Ever since 2016, when Trump was elected president, the political power of facebook has been apparent to many. One of the major questions today has to be, Is facebook an unbeatable political tool? Unbeatable may be too strong a word, but on the other hand, there is a strong case that the digital power of Facebook is a very, very heavy thumb on the scales.
One major problem is that the Republicans are not hesitant to use any and all of the dirty tricks offered by Facebook. This includes lying, much of which Facebook permits. It includes using alarmist and scandalous and outrageous and hyperbolic fake news that makes people afraid or upset. This sort of content spreads online at viral speeds while truth creeps along at a much slower pace. Facebook also includes dark posts which feature such things as deliberate voter suppression, racism, white nationalism, sexism, etc
There are digital experts on the Democratic side also, but many of them are hesitant to use the black ops which Republicans use indiscriminately. Democrats often hesitate at the immorality of such actions. But the fact that Republicans don’t hesitate at any black ops scares Democratic technicians.
“It’s lovely that Democratic campaigns are so principled,” Tara McGowan, of Acronym, a digital business on the Democratic side said. “I mean that sincerely. And yet it also scares the shit out of me, because the other side isn’t playing by the same rules, and our principles might make it all but impossible for us to regain power.”
If the Democrats lose this election and Trump is president for a second term and the Republicans continue to control the Senate, the world will be in huge trouble.
Climate change is rapidly approaching several tipping points that once passed will make it impossible to return to a cooler world. Let me be very blunt. I think the IPCC may be correct when they say we have only 20 more years to defuse climate change. Or maybe its only ten more years as the Guardian understands the IPCC’s warning.
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the IPCC is wrong, maybe 97% of climate scientists are wrong, but it really does appear that the world, human civilization and all of us humans ourselves are very close to an unstoppable, unfixable disaster. And much of the outcome hinges on Facebook. If Mark Zuckerberg and his crew of executives refuse to alter the basic algorithms of Facebook, which make Facebook both the ultimate money making machine and the ultimate political tool, all of us are in deep, deep trouble.
Let me back up a bit here and examine some of the basic evidence for all of this.
Most of the information for this essay comes from a book and several articles by Andrew Marantz. Marantz is a writer for the New Yorker. Several of my sources for this essay are noted in the footnotes at the bottom of this post.
Many people think Facebook is just a neutral platform that people use to send pictures of their kids and puppies to their friends, or maybe gossip with their relatives. All this stuff happens on Facebook, but the app was basically created to collect information on as many people as possible and then use that information to control these people.
To begin with Facebook was about building an audience and then selling that audience to the highest bidder, the bidder being big corporations or any business trying to sell as much merchandise as possible. However, it soon became clear the customers didn’t have to be business men selling stuff, they could also be politicians trying to buy votes.
Andrew Marantz wrote an article in October of 2019 where he said that “Facebook has never been a neutral platform; it is a company whose business model depends on monitoring its users, modifying and manipulating their behavior, and then selling their attention to the highest bidder. ”
Advertising has always been about the selling of attention. If businessmen can attract the attention of only a small percent of customer, they can quickly become millionaires. There is a great book about this called “The Attention Merchants” by Tim Wu. This book begins with the first advertisers back in the 19th century and goes on the describe the new digital attention merchants such as Google and Facebook and Amazon.
After Trump was elected, a Facebook employee told Marantz that “
“For a decade, our pitch to everyone, especially advertisers, was ‘We can target the exact people you want and make them behave in the exact ways you want. Then Trump happens, and it’s, ‘Who, us? We don’t have any power, we’re just a place to share pictures of your dog.’ It was bullshit, but they tried to have it both ways.”
How the digital selling of attention on Facebook works is not all that complicated. Whenever anyone joins Facebook they are asked a bunch of questions supposedly so Facebook can help them connect up with their friends and family. And then as they use Facebook everything they say and everywhere they click is carefully analyzed by Facebook. And pretty soon Facebook has a huge pile of data about each of it’s customers.
The next step to to separate all Facebook members into very, very small categories where everyone has similar beliefs or wants or needs or worries or fears. And then these users are sold to businessman and politicians and political parties. Marantz says that,
“These days, campaigns can carve the electorate into creepily thin segments: Gold Star moms near military bases, paintball-playing widowers in the Florida Panhandle, recovering addicts in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And, for anyone who wants to reach a specific audience with an actionable message, there has never been a platform as potent as Facebook.”
