to an analysis of Facebook ad data prepared by the progressive firm Acronym. The right-leaning group American Action Network, for example, ran ads urging people to contact Democrats including Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) and Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) and tell them to vote "no" on impeachment. 

Meanwhile, advertising on the left has largely been directed at Trump. The Democratic Party has run a Facebook ad asking people to sign a petition to impeach Trump, and groups including Stand Up America have run ads urging readers to impeach Trump now, according to Acronym's analysis.

The firm found only one major Democratic Senate candidate in a 2020 battleground state running ads on impeachment, former Columbus, Ga., Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, challenging Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). Her ads began running over the summer before the impeachment inquiry in Congress began, according to Facebook Ad Library data. 

Trump's heavy reliance on Facebook ads comes as the campaign has been very critical of any moves by technology companies to limit online advertising tools. The Trump campaign last month criticized Facebook after company executives said they were mulling changes to rules around political ads that could affect the campaign’s ability to target potential donors and volunteers on the platform, my colleagues Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley Becker reported. With red siren emoji, the Team Trump Twitter account warned the company was trying to eliminate important tools.

As impeachment proceeds, the Trump campaign is expected to continue its counter campaign online. Axios reports this morning the campaign is planning to continue heavy online advertising countering impeachment, bolstered by videos that aim to make Democrats look like hypocrites. They'll feature lawmakers talking about impeaching Trump since the earliest days of his presidency, as well as comments Democrats they made about impeachment during the Clinton era. 

"The Trump team really understands the value of advertising to build and grow their list and to drive fundraising," Wilson said.


BITS: A Russian network led a disinformation campaign against Marie Yovanovitch, the American ambassador to Ukraine at the center of the impeachment inquiry, the social media analysis firm Graphika said in a report yesterday. The campaign offers a warning about how Russians are weaponizing Western media in “evolving methods and wide-ranging goals of disinformation,” my colleague Isaac Stanley-Becker reports

The campaign focused on circulating an image of a list of individuals that Yovanovitch purportedly told Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, not to prosecute. The State Department has denied such a list exists, and Yovanovitch has called the notion that she disseminated such a list a “fabrication.”

The images appeared on Medium and other self-publishing platforms just days after former The Hill columnist John Solomon published an interview where Lutsenko claimed the list existed. Both English and Russian-language versions of the story then spread on Facebook and Reddit, with Russian versions citing “Western media” as the source for the image.

The operation, which Graphika has tied to at least 44 other fake news articles discrediting the U.S. and British governments, appeared to use existing discord to “smear American operations more generally” said Ben Nimmo, Graphika’s director of investigations. 

“The Solomon story is the seed, and you have different actors jumping on it for different reasons,” says Nimmo. “Conservative politicians and media in the U.S. find it useful for their purposes, and, separately, it gets a fairly brief and remarkable life in Russian media.”

Solomon told Isaac he is not responsible for Russian disinformation based on his reporting and that the only clarification sought by Lutsenko was that the list was transmitted orally.

NIBBLES: Peter Thiel, a billionaire investor who has supported Trump, is at the center of internal turmoil among Facebook's top ranks over the company's handling of political ads. The influential Facebook board member has been pushing CEO Mark Zuckerberg to not cave to public pressure and continue exempting politicians' ads from fact-checking, the Wall Street Journal's Emily Glazer, Deepa Seetharaman and Jeff Horwitz report.

That puts him at odds with other directors and senior leaders at Facebook, who want the company to overhaul the policy. Some are even pushing for possibly banning political ads altogether, the Journal reports. 

Critics say that Facebook's decision to not fact-check ads benefits the Trump campaign, sparking concern about Thiel's involvement. Thiel, who served on Trump's transition team in 2016, has also helped Zuckerberg with his strategy in approaching the Trump White House, people familiar with their relationship told the Journal. 

David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression said: 

Facebook pushed back against criticism. “Many of the decisions we’re making at Facebook come with difficult trade-offs and we’re approaching them with careful rigor at all levels of the company, from the board of directors down,” a Facebook spokesman told the Journal. “We’re fortunate to have a board with diverse experiences and perspectives so we can ensure debate that reflects a cross section of views.”

Thiel also wielded his influence to help kill an idea that would have created an outside advisory group to analyze the company after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook directed its employees to investigate the potential role of Thiel and his company Palantir in the scandal, though the company has denied any illicit involvement.

BYTES: Facebook is piloting a program in the United States that will use contract workers to flag potentially false Facebook content to its third-party fact-checking partners, the company announced yesterday. The company’s latest experiment in fact-checking comes as there is increased scrutiny of its efforts to fight disinformation ahead of next year's elections. 

The reviews are meant to surface potentially misleading content to professional fact-checkers more quickly, product manager Henry Silverman wrote in a blog post announcing the pilot. Contractors will be limited to noting if corroborating news sources exist for a piece of content and then referring that piece of content to third-party fact-checkers, who will make any final decisions about the content’s veracity. Facebook can then decide to demote or reduce distribution of the content.

Facebook already uses contractors for a host of content-moderation jobs, but the company says this group of individuals will be selected to be "representative of the Facebook community in the US and reflects the diverse viewpoints — including political ideology." Facebook tapped YouGov, a public opinion and data company, to study its user base to determine what a representative user pool would look like. Facebook did not elaborate on how many contractors it will launch the pilot with or how much they will be paid, but it says its contractor Appen could scale up the workforce as the project goes on.


— News from the public sector:

Surveillance court demands answers from FBI for errors, omissions in Trump campaign investigation (Devlin Barrett)

Online sex trafficking law shows difficulty of reining in Big Tech (The New York Times)

Judge grants government proceeds from Edward Snowden’s book (Rachel Weiner)

Facebook details location tracking after pressure from senators (The Hill)


— News from the private sector:

Another fired Google engineer alleges retaliation for union activity (Greg Bensinger)

Facebook Has Banned Groups That Promote Flesh-Eating Fake Cancer Cures (BuzzFeed News)

You Might Be Buying Trash on Amazon—Literally (The Wall Street Journal)

Consumer groups issue product warning for Amazon Ring after latest video hack (Vox)


—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:

Meet The Young Influencers Making Socialism Cool On TikTok (BuzzFeed News)

The Short Life and Viral Death of Bianca Devins (Rolling Stone)

The Real Trouble With Silicon Valley (The Atlantic)


—Coming up:

  • CES will take place Jan. 7-10 in Las Vegas