The key to President Trump’s 2016 victory is up for debate, but few would dispute the importance of the campaign’s focus on digital marketing.
The one-time love affair with social media giants has cooled and the campaign is flirting with alternatives.
In 2017, Trump’s then Digital Director now Campaign Manager Brad Parscale called Facebook’s role in the president’s first election paradigm shifting.
“Facebook played a huge role in this campaign, a huge role in this election. And the last time something majorly changed that was TV,” he said in an interview at Trinity University in San Antonio.
Big tech firms like Facebook, Twitter and Google embedded teams in Trump’s 2016 campaign operation in San Antonio. The campaign spent $100 million dollars on digital, the same amount it spent on TV ad buys, which traditionally take up a much larger share of the budget.
Most of that money went through Parscale’s now defunct San Antonio company Giles Parscale — money the campaign spent so the president could go straight to his base, often going around the press.
They even launched Trump TV, a suite of programming and marketing friendly to the president. And when they launched, it was on Facebook.
“Welcome everyone! You’ve heard of 'The View,' well, welcome to the 'Right View,'” said a beaming Laura Trump in a recent live stream. Lara Trump is a campaign advisor, wife of the President’s son Eric, and mainstay of the network.
But now — mainstream social media and Trump are at odds.
Campaign ads have been pulled off Facebook that the service felt would confuse people about the census. More recently they were pulled for using imagery associated with the Nazi occupation (The Trump campaign argued it was an anti-Antifa ad that used Antifa imagery).
Recently a post the president retweeted got a “Misleading” label on Twitter when it labeled a video of two toddlers playing while a fake CNN graphic that said “TERIRFIED TODLER(sic) RUNS FROM RACIST BABY” followed by “RACIST BABY PROBABLY A TRUMP VOTER.” (Defenders of the post called it satire).
Public pressure on social media to police its platforms has the president claiming censorship.
Parscale made overtures that Trump may begin using right-wing friendly Twitter alternative Parler. In a tweet, Parscale linked to a post on Parler with a message: ”Hey @twitter, your days are numbered.”
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) June 19, 2020
“It would be nice if he joined. I think it would be great for our business,” said John Matze, CEO of Parler.
With 1.4 million users mostly in the UK and US, Matze agreed the current user base is mostly conservative. They did relaunch the company at CPAC but denied the “right-wing echo chamber” label the app has gotten.
“I think of us as the first true public square in the social media space,” he said.
Matze pointed to a $20,000 recruitment bounty on “Blue-check certified” progressive Twitter users that make the jump to Parler.
It’s unlikely that any moves would be made before the November election. For one, upstarts like Parler just can’t compete currently on eyeballs. Also they can’t replace the data haul of Facebook, but the Trump Campaign is exploring other options.
In addition to the numerous services that sell data, the Trump campaign is hard at work building new datasets outside the social networks.
The Trump 2020 smartphone app is all about data collection. It asks for myriad personal details and phone permissions, including the ability to geolocate users. It also makes sharing the app with friends and family a game.
“That sort of firsthand data collection of people's personal networks, is an attempt to recreate the Facebook Graph API. That was the whole sort of original sin of the Cambridge Analytica scandal,” said Jacob Gursky, a researcher at the University of Texas’ Center for Media engagement.
Cambridge Analytica was driven into bankruptcy when it scraped the private data and online behavior of more than 50 million people. That data helped get Donald Trump elected. When the scandal broke, Facebook and other social media firms started rolling back microtargeting services they offered.
Facebook was also sued in intervening years for violating the Fair Housing Act for allowing marketers to push ads that avoid showing up to people of color and moms.
Gurskey and Samuel Woolley wrote about the presidential apps for MIT Technology Review in a a piece titled “The Trump 2020 App is a Voter Surveillance Tool of Extraordinairy Power.”
Woolley is project director for UT’s Propaganda Research program. He said the Trump 2020 app — and to a lesser extent the Biden app — is a test of how campaigns can go around or rely less on mainstream social media.
“Since the social media platforms have gotten rid of the most problematic means of micro- targeting, the geolocation features on the Trump app can help them to do the kind of micro targeting that they used to be able to do but now can’t,” said Woolley.
The chief critique of the two’s article is that only the most ardent supporters are downloading the app and sharing it with their friends.
“You can plug that information into Facebook or those other platforms, and just accumulate people who are similar to the most hardcore supporters,” said Gurskey,
The app is just one more tool. It isn’t the end of the effort. And that data has to be used for something, which is still likely mainstream social media platforms—though campaigns are increasingly pushing text messages as well
In addition to controlling the data, the app also controls what people see. It presents cherry-picked positive tweets and pushes news headlines and stories that editorialize and are often disproven.
“Not only the article is dis-informative, they lack authorship a lot of the time, said Woolley. “By sending them out on the Trump app…They're also avoiding getting fact checked by anyone else. So they're circumventing that mechanism on Facebook and Twitter as well.”
Now the Trump campaign isn’t just trying to recreate the universe its users live in, so it can best micro target an ad, it’s creating a universe of facts all its own.