There are lots of corporations or politicians or political parties who are looking for buyers. So they hire digital experts called ad-tech firms who help the corporations and political parties decide exactly what kind of buyers they are looking for. Then the ad-tech firms get together with Facebook who puts them together with exactly the right buyers. And finally the corporations and the polititicians buy the exactly right Facebook ads and Facebook sends them to all the right groups of Facebook members who are longing for their products.
In 2010, Time Magazine’s person of the year was Mark Zuckerberg. This article discussed how Facebook made money selling commercial marketing and that everything it did also works for politics.
“Facebook “knows exactly who you are and what you’re interested in, because you told it. So if Nike wants its ads shown only to people ages 19 to 26 who live in Arizona and like Nickelback, Facebook can make that happen.” The article did not mention that the same sophisticated targeting tools, designed to sort the American population into various micro-demographic segments in order to influence their purchasing decisions, could also be used to influence their other behaviors, including the way they vote.”
They guy who made all this digital wizardry work for Trump in 2016 was Brad Parscale. And he is the same guy who has been working steadily for the last four years to make sure that the same tricks work again in 2020. And many think Parscale will probably succeed. Elections these days are not won by knocking on doors, or kissing babies, or random buys of TV ads. They are mostly won by guys like Brad Parscale.
And Parscale is selling Trump just like you sell women’s clothing or sneakers or cars or soap, or pharmaceuticals . According to Marantz, “Parscale just looked at the analytics on Facebook, saw what was popping on a given day, and went, Let’s pump money into that and let the algorithm feed it to our audience.”
In addition, almost no campaign decisions in the 2016 election were made by human begins. It turns out that computers looking at the raw data could make much better decisions. Parscale said in an interview on Fox News that:
“For the first time in history, the data operation ran everything, from TV buying”—placing local television ads—“to where we were on the ground.
Campaign strategists used real-time analytics when deciding where to send canvassers, where to hold rallies, even what Trump should say at which rally. (“It might be, ‘Sir, our Facebook data from this area suggests that people want to hear you talk about tax cuts,’ ” a person familiar with the campaign operation told me.
The campaign used software to generate an endless stream of ads, each distinguished by one or more tiny variations: a new typeface, a new color, a new aspect ratio, a photo of Trump taken from a slightly different angle.
“Certain people like a green button better than a blue button,” Parscale said on “60 Minutes.”
“Some people like the word ‘donate’ over ‘contribute.’ ”
If each variation is counted as a distinct ad, then the Trump campaign, all told, ran 5.9 million Facebook ads. The Clinton campaign ran sixty-six thousand.
The Hillary campaign didn’t do any of this hi-tech campaigning. Instead they spent a lot of time watching TV shows which talked mostly about how brilliant the Hillary staff were. So the Hillary staff thought they were great and could make no mistakes. They thought they had the election in the bag and didn’t need any fancy digital stuff.
Another digital trick that Parscale used in 2016 was something called “Look-alike Audiences.” If you have a custom list of 300,000 people, you can use the Facebook tool “Look-alike Audiences” to find another three hundred thousand Facebook users with attributes similar to those in the first group. This turns out to be a huge time saver. No longer do you need to hire thousands of workers plugging away in telephone banks to get the job done.
Another huge help provided by Facebook is the fact that the company will provide what are called embeds. Embeds are Facebook technicians that Facebooks sends you for free to show you how to plug your deepest political wishes into Facebook and make them come true.
Any big Facebook advertiser can get a free embed.
“It’s standard. Coca-Cola gets a Facebook rep, working on commission, whose job is to advocate for Coca-Cola within Facebook, and vice versa.” The embeds often get so tight with a political team they actually become part of the team. One embed said, “you’re so tightly aligned with your client that they think of you as part of their team, and they give you a security badge to get in and out of their building.”
Another one of Parscale’s innovations got him what may be the largest database of digital phone numbers that any campaign has ever compiled. Basically he turned all of Trump’s rallies into data mining events. Tickets to the rallies were free, but to claim one you had to have a valid cell phone number. Parscale says they now have 215 million hard ID voter records in their database now. Parscale’s crew plans to send out over one billion texts during the 2020 presidential campaign. I think it’s possible that this one scoop could win the election for Trump.
