The president's mastery in generating outrage on social media may have helped him stretch his campaign ad dollars in 2016. And Hillary Clinton isn't happy about it.
Hillary Clinton (pictured) and her supporters reacted with outrage after Wired magazine reported last weekend that Facebook’s ad-pricing model allowed Donald Trump to pay much lower rates than Clinton did.
Hillary Clinton’s latest complaint about Facebook’s role in the 2016 election sends one big message: The way social media is transforming American political campaigns offers a huge advantage to candidates like President Donald Trump.
Clinton and her supporters reacted with outrage after Wired magazine reported last weekend that Facebook’s ad-pricing model, which favors “provocative content” likely to draw readers, allowed Trump to pay much lower rates than Clinton did. Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2016 campaign data guru, later claimed on Twitter that the disparity in the price for each ad “impression” might have been 100- to 200-fold, crowing: “This is why @realDonaldTrump was a perfect candidate for FaceBook.”
Underscoring the importance of digital campaigns in modern politics, Parscale was back in the headlines Tuesday as the newly named campaign manager for Trump’s 2020 reelection effort.
A Facebook vice president tried to tamp down the story Tuesday, maintaining that Trump usually paid higher ad rates on the company's platform than Clinton did. But several digital marketing specialists of both parties were unanimous in telling that Facebook’s ad pricing system is tailor-made to benefit candidates like Trump, whose mastery in generating controversy through the media allowed him to generate a steady stream of traffic to his online utterances.
To Democrats' dismay, they say voters clearly responded.
“Right now, the system is incentivized for red meat,” said Tim Lim, a Democratic advertising strategist. “But that says less about Facebook than it does about the American public.”
The disagreement about whose rates were higher will probably only further complaints, especially among Democrats, that the inner workings of Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants are far too opaque given their vast and growing influence on society. Former Clinton aide Philippe Reines hinted that the allegedly favorable treatment for Trump could help fuel a push for regulations of online ads — a topic that Democratic lawmakers have only begun to broach.
“Zuckerberg is either untroubled his 2 billion user beast is abused like tax cheats outsmart the IRS; or @facebook’s grown too immense, too complex, it’s a runaway train,” Reines fumed on Twitter after Wired’s article ran. “Either way the public good is at risk. That’s when companies are regulated.”
Clinton herself weighed in Monday night: “We should all care about how social media platforms play a part in our democratic process. Because unless it’s addressed it will happen again. The midterms are in 8 months.”
Even in traditional media, it’s hardly a new phenomenon for some candidates to win big advantages in ad buys versus their competitors: In 2012, for example, President Barack Obama’s campaign was able to stretch its dollars by buying television ads directly at the discounted rates that federal law guarantees for presidential candidates — while Republican challenger Mitt Romney relied heavily on advertising by outside political groups that had to pay the full price.
Romney’s campaign was entitled to the same discount as Obama’s for its direct ad purchases, but Obama’s campaign — which had the luxury of not facing a divisive primary — also made sure to lock in those savings by buying the spots months in advance.
Still, Clinton supporters leaped on the reported disparity at Facebook as the latest evidence that social media had undermined democracy in 2016, akin to the sale of politically charged ads to Russian “troll farms” and the unvetted fake news that flourished on the company's trending news feed in the months before the election.
On the other hand, a senior Clinton campaign official told on Tuesday that her team was well aware at the time of how Facebook’s pricing model works. But they underestimated how appealing Trump’s bombast would prove with a wide swath of voters.
"The only element of this that is a surprise is just how popular that content was," said the Clinton official, speaking only on background to avoiding being seen talking for the candidate. “We had a slightly more optimistic theory of who the voters are. We knew there was a narrow set of people who were loving the ‘nutty’ Trump stuff. We thought it was narrower than it was."