Hillary Clinton’s latest complaint about Facebook’s role in the 2016 election sends one big message: The way social media is transforming American political campaigns offers a huge advantage to candidates like President Donald Trump.
Clinton and her supporters reacted with outrage after Wired magazine reported last weekend that Facebook’s ad-pricing model, which favors “provocative content” likely to draw readers, allowed Trump to pay much lower rates than Clinton did. Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2016 campaign data guru, later claimed on Twitter that the disparity in the price for each ad “impression” might have been 100- to 200-fold, crowing: “This is why @realDonaldTrump was a perfect candidate for FaceBook.”
Underscoring the importance of digital campaigns in modern politics, Parscale was back in the headlines Tuesday as the newly named campaign managerfor Trump’s 2020 reelection effort.
A Facebook vice president tried to tamp down the story Tuesday, maintaining that Trump usually paid higher ad rates on the company’s platform than Clinton did. But several digital marketing specialists of both parties were unanimous in telling POLITICO that Facebook’s ad pricing system is tailor-made to benefit candidates like Trump, whose mastery in generating controversy through the media allowed him to generate a steady stream of traffic to his online utterances.
It’s hardly a new phenomenon for some candidates to win big advantages in ad buys versus their competitors
To Democrats’ dismay, they say voters clearly responded.
“Right now, the system is incentivized for red meat,” said Tim Lim, a Democratic advertising strategist. “But that says less about Facebook than it does about the American public.”
The disagreement about whose rates were higher will probably only further complaints, especially among Democrats, that the inner workings of Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants are far too opaque given their vast and growing influence on society. Former Clinton aide Philippe Reines hinted that the allegedly favorable treatment for Trump could help fuel a push for regulations of online ads — a topic that Democratic lawmakers have only begun to broach.
“Zuckerberg is either untroubled his 2 billion user beast is abused like tax cheats outsmart the IRS; or @facebook’s grown too immense, too complex, it’s a runaway train,” Reines fumed on Twitter after Wired’s article ran. “Either way the public good is at risk. That’s when companies are regulated.”
Clinton herself weighed in Monday night: “We should all care about how social media platforms play a part in our democratic process. Because unless it’s addressed it will happen again. The midterms are in 8 months.”
Clinton supporters leaped on the reported disparity at Facebook as the latest evidence that social media had undermined democracy in 2016
Even in traditional media, it’s hardly a new phenomenon for some candidates to win big advantages in ad buys versus their competitors: In 2012, for example, President Barack Obama’s campaign was able to stretch its dollars by buying television ads directly at the discounted rates that federal law guarantees for presidential candidates — while Republican challenger Mitt Romney relied heavily on advertising by outside political groups that had to pay the full price.
Romney’s campaign was entitled to the same discount as Obama’s for its direct ad purchases, but Obama’s campaign — which had the luxury of not facing a divisive primary — also made sure to lock in those savings by buying the spots months in advance.
Still, Clinton supporters leaped on the reported disparity at Facebook as the latest evidence that social media had undermined democracy in 2016, akin to the sale of politically charged ads to Russian “troll farms” and the unvetted fake news that flourished on the company’s trending news feed in the months before the election.
On the other hand, a senior Clinton campaign official told POLITICO on Tuesday that her team was well aware at the time of how Facebook’s pricing model works. But they underestimated how appealing Trump’s bombast would prove with a wide swath of voters.
The former reality television star put more attention into fundraising and cultivating his base
“The only element of this that is a surprise is just how popular that content was,” said the Clinton official, speaking only on background to avoiding being seen talking for the candidate. “We had a slightly more optimistic theory of who the voters are. We knew there was a narrow set of people who were loving the ‘nutty’ Trump stuff. We thought it was narrower than it was.”
Digital political marketers call it common knowledge that advertisers pay less if their ads are more engaging. In many cases, they say, that’s a win-win-win for advertisers, Facebook users and the company itself, populating the site with better targeted and more compelling ad spots.
Facebook says it sets ad prices based on factors that include the sort of audience an advertiser is targeting and the complexity of the action the audience is meant to take. For example, an ad designed to get someone to make a donation — considered a straightforward transaction — might fetch a low price. But an ad spot meant to persuade a voter to back a certain candidate by showing him or her a video is thought to have a harder task, and might cost more.
That was a factor in the Clinton-vs.-Trump contest, both Democratic and Republican digital experts say. The Democratic nominee focused her Facebook ad program on persuading hard-to-get voters, while the former reality television star put more attention into fundraising and cultivating his base.
Millions of Americans responded to Trump’s ability to tap into simmering feelings of disaffection and anger | Bryan Thomas/Getty Images
Those choices affected the prices they paid. Said a Facebook spokesperson, “The system works the same way for every advertiser, ensuring equality of opportunity.”
From there, it was up to the voters, including the millions of Americans who responded to Trump’s ability to tap into simmering feelings of disaffection and anger.
“We’re constantly reinforcing how we want these ads to be based upon our behavior — what we’re clicking on, what we’re sharing,” said Zac Moffatt, the digital director for the 2012 Romney campaign, now CEO of the firm Targeted Victory. “And Democrats click on it, too, because they wanted to get all worked up. They can’t help themselves.”
That sort of attention can further drive down prices, said digital ad experts.
Television, of course, varies its ad rates depending on when they run — during the Super Bowl versus an average Thursday night, for example. But social media differs in that it effectively sets rates based on content, and it can judge how compelling that content is because of the data it constantly amasses about what users do after they see an ad. It’s the sort of powerful insight that makes Facebook advertising compelling to advertisers — and has made Facebook itself into a multibillion-dollar behemoth.
But that dynamic worries some election professionals.
Washington might write new regulations to rein in the tech industry has so far amounted to a lot of heated words
“Facebook’s business model is such a problem for the electoral process because what they have done is essentially incentivize the more polarizing and extreme communications,” said Ann Ravel, a former Democratic chairperson of the Federal Election Commission. “You don’t know if someone is calling in a neighbor to watch an ad on TV, but Facebook knows if you’re sharing it.”
Adds the Clinton official, “It makes sense if you’re selling, you know, swimsuits. If you’re Facebook, you should absolutely want to serve up better swimsuit ads. But when it comes to politics, it makes less sense because if you have a super fired-up community that’s going to love your content even if it’s nutty or racist or untrue, then the platform shouldn’t give that stuff an advantage.”
Despite this grumbling, the idea that Washington might write new regulations to rein in the tech industry has so far amounted to a lot of heated words. Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia have, alongside Arizona Republican John McCain, pushed a bill that would force the social media platforms to disclose who’s paying for political ads, one response to the past year’s revelations about Russian interference. But that measure has failed to gain momentum.
Elsewhere in Congress, there’s been high-level idea-floating about the need for government to act as a check on the tech industry — Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) have been among those engaging in that discussion. But there’s been little appetite for turning that rhetoric into concrete legislative proposals.