Last year the Trump campaign spent far more on Facebook ads than any of the Democratic campaigns. Since January though that trend has been reversed by all the campaign spending by the two Democratic billionaires Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg spent nearly 50 million dollars on Facebook alone. There is some talk that Bloomberg, now that he has withdrawn from the race, may transfer the data his campaign acquired to the Democratic Data Exchange, in the common interest of defeating Donald Trump. At this point this is only a rumor though.
One of the more interesting things about the Bloomberg campaigns is that no matter how much money you spend on Facebook or how many TV commercials you buy it doesn’t guarantee you the Presidency. Bloomberg turned out to be a cold fish in person with zero charisma and no one liked him. He ended up at the very bottom of the nominee list even though he outspend all of the rest at Facebook by far.
This may hold out some hope that all of Trumps digital spending may not help him either. This may actually be true. I suspect that Trump already has all of the people that will vote for him convinced already and will gain few new converts.
Here is still another way that Parscale is helping Trump. It has long been known that sensational fake news works much better than boring truth when it comes to winning elections.
For one thing, false rumors and sensational fake news always propagates across the web much faster than true but uninteresting news. The same is true of fearmongering, rage bait, and racist propaganda, all of which go viral more readily than calm, patient deliberation. And unfortunately this fits right into Facebook. Facebook allows lies and fake news. For Facebook, this falls into the category of freedom of speech.
Facebook does not allow all lies, but most are perfectly fine. For example,
In October, Zuckerberg appeared before the House Financial Services Committee. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioned him. “I just want to know how far I can push this,” she said. “Could I pay to target predominantly black Zip Codes and advertise them the incorrect election date?” In the ensuing back-and-forth, Zuckerberg clarified that this particular lie is prohibited on Facebook, but that most other lies are not prohibited.
And of course all of this gives Trump and the Republicans a tremendous advantage.
“In December, 2016, an internal Facebook initiative called Project P—for “propaganda”—found dozens of right-wing pages peddling fake news. According to a recent Washington Post investigation, Joel Kaplan, an executive at the company who previously worked in the George W. Bush White House, objected to removing all the propaganda, “because it will disproportionately affect conservatives.”
OMG is all I can say to this little gem.
As late as December 30, 2019. Andrew Bosworth, a top executive at Facebook and a good friend of Zuckerberg’s posted a long essay on a private social network intended only for Facebook employees. The main premise of this essay is that it’s perfectly OK for social media to be poisonous or malicious. Ingesting poison is a matter of personal choice so it’s just fine to create poisonous, malicious and false social media. Bosworth goes on to relate a long example of how his Grampa loved bacon, and knew that it would kill him, but still went on to eat tons of it daily. This was his free choice.
Clearly Facebook is full of malicious and false material. And even after hundreds of observes have pointed out all the fundamental problems of social media and especially Facebook most of the problems still remain today. And even worse, many of these problems are beginning to look like built in features, not bugs. It’s beginning to look like Facebook is the way it is because that’s the way it was designed to be.
As Marantz says,
“The real scandal is not that the system can be breached; the real scandal is the system itself. In a sense, it’s almost comforting to imagine that the only bad actors on social media are Russian state assets, clickbait profiteers, and rogue political consultants who violate the law. If that were the extent of the problem, the problem could surely be contained. “
So, is Facebook an unbeatable political too? No, I really don’t think so. But it does give unscrupulous users a huge advantage. I think that Trump’s unscrupulous use of Facebook may very well allow him to win the 2020 presidential election.
There are a couple of rays of hope though. One is that Bloomberg used Facebook and a ton of money to try to buy the Democratic nomination and he fell flat on his face. Maybe Trump can’t do it either. But, Bloomberg is not a dishonest or unscrupulous man. In many ways he is a decent man with honest concerns about America. He has always been very concerned about climate change and and always fought to fix it. The problem is that Trump is unscrupulous. He is not a decent man concerned about the future of America. He will squeeze every last possible advantage out of Facebook that he can. And this is very, very worrisome.
Footnotes and links to more reading of this subject
Article summary: Ever since 2016, when Trump was elected president, the political power of facebook has been apparent to many. One of the major questions today has to be, Is facebook an unbeatable political tool? Unbeatable may be too strong a word, but on the other hand, there is a strong case that the digital power of Facebook is a very, very heavy thumb on the scales.