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How Facebook plans to become one of the most powerful tools in politics

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Political campaigns are obsessed with two things: Telling every possible voter exactly what they want to hear in order to get them to the polls and cast the "right" vote, and telling them that message for as close to zero dollars as possible.

It's not a surprise, then, that Facebook has focused its social-Sauron eye on the world of politics. Already a focal point of political activity (of varying quality), the site has shifted its toolset to let campaigns target extremely specific audiences with very specific messages, for prices somewhat north of zero dollars. The end goal for the company seems clear: Replace, as much as possible, expensive, blanketed television advertising with much more immediate, much more specific ads appearing in users' feeds -- and then cash a whole lot of checks.

This is not as far in the future as you might think.

When Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) ran for reelection in 2008, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama was breaking new ground in using the web for engagement and fundraising. At that point, Facebook had only been available to the public at large for two years, and it was still largely self-contained: Pages didn't have built-in "Like" buttons, for example.

Six years later, Cornyn gave his campaign team the space to explore what had changed. "It was important to Senator Cornyn that we do digital right and that we innovate," Cornyn's campaign manager Brendan Steinhauser told us by phone. "When he sat down and he interviewed me, he said, 'I want to bring the Republican party into the 21st century when it comes to digital and when it comes to minority outreach,'" Steinhauser said of the senator. "He's a true believer in it."

To that end, the campaign used an external firm to match its voter list with Facebook users before the not-very-contested Republican primary against Rep. Steve Stockman. That system allowed them to contact hundreds of thousands of voters for under 20 cents a piece, much more cheaply than by mail (which costs at least 50 cents a piece, at the cheapest). Mail has historically been the best way to target specific voters, due to its relatively low cost and ability to easily pick out a particular group by address. Facebook let the campaign do that cheaper and with better feedback.

By the time the general election came, Facebook had introduced an interface that made the process much more robust. "They partnered with Acxiom and created an interface so you can simply upload any postal list that you want," campaign political director Josh Eboch told us by phone, "and they'll match it to your Facebook account and give you those users in an audience within a matter of hours." The match isn't only based on the email address you use to log in. "You can match postal addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, user IDs, if you have those, or even app IDs. If you have any of that data, they can use it," Eboch said. It's the postal address that's most useful "because it gives you so much more flexibility."

Think about that. Assuming you have a Facebook account, which you do, Facebook knows your email address. It probably knows your name, your birthday, where you work, where you worked, and who you're friends with. It knows far more than that, of course, both directly and indirectly. The firm that Eboch mentioned, Acxiom, also provides a wide swath of other data to Facebook, beyond what you've entered on the site or "liked."

This allows campaigns (as it does other advertisers) to target very, very specific groups of people linked tightly to the campaign's voter file. One of the best practices for campaign communication is to sandwich messages, layering a communication (like a piece of mail or a TV spot) with some other spur (like an email or a Facebook ad) both before and after. Cornyn's team could advertise to specific voters on Facebook before and after fundraising solicitations appeared in their actual mailboxes.

Cornyn's campaign also used Facebook as an informal laboratory for ads it was considering using more broadly. It targeted people who'd signed petitions on an issue or who had been identified as being interested in an issue with specific ads. This ad, titled "Mi Papa," targeted Hispanic voters.

"We saw that [the ad], run to Spanish-speaking voters on Facebook, was the best performing ad that we had all year long," Eboch said. "That made it into our heavy rotation on broadcast television, because we realized that our audience was engaging with the ad more than the other Spanish-language ad."

You can see how this power balance could flip. Television ads cost a lot -- particularly broadcast television ads -- and the ability to target specific voter populations is still limited, again, particularly over the big networks. You tell a cable company that you want to target white men over 50 and they put together a package that includes the Golf Channel. That's changing; there is now technology to target ads to specific homes over cable, but it's young. But Facebook still has the advantage in knowing much more about our social activity -- that you like golf, which courses you like, who you played a round with and when. Not to mention that Facebook is portable: we use it on our phones and tablets more regularly than we watch television.

The site has a proven ability to leverage social networks to political action. In our story about Facebook and politics earlier this month, we noted experiments in 2010 and 2012 in which Facebook explored how it could influence turnout. Four years ago, it introduced "Megaphone," which let users tell their friends when they'd voted -- and hundreds of thousands more people actually voted as a result. (This is the sort of thing that it seems like campaigns would be eager to add to their tool set -- Eboch said he'd "definitely" be interested in it as a service -- but a Facebook spokesman confirmed that it would not be a paid product.)

Facebook ads are "still more expensive," Eboch says -- costing $3 or $4 to show an ad to a very tailored universe of voters. That's still cheaper than paying more to show it to a larger, more approximated group on cable television, especially since there's no way to tell if the ad was seen, unlike on Facebook. It's also pricier than targeting through YouTube, but it's also more specific. "Facebook makes a powerful case" for video advertising because of that specificity, he said, but campaigns themselves are still wary. "We're still a ways from the mentality that it's about getting the right eyeballs and not just the eyeballs you can afford. I think Facebook can do it." Facebook's strong push into video indicates that it agrees. Video grew 50 percent on the network from May through July of this year.

Last week, The Awl's John Herrman noted that growth as he raised an important consideration for Facebook advertisers: the growth of sites creating specifically political content, putting more emphasis on virality than accuracy. It's worth quoting at length.

In the context of a customized feed, where each story is algorithmically selected based on the likelihood that you will engage with it, content-marketed identity media speaks louder and more clearly than content-marketed journalism, which is handicapped by everything that ostensibly makes it journalistic—tone, notions of fairness, purported allegiance to facts and context over conclusions. These posts are not so much stories as sets of political premises stripped of context and asserted via Facebook share—they scan like analysis but contain only conclusions; after the headline, they never argue, only reveal.

Most of what is shared is messy and outside of the control of publishers, both media and advertisers. In Herrman's words, "The thing that grabs your attention and holds it the longest, that is most likely to be shared again, is the thing that wins the next slot in the endless algorithmic draw." Facebook is a particularly polarized place, meaning that political stories often bounce around quickly -- good and bad, true and false -- and less scrupulous publishers (both media and advertisers) can tap into that.

This was something the Cornyn campaign faced, particularly in its primary campaign against Stockman, whose modus operandi in politics is to see how much play he can get from a wide variety of outrageous claims. It's a classic dilemma for a campaign -- how do you reply to an opponent's attack without giving them attention? -- that's made trickier by the endless sharing of politically-potent-but-damaging stories.

"Because we did this targeted advertising, we could respond to things without responding to things," Eboch said. When Stockman attacked Cornyn for being soft on guns, the campaign targeted Stockman-sympathetic voters who were worried about gun rights with an ad encouraging them to show their support for a concealed-carry bill Cornyn had introduced. "It allowed us to respond without doing so publicly and giving him more attention than he deserves." There's another lesson from that: dumb social can sometimes be blunted by smart targeting. (Sometimes.)

We'll note that Cornyn was never not going to win, in either its primary or general elections. The campaign staffers we spoke with insisted that the senator would have used Facebook as liberally (so to speak) regardless. Steinhauser summarized the campaign's operating principle -- at least in the ideal. "Go where the data tells you," he said. "I think that's the broader theme of this. Let's actually be a data-driven campaign." Cornyn's team spent about a fifth of its marketing budget on digital in the primary, and slightly less in the general. "We're going down that road, but we're not there now, and hopefully we'll be there as a party in the next couple of years." The difference between 2008 and 2014 was stark. The difference between 2014 and 2016 possibly more so. Campaigns are planning ahead.

Which is why Facebook, awash in the data you've given it, is salivating.