How Facebook, Google and Twitter ‘Embeds’ Helped Trump in 2016

Thanks to Politico for sharing:

Facebook, Twitter and Google played a far deeper role in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign than has previously been disclosed, with company employees taking on the kind of political strategizing that campaigns typically entrust to their own staff or paid consultants, according to a soon-to-be released study.

The peer-reviewed paper, based on more than a dozen interviews with both tech company staffers who worked inside several 2016 presidential campaigns and campaign officials, sheds new light on Silicon Valley’s assistance to Trump before his surprise win last November.

While the companies call it standard practice to work hand-in-hand with high-spending advertisers like political campaigns, the new research details how the staffers assigned to the 2016 candidates frequently acted more like political operatives, doing things like suggesting methods to target difficult-to-reach voters online, helping to tee up responses to likely lines of attack during debates, and scanning candidate calendars to recommend ad pushes around upcoming speeches.

Such support was critical for the Trump campaign, which didn’t invest heavily in its own digital operations during the primary season and made extensive use of Facebook, Twitter and Google “embeds” for the general election, says the study, conducted by communications professors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Utah.

The companies offered such services, without charge, to all the 2016 candidates, according to the study, which details extensive tech company involvement at every stage of the race. But Hillary Clinton’s campaign declined to embed the companies’ employees in her operations, instead opting to develop its own digital apparatus and call in the tech firms to help execute elements of its strategy.

“Facebook, Twitter, and Google [went] beyond promoting their services and facilitating digital advertising buys,” the paper concludes, adding that their efforts extended to “actively shaping campaign communications through their close collaboration with political staffers.”

“The extent to which they were helping candidates online was a surprise to us,” said co-author Daniel Kreiss, from UNC Chapel Hill. He called the assistance “a form of subsidy from technology firms to political candidates.”

The study is set be published Thursday in the journal Political Communication.

As Trump emerged as the likely Republican nominee, staff from each of the three companies set up shop in a strip-mall office rented by the Trump campaign in San Antonio, Texas, home to the campaign’s lead digital strategist, Brad Parscale, the study reports. It attributes that information to Nu Wexler, a Twitter communications official at the time, who is explicit about the value of the arrangement for Trump.

“One, they found that they were getting solid advice, and two, it’s cheaper. It’s free labor,” Wexler said in the study.

While the paper does not detail the specific tasks Facebook carried out for Trump, it describes the sort of work the company did generally for 2016 candidates, including coordinating so-called dark posts that would appear only to selected users and identifying the kinds of photos that perform best on Facebook-owned Instagram. Twitter, meanwhile, would help candidates analyze the performances of their tweet-based fundraising pushes to recommend what moves the campaigns should make next. Google kept tabs on candidates’ travels to recommend geographically targeted advertisements.

Digital experts interviewed by the researchers concluded that the tech company employees, who would work in San Antonio for days at a time, helped Trump close his staffing gap with Clinton.

…An intimate relationship between tech companies and candidates has considerable upside for both. The campaign gets high-quality advice and advance notice on cutting-edge products. The company gets national exposure for its products and builds relationships with politicians who might be in a position to regulate it once they get to Washington.

Silicon Valley had additional considerations during the 2016 campaign. The big tech companies were eager to fight the perception they were unfair to conservatives — and few in the liberal-leaning industry expected Trump to win, with or without their assistance.

Kreiss and McGregor recount one interview in which a pair of Facebook reps struggled to come up with a shorthand way of describing the support they provide candidates. Katie Harbath, head of Facebook’s elections team, suggested “customer service plus.” Ali-Jae Henke, who as an account executive at Google worked with Republican campaigns, including Trump’s, described the role as “serving in an advisory capacity.”

Kreiss, the paper’s co-author, said the symbiotic relationship between Silicon Valley and political campaigns demands further examination.

“It raises the larger question of what should be the transparency around this, given that it’s taking place in the context of a democratic election,” he said.


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