Why Russia’s Facebook ads were less important to Trump’s victory than his own Facebook ads.
IT’S NOT EVERY day that a former work colleague gets retweeted by the president of the United States.
You’re probably skeptical of Rob’s claim, and I don’t blame you. The world looks very different to people outside the belly of Facebook’s monetization beast. But when you’re on the inside, like Rob is and like I was, and you have access to the revenue dashboards detailing every ring of the cash register, your worldview tends to follow what advertising data can and cannot tell you.
From this worldview, it’s still not clear how much influence the IRA had with its Facebook ads (which, as others have pointed out, is just one small part of the huge propaganda campaign that Mueller is currently investigating). But no matter how you look at them, Russia’s Facebook ads were almost certainly less consequential than the Trump campaign’s mastery of two critical parts of the Facebook advertising infrastructure: The ads auction, and a benign-sounding but actually Orwellian product called Custom Audiences (and its diabolical little brother, Lookalike Audiences). Both of which sound incredibly dull, until you realize that the fate of our 242-year-old experiment in democracy once depended on them, and surely will again.
The above auction analysis is even more true for News Feed, which is only based on engagement, with every user mired in a self-reinforcing loop of engagement, followed by optimized content, followed by more revealing engagement, then more content, ad infinitum. The candidate who can trigger that feedback loop ultimately wins. The Like button is our new ballot box, and democracy has been transformed into an algorithmic popularity contest.
But how to trigger the loop? For that, we need the machinery of targeting. (Full disclosure: I was the original product manager for Custom Audiences, and along with a team of other product managers and engineers, I launched the first versions of Facebook precision targeting in the summer of 2012, in those heady and desperate days of the IPO and sudden investor expectation.)
Despite folklore about “selling your data,” most Facebook advertisers couldn’t care less about your Likes, your drunk college photos, or your gossipy chats with a boyfriend. What advertisers want to do is find the person who left a product unpurchased in an online shopping cart, just used a loyalty card to buy diapers at Safeway, or registered as a Republican voter in Stark County, Ohio (a swing county in a swing state).
Custom Audiences lets them do that. It’s the tunnel beneath the data wall that allows the outside world into Facebook’s well-protected garden, and it’s like that by design.
Browsed for shoes and then saw them on Facebook? You’re in a Custom Audience.
Registered for an email newsletter or used your email as login somewhere? You’re in a Custom Audience.
Ordered something to a postal address known to merchants and marketers? You’re definitely in a Custom Audience.
Here’s how it works in practice:
A campaign manager takes a list of emails or other personal data for people they think will be susceptible to a certain type of messaging (e.g. people in Florida who donated money to Trump For America). They upload that spreadsheet to Facebook via the Ads Manager tool, and Facebook scours its user data, looks for users who match the uploaded spreadsheet, and turns the matches into an “Audience,” which is really just a set of Facebook users.
Facebook can also populate an audience by reading a user’s cookies—those digital fragments gathered through a user’s wanderings around the web. Half the bizarre conspiracy theories around Facebook targeting boil down to you leaving a data trail somewhere inside our consumer economy that was then uploaded via Custom Audiences. In the language of database people, there’s now a “join” between the Facebook user ID (that’s you) and this outside third-party who knows what you bought, browsed, or who you voted for (probably). That join is permanent, irrevocable, and will follow you to every screen where you’ve used Facebook.