There may be some fake news on Facebook, but the power of the Facebook advertising platform to influence voters is very real. This is the story of how the Trump campaign used data to target African Americans and young women with $150 million dollars of Facebook and Instagram advertisements in the final weeks of the election, quietly launching the most successful digital voter suppression operation in American history.
Throughout the campaign, President-Elect Donald J. Trump shrewdly invested in Facebook advertisements to reach his supporters and raise campaign donations. Facing a short-fall of momentum and voter support in the polls, the Trump campaign deployed its custom database, named Project Alamo, containing detailed identity profiles on 220 million people in America.
With Project Alamo as ammunition, the Trump digital operations team covertly executed a massive digital last-stand strategy using targeted Facebook ads to ‘discourage’ Hillary Clinton supporters from voting. The Trump campaign poured money and resources into political advertisements on Facebook, Instagram, the Facebook Audience Network, and Facebook data-broker partners.
Depress The Vote
“We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” a senior Trump official explained to reporters from BusinessWeek. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.”
The goal was to depress Hillary Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” the senior Trump official said. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”
For example, Trump’s digital team created a South Park-style animation of Hillary Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” Then, Trump’s animated “super predator” political advertisement was delivered to certain African American voters via Facebook “dark posts” — nonpublic paid posts shown only to the Facebook users that Trump chose.
Facebook is refusing to release a copy of the animated “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators” advertisement, or any other ‘negative’ presidential political ad that it ran. Facebook is also refusing to release details about the gender, ethnic, or location targeting parameters of these ads. Until further review, it’s uncertain if these targeted political advertisements are fully compliant with federal law.
Facebook’s advertising platform has recently come under fire from Congress for allowing advertisers to target African American, Asian American, Hispanic, and other “ethnic affinities”. Facing a wave of criticism, Facebook announced last week that it would build an automated system that would let it better spot ads that discriminate illegally. Facebook anticipates that its new system will be available by early 2017.
After the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a conference, “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” But he avoided the elephant in the room — President-Elect Trump’s election victory proves the power of Facebook advertising to influence the election.
Obviously, Zuckerberg would never say its a “pretty crazy idea” that Facebook’s advertising platform is supremely effective at persuading Facebook users to click, buy, or vote. In 2015, Facebook’s revenue from advertising was $17.9 billion dollars. According to its annual report, Facebook generates “substantially all of our revenue from advertising. The loss of marketers, or reduction in spending by marketers, could seriously harm our business.”
Trump’s Huge Digital
The engine of the Trump campaign was its digital operations division. Headquartered in San Antonio, the Trump digital team consisted of 100 staffers, including a mix of programmers, web developers, network engineers, data scientists, graphic artists, ad copywriters, and media buyers. The chief executive of Trump’s digital operation was Brad Parscale, a successful entrepreneur and founder of the marketing agency Giles-Parscale Inc.
Parscale worked closely with President-Elect Trump and was one of select few members of Trump’s inner-circle entrusted to tweet from his personal Twitter account, @ realDonaldTrump. Parscale’s lack of prior campaign experience was actually one of his greatest assets.
“I always wonder why people in politics act like this stuff is so mystical,” Parscale says. “It’s the same shit we use in commercial, just has fancier names.” On the strength of Parscale’s ability to generate campaign donations using Facebook and e-mail, the digital operations division was the Trump campaign’s largest source of cash.
In the Bloomberg BusinessWeek piece, “Inside the Trump Bunker, With Days to Go”, reporters Sasha Issenberg and Joshua Green detail how deeply President-Elect Trump was interested in his campaign’s digital strategy and fundraising operations. “Trump himself was an avid pupil. Parscale would sit with him on the plane to share the latest data on his mushrooming audience and the $230 million they’ve funneled into his campaign coffers.”
100,000 Trump Campaign Websites
In the early days of Trump’s campaign, Parscale was given a small budget and the goal of expanding Trump’s base of supporters. Parscale made a calculated decision to invest all the money on Facebook advertising. Using his laptop to buy $2 million dollars in Facebook ads, Parscale unceremoniously launched Trump’s first digital ad campaign.
To start, Parscale uploaded the names, email addresses, and phone numbers of known Trump supporters into the Facebook advertising platform. Next, Parscale used Facebook’s “Custom Audiences from Customer Lists” to match these real people with their virtual Facebook profiles. With Facebook’s “Audience Targeting Options” feature, ads can be targeted to people based on their Facebook activity, ethic affinity, or “location and demographics like age, gender and interests. You can even target your ad to people based on what they do off of Facebook.”
Parscale then expanded Trump’s pool of targeted Facebook users using “Lookalike Audiences”, a powerful data tool that automatically found other people on Facebook with “common qualities” that “look like” known Trump supporters. Finally, Parscale used Facebook’s “Brand Lift” survey capabilities to measure the success of the ads.
Parscale also deployed software to optimize the design and messaging of Trump’s Facebook ads. Describing one such test, the Wall Street Journal reporter Christopher Mims writes that “one day in August, his campaign sprayed ads at Facebook users that led to 100,000 different webpages, each micro-targeted at a different segment of voters.” In total, Trump’s digital team built or generated more than 100,000 distinct pieces of creative content.
The Data Hombre
Following Trump’s official nomination as the Republican Party presidential candidate in July 2016, Parscale was tasked with building and scaling the campaign’s digital targeting capabilities. One main supplier of Trump’s data was the Republican National Committee. (RNC Chairman Reince Preibus famously invested more than $100 million dollars into the party’s data and infrastructure capabilities since Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss.)
