The world wonders how Trump managed to beat the odds and win the 2016 Presidential election. An important element of his victory, perhaps the decisive piece of the puzzle, was the relationship between the giant technology companies and the Trump campaign.
Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter assigned full time staff to assist candidates during the 2016 primary and general elections. They organized their political staffing along partisan lines, Republican and Democratic, hiring former campaign workers with technical savvy and partisan leanings. As company employees, they offered enthusiastic customer service by directly manipulating the social media levers in response to events – crafting new messages and variations of the same messages with a few keystrokes.
The well-heeled Clinton campaign relied on in-house staff to strategize and implement its media campaign. In mid-summer 2016, Trump’s short-staffed and cash-strapped campaign rented an office space in a strip mall near the San Antonio airport, designated it as their social media hub, and invited the tech giants to locate teams there for their mutual benefit. Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter quickly staffed up in San Antonio where they worked hand-in-glove with the Trump campaign until election day.
Having partisan teams favorably disposed to the success of the candidates was smart business. The tech giants had three motives. Foremost, they wanted to capture as much of the $2 billion dollar quadrennial expenditures for Presidential campaigning as they possibly could. The collaboration was a resounding success for the campaign and the companies. The Trump campaign spent $70 million on social media ads soliciting contributions and received $250 million in return.
Second, they wanted to promote their advanced products in the political space. In July, before and during the DNC Philadelphia Convention, they rented floor space in the re-purposed Power Plant on 2nd Street to show off their analytics platforms. These evolving technologies count user statistics and organize them as informative graphics. How is the ad you put up ten minutes ago doing? What topics are trending? What are Facebook users “liking”? How’s that tweet doing with veterans?
Microsoft did not send a team to San Antonio, but they deployed partisans to assist the candidates during the primary and general election campaigns by providing back office support, ensuring that the campaigns had fully functional, high-volume social media infrastructure. Microsoft also captured vital information for the candidates, second-by-second likes and dislikes of thousands of demographically identified viewers as the candidates were talking during the debates.
Google teams played a major role. If you did a Google search including a candidate’s name and one of hundreds of campaign-related topics, Google displayed ads that were specifically tailored to the search you had entered, and fresh content that was continuously updated by the campaign in response to the analytics.
The third motive, as a Facebook employee told a North Carolina University research team, was the development of working relationships with political campaign staff. The companies hope that the relationships will be leveraged as lobbying advantages in future government affairs, connections to legislators who will vote on media regulation. Given the ways of Washington, this is pretty smart strategy.
The Trump campaign was floundering in early August 2016, coming in a very distant second in every predictive category without exception. Thereafter, with the help of partisan teams from Google, Facebook and Twitter, the Trump campaign ran 40,000 to 50,000 variants of digital ads every day. On the day of the third presidential debate in October, the campaign ran 175,000 ad variations. The cost of running a social media ad is ridiculously low in comparison to a TV ad, pennies to dollars. With almost as many voters relying on social media news feeds for political information as those watching TV news, investments in digital ads pay off in a big way.
The Democratic Party made quite a few strategic mistakes in 2016, not least of which was choosing a candidate with a lot of negative baggage. But perhaps their greatest mistake was relying on a huge internal team for social media expertise. In the final months of the campaign, they were simply outplayed by the tech giants.
The tech companies do not understand their role as partisanship, as servicing one party for political reasons. If we had a multi-party, parliamentary system, they would have done their best to match new recruits to as many viable (trending positively) candidates as had serious financial backing. The companies are apolitical in that sense. Their loyalty is to the dollar, and they would be incredibly stupid if they made partisan enemies. Clinton could have received services equal to Trump’s, probably at less cost than whatever the DNC paid its in-house staff. But the Democrats had already sunk much of their media investment on hiring and training. And those consultants were being led according to a sound business plan and marketing strategy. In other words, they were being led by generals re-fighting the War of 2012.
The ad hoc collaboration between the Trump campaign and the tech giants evolved on the fly. A few Trump managers were located in San Antonio, people who may have made decisions, but probably acted more as motivators and conduits than as decision makers. Having worked in the tech world, I’d bet my shoelaces that the lack of commitment to a fixed plan worked to the Trump Campaign’s advantage. Whereas the Clinton team was being led by the best that money could buy, they were probably handicapped by some form of top-down organizational structure. And I wonder whether the Trump team had an advantage as company employees, as the coders and content creators who understood the software logic, not just its functionality.
The Internet Revolution has compressed time, complex intellectual tasks are completed in microseconds. This means that facts change quickly. These facts – the results of the algorithms about what’s trending, what’s popular, who’s getting more favorable ratings – become the stuff of the news cycle. Viewer polls are constantly featured on news shows, and these computed “results” inform the next media buying decision and the next content decision, decisions that have to be made within minutes. And the next news cycle begins.
President Trump, it has been reported, watches Fox News for up to ten hours a day. This is not because he’s stupid. He knows he’s not getting facts from the shows – he’s giving them the facts, the content. He watches as the boss, assessing the performance of his actors, deciding whether to tweak the message according to his superbly tuned sensitivity to publicity. In our current form of democracy, the instantaneous preferences of millions of viewers and social media users are the votes he cares about. The 2018 elections, in internet time, are light years in the future. His fixation on the news cycle, which he intends always to control, has been seen as a narcissistic personality flaw. To Trump, who could care less about what people using four syllable words think, it’s just good business. He knows how to win ratings wars, as the popularity of The Apprentice and his 2016 victory demonstrate. He is the branding king, the marketing magician, the greatest TV star of the 21st Century. And it’s not by accident.
His decision to fully exploit the resources of the giant tech companies during the 2016 campaign was not accidental. He operates by buying talent, keeping the top decision-making to himself and his inner circle. Historically, he has not bought companies that do things, he buys things like buildings, jet planes, property, and limousines. He buys companies that sell things, not the companies that make the things. He is used to contracting for services, avoiding the complications of owning a company that produces a tangible product. He does not own technology companies, he does not own Fox News. But he knows that everybody wants his money and that they are eager to do his bidding. His decision, in 2016, not to hire a huge in-house media staff was simply the way he does business.
The DNC did business another way. They lost.
_____________(The study on which I based this piece was conducted by Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor and published in the Journal of Political Communications on October 26, 2017, available via Taylor & Francis Online www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10584609.2017.1364814