Why did Hillary Clinton lose the election?
There are numerous reasons fair game for finger-pointing, but to truly leverage any of those elements required data and know-how. Russia clearly used both to help influence an election. They and others may have used that knowledge to spread fake news.
One of the best catalysts for spreading the message — fake or otherwise — and reaching voters at the heart of their concerns was Facebook, which was right there with the campaigns, trying to help. But did one campaign accept more help than other other and, in doing so, help to sabotage their own presidential aspirations?
Reaching heartland voters on the topics they cared about, like infrastructure, required a Ph.D. in social media, data mechanics tools, and ad delivery. It’s in that last department — getting ads in front of the right eyeballs — where the Clinton campaign may have lost its edge, at least according to one member of the team that helped Donald Trump take the White House.
Trump Campaign Digital Director Brad Parscale told 60 Minutes this week that when he emailed Facebook asking for “every single secret button, click, technology you have,” the social network agreed to send its staffers to sit with the Trump campaign advertising and data operation. This quality time reportedly happened as frequently as five days a week.
According to Parscale, the Clinton campaign was offered a similar set of embeds and turned them down.
In a single day, Parscale’s operation averaged 50,000-to-60,000 ads a day. He claims he was even able to choose the individual Facebook employees who would work with his operation based on whether they leaned Republican or Democrat. (He says he chose all Republicans, naturally.)
It was Parscale’s job to make the ads and figure out what was going to make people react, but his data game was certainly strengthened by Facebook employees who sat next to him explaining exactly how to use their tools to make that happen.
Facebook, however, disputes some of these claims. In an update to its Oct. 2 “Hard Questions: Russian Ads Delivered to Congress” post, Facebook says both campaigns were offered the same tools and they “had teams assigned to both.”
Parscale’s assertions to 60 Minutes that the Facebook employees worked with him full-time, and the more explosive claim that they let him hand-pick embeds by political affiliation, don’t hold up. From the post:
“The campaigns did not get to ‘hand pick’ the people who worked with them from Facebook. And no one from Facebook was assigned full-time to the Trump campaign, or full-time to the Clinton campaign. Both campaigns approached things differently and used different amounts of support.”
Facebook’s comments mirror those of Twitter, which offered similar help to both campaigns:
Twitter provides nonpartisan ad sales resources to advertisers around the world, helping them use our ad sales platform efficiently. In 2016 we offered such resources to both the Clinton and Trump campaigns, as well as gubernatorial and Senate races across both parties.”
One thing is clear from Facebook’s response. One camp, either Trump or Clinton, didn’t take as much advantage of Facebook was offering. Based on what Parscale claims — and considering he’s already been caught in at least one possible lie, we have to take it all with a grain of salt — it wasn’t the Trump camp. His campaign sounded especially eager to tap into the power of Facebook’s ad-targeting tools.
What’s also unclear is the extent to which Facebook’s assistance actually helped.
At least at the start of the campaign, Clinton and Trump were on a level playing field. Both campaigns had data operations. Clinton reportedly built her own.
“I was very proud of my data and analytics team. They were largely veterans of the Obama campaigns, ’08, ’12, and then we brought in new people and brought in a lot of new expertise to build the next generation,” she told Walt Mossberg at this year’s Code Conference.
In reality, however, her data game wasn’t nearly as strong as what was coming out of the Trump campaign.
Clinton contends that Cambridge Analytica played a role here and essentially handed Trump’s team even more powerful data and personality-based targeting tools.
Clinton said she was aware that “the other side” had content farms and was using them to deliver “false content… in a very personalized way, both sort of above the radar and below.” She also knew that a lot of this false information and news about her was flowing through Facebook.
Not helping matters was the Democratic National Committee, which was in bad shape. “I mean it was bankrupt, it was on the verge of insolvency, its data was mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong,” she told Recode’s Walt Mossberg. And so there was no data operation for Clinton to inherit.
Suffice to say Clinton had no confidence in the DNC’s data game, and she was worried about the powerful Republican data operation and its potential to impact voters via platforms like Facebook. Did that spur her to lean on Facebook’s team as Parscale claims he did? There’s no clear answer here, and we may never know.
But if Clinton had won, it’s quite possible it would have been her digital director extolling the virtues of Facebook’s ad tools on 60 Minutes.
Parscale painted a compelling picture for 60 minutes of how good those Facebook tools are for crafting and recrafting messages until you trigger the right response. The same issue ad, for instance, could be served thousands of times with slightly different art, colors, text. It could also deliver ads focusing on different topics to people living next door to each other. Imagine the impact this might have on gerrymandered swing states where you can map an issue to align with known voting blocks (gerrymandering tends to group people of certain party affiliations and ideologies).
Clinton’s team probably didn’t take the same kind of advantage of those tools, but the disparity between Clinton and Trump’s approach in this area may have been one of degrees.
With so many factors at play and the scope of Russian interference in the election still being discovered, it’s hard to point to how Clinton campaign used or didn’t use Facebook embeds as a singular contributing factor in her loss, but it’s also hard to deny that it didn’t have some impact.