The days of the traditional election campaign are over. Especially in the USA, campaigns are increasingly shifting to social media – with the aid of custom tools. A glimpse into the tool box of the digital election campaign industry – and the consequences for democracy.
The whole industry is trying to find the magic formula for changing a voter’s political preference.
Only the details differ in the slew of Facebook ads that Donald J. Trump ran on a single day in April. All consist of an image with a headline. A prominent element in the center of the image is a red-colored section of wall reminiscent of the barrier at the US-Mexican border. Visible in the background is a construction site with a row of blue portable toilets. Embla- zoned across the top of the image is the question SHOULD WE DEPORT ILLEGALS? Along the lower edge viewers read: HAVE YOUR SAY. That’s one of more than 1,000 almost identical adverts used in the campaign. In one of the others, the picture is smaller and the text slightly different: the words ANSWER NOW are now displayed below.
In April 2020 alone, the Trump reelection team ran around 30,000 Facebook ads. Most of those reach around 100 target persons, but anyone can find them by searching through Facebook’s Ad Library, in which the company has been publicly cataloging all political adverts since 2018. For the two-year period from May 2018 to May 2020, Trump’s campaign team spent around 38 million dollars solely on election ads appearing on Trump’s Facebook page. This is roughly the amount that a corporation like Google spends on online advertising in Germany in a single year.
The main reason for these sums is that important people close to the US president are convinced that the 2016 election was won primarily in the social media. With a view toward the 2020 election, the Trump campaign wants to continue the momentum of 2016. Its numerous, nearly identical ads with the red wall are proof of the massive use of a tool that could once again play a decisive role in the election: microtargeting.
Key figures close to President Trump are convinced that the 2016 election was won primarily on social media.
Gary Wright is an expert in digital advertising campaigns. With his small team at the Berlin-based NGO Tactical Technology Collective, he studies what type of data is used by different political actors and how their various methods work. Wright’s team has learned that no fewer than three hundred companies are involved in the US digital election campaign.
“The whole industry is trying to find the magic formula for changing a voter’s political preference,” Wright says. “The deep-rooted supporters of another party are not even targeted at first, because it’s an inefficient use of money.” The Trump campaign’s experienced professionals are relying on other strategies – at least for the moment.
“The better you know and understand your voters, the better you can create messages that elicit voter responses and actions.”
“Political digital campaigning has grown out of digital marketing,” Wright says. “The rule is: the better you know and understand your voters, the better you can create messages that elicit voter responses and actions.” The focus is on identifying and mobilizing supporters.
The ad with the red wall shows how campaigns can achieve this goal most effectively. “Every Facebook ad is in itself a mechanism for data collection,” says Wright. It is automatically displayed in thousands of variations, and an algorithm analyzes the text, color, and section of the image that appeals the most to different users. This helps ensure that the ad achieves the desired results among a growing number of targeted individuals. In the campaign featuring the red wall, the goal was to get users to participate in a survey that asked for their e-mail address. The telephone number is often transmitted as well. “As soon as you’ve got the contact details, you can continue your efforts with automated telephone calls and direct text messages,” Wright says.
Collecting contact data is worth it for two reasons. Once a campaign has received an e-mail address in this way – at campaign rallies or through newsletter registrations – mobilization can be stepped up with the help of Facebook and Google. Facebook calls this tool “Lookalike Audiences.” Google offers “Similar Audiences,” which works the same way.
Digital campaign marketing is particularly effective in a winner-takes-it-all system with majority decisions. This was evident in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. The Vote Leave campaign, whose leaders currently hold key positions in the UK government, spent more than 98 percent of its budget on digital advertising, as campaign manager Dominic Cummings revealed in a Spectator article. Vote Leave and other pro-Brexit campaigns also channeled their money into “dark ads”.
German investigative journalism center Correctiv has analyzed the ads that Facebook agreed to disclose in 2018 after a long tug-of-war with the British House of Commons. Its analysis shows how the political demand to leave the EU was adapted to different target groups and that the ads were used to spread fake news, such as Turkey’s imminent accession to the EU.
Vote Leave, the campaign for the UK’s exit from the EU, spent more than 98 percent of its budget on digital advertising.
Jeanette Hofmann is a professor of Internet policy at Freie Universität Berlin and a researcher at the Berlin Social Science Center. At these and other institutions, she studies the tensions between democracy and digitalization, paying close attention to microtargeting. “Election campaigns as we know them allow people to challenge specific statements or promises,” she says. “When it is no longer possible to critically monitor political advertising because it doesn’t reach the public, then we have a problem. It’s harmful. It undermines democratic discourse, particularly at times when this discourse is vital because it provides a foundation for our voting decisions.”
“We can assume that microtargeting is not so influential in our electoral system.”
The shady methods of digital marketing play a much smaller role in elections based on proportional representation, which are the norm in the EU. Yet Europe has not seen the massive digital mobilization campaigns of the US presidential election. Facebook’s publicly accessible Ad Library and other measures were introduced to eliminate targeted dark ads containing false information. “We can assume that microtargeting is not so influential in our electoral system,” says Hofmann.
What instead concerns European political scientists about the efforts to address voters through social media is the effect of algorithms on opinion formation.
As Hofmann explains, “Everyone in the research community knows that on platforms such as YouTube, due to the recommendation algorithms they use, a person who views far-right content will be offered more far-right content as a way of creating user loyalty. This is absolutely detrimental to the development of democracy.” From the perspective of democratic theory, Hofmann says, the goal is to create a sophisticated public that forms its own opinions and in turn influences political decision-making.
Social media companies are paying an increasing amount of attention to their platforms’ political and social effects, which is demonstrated by both official and unofficial statements. In a guest contribution to the Financial Times in February 2020, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, voiced his support for greater government regulation, even if it might “hurt Facebook’s business in the near term.” At the same time, Facebook’s management has been defending the pillars of its business model – targeted advertising and the related tools. Zuckerberg and co-director Sheryl Sandberg see the dissemination of political fake news as part of an open social debate.
“I’d like to see us take money in hand on the European level and create alternatives, which grow with the involvement of users.”
Hofmann wonders why Europeans do not plant a few seeds in the social media space themselves. “I’d like to see us take money in hand on the European level and create alternatives,” says the researcher. “And I don’t mean alternatives that are handed down from above, but which grow with the involvement of users.”
At any rate, Hofmann argues, the existing social networks should enter into dialog with political leaders and society. This could take place at newly founded agencies in which platform operators, users, and political leaders engage in open discussions and develop solutions to improve the social media and their principles in the interests of a democratic society.
It’s already clear that digital advertising will have an even bigger influence on the upcoming US election than has been the case in the past.
Meanwhile, in the US election campaign, there continue to be massive investments in social media. It is already clear that the upcoming election will be more heavily influenced by digital media than any other previous election. “Due to the corona crisis, there has been a huge push into digital media,” says Gary Wright. “There has also been an increased willingness by all parties to go as far as possible, to pull out all the stops in order to convince the targeted people to take action, donate money, and vote.”
A look at the Facebook Ad Library shows that the Trump campaign has already adopted this mode of operation.