SAN JOSE, Calif. — The 2020 presidential hopefuls have bashed Facebook for its record of playing loose with user data, allowing political ads that spread lies and letting foreign actors mislead voters — and yet, they can’t get enough of the social media juggernaut.
Facebook ads emerged as an essential tool to recruit donors in the race for the White House over the last year, with President Donald Trump and his Democratic rivals pouring more than $80 million onto the platform, according to the company’s data. And nowhere are they using Facebook ads more heavily than California.
One out of every seven dollars that the top Democratic candidates spent on Facebook over the last nine months was for ads shown to Californians, estimates from the consulting firm Bully Pulpit Interactive found.
“You have to reach people where they are,” said Jessica Alter, the co-founder of Tech for Campaigns, an organization helping Democratic candidates make better use of technology. And after Google put in place new policies making it harder for campaigns to target specific groups of voters, and Twitter banned all political ads in recent months, she said, “Facebook is really the game in town” for political digital advertising in 2020.
Facebook recently released new rules allowing users to limit what political ads they see, and guaranteeing more transparency for ads on the platform. But the company refused to make real changes to its controversial policy allowing political candidates to lie in their ads, or to limit advertisers’ ability to target narrow slices of users.
Facebook’s targeting tools are a key reason why it’s popular in politics. It allows campaigns to send ads to specific people based on email lists of supporters, letting strategists fill the news feeds of voters they’ve already identified. The platform also allows for the targeting of different ads to groups of people based on interest groups and characteristics like geography, age and gender.
Notably, Trump used those tools to identify and mobilize supporters during his 2016 run — and his reelection effort spent about $20 million on the platform in 2019, more than any of his Democratic rivals.
In California, former hedge fund chief Tom Steyer — who has surged in polls in South Carolina and Nevada — is the only candidate who topped Trump’s spending on the platform last year. He’s spent about $1.95 million between late March and the end of December 2019, the most recent time frame for which state-by-state estimates are available, on ads that show up to California residents.
Trump spent $1.1 million here over that time period, while former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg dropped $1.07 million, and Sen. Bernie Sanders invested about $860,000. Those totals account for ads specifically targeted to Californians as well as the share of national ads seen by Golden State users.
Campaigns use plenty of gimmicks to get supporters to donate or submit their email, from ads asking supporters to sign a birthday card for former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to a “limited-edition sticker” for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s donors to an Amy Klobuchar 2020 print-out membership card. Most ads have dozens of variations, with small differences in text, the attached photo or video, and which people are targeted.
Some ads appear to deliberately mislead viewers. For example, a series of ads for former Vice President Joe Biden, many of which were targeted to elderly women, urged supporters to sign a petition to ban assault weapons. Dozens of ads claimed the campaign had collected exactly 24,888 signatures of the 25,000 it needed — an impossible figure since it was a static number shown to thousands of people. Viewers who clicked on the ad were taken to a page on Biden’s website where they were prompted to enter their email and ZIP code as a huge timer counted down from two minutes. (Nothing happened when the timer reached zero.)
Other ads seem designed to fit into voters’ news feeds — just under pics of your aunt’s latest trip to Yosemite, there might be a shaky, hand-held, selfie video shot by a grinning Cory Booker urging his fans to “pitch in what you can, 5 dollars, 10 dollars.” (Booker dropped out last week.)
The most effective Facebook video ads “capture people’s attention right away or get your core message across in the first three to five seconds,” to grab people scrolling through their feeds, said Megan Clasen, a digital strategist at the consulting firm GMMB, who worked on President Barack Obama’s campaigns. “It’s very different than making a TV ad.”
As for Trump, even as he bashes California over its homelessness crisis on a near-weekly basis, he’s bought plenty of ads targeting his fans around the state. One series of ads promotes a law Trump signed making animal cruelty a federal crime, featuring pictures of adorable, sad-looking dogs and cats and urging viewers to “add your name to the Official Trump End Animal Cruelty Petition.”
So far, most of the campaigns are more focused on using the platform to raise money than persuade voters. As candidates were required to reach higher and higher make-or-break thresholds of individual donors for an invitation onto the debate stages last year, Facebook became one of the easiest ways to recruit them. That’s why so many of Steyer’s ads ask supporters to “chip in $1” — an ironic request from someone reportedly worth $1.6 billion.
California is getting the lion’s share of Facebook ad spending largely because it’s home to so many Democratic donors. Compared with the state’s expensive TV markets, Facebook ads are also a relatively cheap way to reach voters across the state.
There’s potential for the platform to be a powerful get-out-the-vote tool as well. In the days before the 2018 midterm elections, for example, Orange County Democratic congressional candidate Katie Porter bought dozens of ads targeting specific supporters, showing them a map of their polling place location and reminding them to vote. That’s a level of granularity that would never be possible with a TV ad — and will likely become a more common practice this year.
Even as the candidates are rushing to throw money at the social media giant, Facebook’s advertising practices have sparked widespread controversy, especially over the company’s insistence it won’t fact-check claims made in political ads — such as a Trump ad last year that falsely claimed Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor in order to help his son.
What’s made Trump’s use of the platform so effective, according to experts, is his campaign’s willingness to experiment, testing a wide variety of ads to see which messages and media have the best responses, and iterating again and again.
Democratic candidates need to adopt that same philosophy this year if they want to stand up to the president’s digital juggernaut, political observers say.
“When you come in with the mindset of ‘this is how we’ve always done things,’ you’re closed off to new possibilities and learning,” Alter said. “Trump’s people have never been encumbered by that.”
©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)