In the old media world, we would have headlined this story: “The Making of the President 2016.” Yes, the wording is a little staid, but it tells the story accurately and carries an echo from a proud journalistic past.
But this is a new world. Clicks are king. Truth - or the perception of it - is constantly shifting. Social media influence translates into real political power.
Fake news flooded Facebook in days before the election.
So we went aggressive with the headline. Some may argue, but it’s solid gold compared to much of the stuff we saw on Facebook and Twitter during the campaign. Read on for the reasoning.
With all the discussion about fake news, it has become increasingly clear that there was much more at work than some kids in Macedonia or quick-buck web nerds in the U.S. writing fiction about Hillary Clinton.
At a minimum, the Republicans totally outplayed the Democrats in the new technology game. The Trump campaign used big data and the Facebook/Google/Twitter ecosystem to precisely target political messages at voters in key states that helped turn the election.
One observer in an op-ed in the New York Times goes further, arguing that Facebook is “an advertising medium that’s now dangerously easy to weaponize.”
At Muckety, as we examine the fake story issue and the campaign, we keep returning again and again to just a couple of things:
One, how do obviously fake stories generate hundreds of thousands of shares and other interactions in such a short period of time? This doesn’t happen organically and it dwarfs the popularity of real news from legitimate organizations.
Vox published a great example on election day. A bogus article about Hillary Clinton saying people like Donald Trump should run for office because “They’re Honest and Can’t Be Bought,” received nearly 500,000 Facebook shares, reactions and comments in less than a week.
Meanwhile, a Times story saying Trump declared losses of more than $900 million on his 1995 income taxes had only 175,000 Facebook interactions in a month.
Two, we keep thinking of a map that USA Today produced showing 209 counties around the country - some in key states like Michigan and Wisconsin - that flipped to Trump after twice going for Obama. That can’t be chance.
And, it wasn’t. It was the result, in part, of a lot of work by a company called Cambridge Analytica, a big data firm that worked for the Trump campaign.
On its Web site after the election, the company said its scientists “recalculated voter turnout and recalibrated their models to show how Donald Trump could win.” Trump then revisited some states, including Wisconsin and Michigan.
Cambridge Analytica also advised the campaign on voter communication and ad strategy. “Online ads placed by the firm were viewed a staggering 1.5 billion times by millions of Americans, after the company ran 4,000 individual digital ad campaigns backing the Republican candidate,” the company said on its site.
During its analysis, Muckety produced the interactive map that appears at the top of this article, showing Robert Mercer, an investor in Analytica, in a central position. In the context of Trump’s victory, it’s one of the most interesting Muckety maps ever.
Mercer, a Republican benefactor, is also an investor in Breitbart News, where Steve Bannon was chairman. Bannon, reportedly a director of Analytica, left Breitbart to chair Trump’s campaign and will be the new president’s chief strategist and senior counselor.
Mercer is a former contributor to the pro-Trump Make America Number 1 PAC, which contracted Analytica to do some work. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, is on the Trump-Pence transition team.
Billionaire Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook and a current board member, also shows up in our map. Like Mercer’s daughter, he is on the Trump-Pence transition team.
Analytica, of course, placed many of its targeted digital ads with Facebook.
The Times’ op-ed article said that for many years Analytica “has been using Facebook as a tool to build psychological profiles that represent some 230 million adult Americans…by seeding the social network with personality quizzes.” The company also gets access to quiz respondents’ profiles and names.
On its own site, Analytica said it used all of the research and data it collected “to model scores for all voters across key states,” including preferred candidate and issues. “Every voter in each battleground state was also segmented by ethnicity, religion, and the issues that concerned them most,” the company said.
Armed with all of its research, Analytica could then target its ad placements at people and regions where they would have the most impact, including strong Trump supporters, active Facebook users and sharers, and what the company called “persuadable” voters.
From Analytica’s own numbers, these people appear to have been bombarded by campaign messages. In their heightened zeal for their candidate, and either unable or unwilling to tell fake news from real, it’s conceivable — maybe even highly likely — that these Trump supporters also shared fake news beneficial to him and detrimental to Clinton.
That would help explain the mystery of the prolific popularity of some of these stories. There was dedicated machinery running in the background.
“Facebook’s news feed algorithm can be tweaked to make us happy or sad; it can expose us to new and challenging ideas or insulate us in ideological bubbles,” Will Oremus wrote for Slate early this year in what now seems like a most prescient article.
In the end, it’s clear that what we witnessed was transformational, a presidential campaign that embraced and benefitted from the full marriage of big data and pinpoint social media targeting. We need another Theodore White to write the Making of the President 2016.