The effects of the efforts of Russian operatives sitting at computer terminals half a world away on the 2016 presidential election are still being discovered nearly sixteen months after Election Day. What’s receiving much less attention though are the legal tools the Trump campaign used to gain exposure, engagement and by extension, momentum, heading into the final weeks of the election.
Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Product Manager at Facebook, explains how the Trump campaign used, and mastered, two advertising features of the social media giant to make sure their message got more exposure and galvanized its supporters more than the Clinton campaign’s message.
The first feature is the ads auction feature. Inspired by the ad auction system of Google, Facebook’s ad auction system allows potential advertisers to submit an ad and bid on the action they would like to see a user make when seeing the ad, such as click, likes or comments. Unlike Google, though, Facebook doesn’t just reward that position to the highest bidder. Rather, it rewards it to the advertisement that has bid the highest and the highest likelihood that a user will engage with it.
If Facebook thinks for example, that your ad is twice as likely to get its users to engage with that ad, then your bid is considered twice as high as your competitor’s. Facebook, in other words, rewards engagement more than it rewards simple advertising.
During the final weeks of the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid for the same advertising real estate on Facebook, but because the Trump campaign used more provocative content and was better able to spur engagement, Facebook’s advertising platform rewarded it, giving Trump essentially more, and better, advertising slots than Clinton.
Those wins ultimately trigger a feedback loop in which advertising gets served to more users, therefore earns more engagement, which then causes it to get served to even more users and so on. It wasn’t just users’ imaginations that they were seeing more Trump ads, and more buzz around those ads, than Clinton ads.
The second feature the Trump people so adroitly exploited was something called Custom Audiences and its related feature, Lookalike Audiences.
Campaign managers take a list of emails, for example, of people who they believe will be receptive to their messages. They then upload that list to Facebook’s advertising interface. Facebook then scours its user base looking for matches and turns that list of matches into an audience.
That same campaign manager, with a click of a mouse, can then instruct Facebook to search the friends of everyone in that newly created custom audience and return a list of people who are potentially equally receptive to their messaging. That determination is based on how closely their profile of engagement (clicks, comments and likes) “looks like” yours.
The Trump campaign used tools that, as Martinez writes, “were originally built to help companies like Bed Bath & Beyond sell you towels,” win a presidential election. And it’s something the Trump operation expresses confusion about when they learn see how astounded other political watchers are when they learn about it.
“I always wonder why people in politics act like this stuff is so mystical,” Brad Parscale, digital media director for the Trump campaign said in late 2016. “It’s the same [expletive deleted] we use in commercial, just has fancier names.”
Martinez was the original product manager for Custom Audiences and his team of engineers launched the first versions of the targeting tools. He argues that if we are going outsource our news gathering functions as a society to powerful media platforms then we should do a better job of understanding how they work, how they’re paid for and ultimately who’s responsible for the influence they amass.
“If we’re going to reorient our society around Internet echo chambers, with Facebook and Twitter serving as our new Athenian agora, then we as citizens should understand how that forum gets paid for. Rarely will the owners of that now-privatized space deign to explain how they’re keeping the lights on,” Martinez writes.
“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.”