Preibus and his team the RNC flew down to San Antonio to meet Parscale and discuss what party officials began describing as “the merger.” Over dinner at Parscale’s favorite Mexican restaurant, Preibus and Parscale negotiated a partnership agreement between the RNC and Trump campaign. The RNC granted Trump access to its list of 6 million Republicans, but Trump could only keep 20% of any cash he raised from the list. The other 80% of campaign donations belonged to the RNC.
In retrospect, it seems like the Trump campaign was out-negotiated by the RNC. However, at the time, the Trump campaign had virtually no digital infrastructure and hadn’t actively raised any money during the primaries. In fact, when the Trump campaign sent out its first e-mail solicitation in late June, about 60% of Trump’s emails were blocked by spam filters.
Constructing the Project Alamo Database
Under the guidance of Jared Kushner, a senior campaign advisor and son-in-law of President-Elect Trump, Parscale quietly began building his own list of Trump supporters. Trump’s revolutionary database, named Project Alamo, contains the identities of 220 million people in the United States, and approximately 4,000 to 5,000 individual data points about the online and offline life of each person. Funded entirely by the Trump campaign, this database is owned by Trump and continues to exist.
Trump’s Project Alamo database was also fed vast quantities of external data, including voter registration records, gun ownership records, credit card purchase histories, and internet account identities. The Trump campaign purchased this data from certified Facebook marketing partners Experian PLC, Datalogix, Epsilon, and Acxiom Corporation. (Read here for instructions on how to remove your information from the databases of these consumer data brokers.)
Another critical supplier of data for the Trump campaign and Project Alamo was Cambridge Analytica, LLC, a data-science firm known for its psychological profiles of voters. As described by BusinessWeek, “Cambridge Analytica’s statistical models isolated likely supporters whom Parscale bombarded with ads on Facebook, while the campaign bought up e-mail lists from the likes of Gingrich and Tea Party groups to prospect for others.”
Statistical models from Cambridge Analytica also dictated Trump’s travel itinerary. The locations of Trump’s campaign rallies, the centerpiece of his media-centric candidacy, were chosen by a Cambridge Analytica algorithm that ranked places in a state with the largest clusters of persuadable voters.
“I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump, if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine,” says the Trump campaign Chairman Steve Bannon. (Bannon is also a Board Member of Cambridge Analytica.) “Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.”
Facebook Dark-Posting Super Predators
Powered by Project Alamo and data supplied by the RNC and Cambridge Analytica, Trump was spending $70 million a month on digital operations, much of it to cultivate a universe of millions of fervent Trump supporters, many of them reached through Facebook. Mostly, Trump harnessed his digital operation for good — to identify his supporters and to raise money, ultimately collecting a dominant $275 million dollars in donations through Facebook. However, as Trump’s momentum and public support were eroding in the final weeks of the campaign, his digital team plotted a last-ditch effort to use Facebook ads against supporters of Hillary Clinton.
As reported by BusinessWeek, “Trump’s campaign has devised another strategy, which, not surprisingly, is negative. Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” said a senior Trump official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.”
On October 24, two weeks before Election Day, Trump’s team began placing paid political advertising on select African American radio stations. In addition, Trump’s digital team created a South Park-style animation of Hillary Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.”
Using the Facebook advertising platform, Trump’s animated “super predator” political advertisement was targeted to certain African American voters via Facebook “dark posts” — nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” (So far, Facebook has refused to publicly release Trump’s “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators” political ad and its audience targeting parameters).
The goal was to depress Hillary Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” the senior Trump official told BusinessWeek. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”
Digital Discouragement Wins
Campaigns typically spend millions on data science to understand their own potential supporters — to whom they’re likely already credible messengers — but Trump was willing to take a risk and speak to his opponent’s supporters. In the end, Trump’s risky bet on micro-targeted Facebook ads to discourage African Americans and young women from voting was handsomely rewarded with a presidential campaign victory.
On Election Day, Democratic turnout in battleground was surprisingly weak, especially among sporadic and first-time voters. David Plouffe, manager of President Obama’s 2008 campaign, noted that, “in Detroit, Mrs. Clinton received roughly 70,000 votes fewer than Mr. Obama did in 2012; she lost Michigan by just 12,000 votes. In Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, she received roughly 40,000 votes fewer than Mr. Obama did, and she lost the state by just 27,000. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, turnout in majority African-American precincts was down 11 percent from four years ago.”
Trump’s presidential election victory is the most successful digital voter suppression operation in American history. The secret weapons in Trump’s digital arsenal were Project Alamo, his database of 220 million people in the United States, and the Facebook Advertising Platform. By leveraging Facebook’s sophisticated advertising tools, including Facebook Dark Posts, Facebook Audience-Targeting, and Facebook Custom Audiences from Customer Lists, the Trump campaign was able to secretly target Hillary Clinton’s supporters and covertly discourage them from going to the polls to vote.
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Joel Winston, Esq. is a New York-based attorney specializing in consumer protection law and commercial litigation. He also provides data privacy and regulatory compliance counsel to technology entrepreneurs and early-stage ventures. Joel is a former deputy attorney general for the State of New Jersey and previously served the Department of Justice, Office of the U.S. Trustee, in Manhattan.