He’s running!!! Again. On Tuesday, President Trump announced that Brad Parscale, his digital strategist, will serve as campaign manager for his reelection effort. This is, basically, the worst possible news for Facebook right now, and it’s already causing political trouble for the social media giant.
Like Trump’s social media director Dan Scavino, Parscale had no political experience prior to the last election and came from Trump’s inner circle. According to a 2016 report from The Guardian, Parscale’s digital marketing company, Giles-Parscale, made websites for Trump’s winery, international realty company, and other family businesses. But he found that his background in marketing transferred seamlessly to the Trump team’s down and dirty approach to presidential campaigning. And at a time when liberals are calling for regulations of social media, and conservatives claim that they’re being censored on every platform, the idea that Trump’s guy is about to fire up his propaganda machine again is probably giving Mark Zuckerberg an ulcer right now. In fact, the flurry of news surrounding Parscale’s appointment has already pushed Facebook into releasing more data on campaign advertising that has only made everything more confusing.
The root of the controversy goes back to an article that appeared in Wired last week. Written by Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former product manager on Facebook’s ad team, the piece attempts to explain why Trump’s smaller base of supporters and willingness to promote outrageous material was better suited to take advantage of Facebook’s advertising infrastructure. The takeaway basically comes down to how Facebook’s algorithms reward the most noxious social media behavior when it comes to advertisers.
It’s worth reading the full article to really understand Martinez’s points, but he explained that Trump was likely getting much more bang for his buck when it came to his ad spend because of Facebook’s ad auctions system. Instead of awarding ad positioning to the highest bidder, Facebook also runs ad submissions through a complex model that judges how shareable, likable, and generally outrageous a piece of content is. From Wired:
If Facebook’s model thinks your ad is 10 times more likely to engage a user than another company’s ad, then your effective bid at auction is considered 10 times higher than a company willing to pay the same dollar amount.
During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters. But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook’s click model, effectively winning him more media for less money.
Martinez also explained how Facebook’s Custom Audiences and Lookalike Audiences tools were likely very helpful in the Trump campaign’s efforts to suppress the voter turnout for groups that would likely support Clinton, like African-Americans.
Following the publication of Wired’s piece, Parscale bragged on Twitter that he estimates Clinton was paying hundreds of times more per advertisement than the Trump campaign. “This is why @realDonaldTrump was a perfect candidate for FaceBook,” he wrote. Jennifer Palmieri, director of communications for Clinton’s campaign, agreed with that last part.
All of this information and speculation got caught up in the swirl of news about Parscale becoming Trump’s new campaign manager and the collective agony of realizing a new presidential campaign was already kicking off. Parscale’s name started trending on Twitter. Numerous outlets used information from the Wired piece in their analyses of the digital strategist’s rise to power. And Facebook, as it does, dragged itself back into a politically fraught moment.
Andrew (Boz) Bosworth, Facebook’s former advertising VP—and current VR/AR VP—dropped this tweet and just added to the confusion:
CPM stands for “cost per 1,000″ in advertising lingo. In this case, it means cost to the advertiser per thousand times an ad is shown on Facebook. As you can see, the chart appears to dispel the notion that Trump’s strategies led to him getting a better rate. But this just raised more questions. What were the CPMs like before September of 2016? Is this chart only for paid CPMs? What about a combination of organic and paid CPMs? Is Facebook saying that the explanations in the Wired piece are inaccurate, or just the ways in which the explanations were interpreted? We’ve asked a Facebook representative all of those questions but they did not send an immediate response back.
Regardless of the truth in this clusterfuck of conflicting information, we know that Facebook is back in the center of our politics and its half-assed attempts at transparency are, once again, making things worse. At a moment when Mark Zuckerberg is desperately trying to shake his platform’s association with Trump’s win and Russian interference, today’s appointment of Parscale as the new Trump campaign manager can’t be good news for the CEO. In 2016, Parscale’s digital strategy was just a facet of the campaign. His new position indicates that digital is the campaign strategy, for now.
If Zuckerberg thought he had some breathing room for his new algorithms to make Facebook a less horrific and divisive destination, he was wrong. And if he tries to make changes that don’t do Trump any favors, there’ll be hell to pay from the screaming MAGA chuds. At this very moment, Trump supporters are probably putting together some sort of narrative about the ways that Facebook suppresses conservative campaign ads by charging more.
No one even has a credible shortlist for who Trump’s opponent will be three years from now. But he’ll be sowing discord online in the meantime.