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Can Biden Compete with Trump Digitally?

In 2016, Trump’s campaign bought almost 90 times as many Facebook ads as Clinton’s. In 2020, will Biden be able to keep up?
May 8, 2020
Can Biden Compete with Trump Digitally?
A man holds up a cell phone with a Donald Trump slogan on it while waiting for Donald Trump to speak at a caucus night watch party during the 2016 presidential campaign at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The digital divide exposed by COVID-19 plagues rural Americans, minorities, the poor—and Joe Biden.

Biden’s pre-existing condition was a lack of digital capacity. Now the virtual world foisted on us by this pandemic has prioritized digital communication—licensing Donald Trump’s relentless dishonesty.

The New York Times cites an example: A doctored video concocted by the Trump campaign, splicing Biden’s speeches to portray him as hopelessly senescent, generated 5 million views the day it was posted in March. Biden has 5.3 million Twitter followers to Trump’s 79.4 million; 1.9 million Facebook fans to Trump’s 29.2 million.

The potential consequences became obvious in 2016, when Trump’s campaign invested heavily in the cheapest means of messaging: digital advertising and communication.

The Trump team flattened Clinton in cyberspace. Using Facebook marketing tools, Trump’s digital director Brad Parscale mined granular data on millions of Facebook users. He then microtargeted disparate groups most likely respond to individualized messages with a specific purpose—arousing support for Trump or suppressing turnout for Clinton. The New Yorker cites an example: an ad playing old audio of Hillary Clinton referring to African Americans as “superpredators.”

Overall, Trump placed 5.9 million ads on Facebook; Clinton just 66,000. In return for this massive investment, Facebook dispatched an employee to help Trump use its data to maximum effect. Little wonder that a Facebook executive later opined in a memo that Trump “got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen.”

For 2020, Parscale has boasted, “we have turned the RNC into one of the largest data-gathering operations in United States history.” And on Thursday—perhaps forgetting how the Star Wars movies end—Parscale tweeted out a warning that the Trump campaign’s digital efforts were a weaponized Death Star:

But what makes Trump so insidious, said McKay Coppins on CNN, is “that we have not had a president, at least in a couple generations, this willing to say things that are flatly untrue. . . . The Trump campaign is actively trying to . . . make it so that there is no common set of facts . . . no way to separate out what’s true and what’s not.”

Trump, Coppins reports, will spend over $1 billion in “what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history.” Once again, Facebook will help. Remarkably, it refuses to hold political advertising to the same standards of honesty required of commercial advertisers. It’s okay for Trump to seek reelection by lying about Biden; it’s only wrong if GE lies about a toaster oven.

Facebook’s rationale is that journalists will expose the falsehoods Trump pays it to propagate. But, as Coppins notes, Trump ran 14,000 different ads on impeachment alone—there’s simply no way for reporters to keep up. Now lying is cheaper than ever: Because of the pandemic, Facebook has lowered its advertising rates.

In this environment, deceptions can outrun truth. In 2018, the New Yorker reports, three MIT computer scientists found that fake news stories spread faster on Twitter than legitimate articles,

in part because they were more likely to provoke an immediate emotional response in users. The same phenomenon appears to hold true for other social-media platforms and to apply to misinformation as well as fearmongering, rage bait, and racist propaganda, all of which go viral more readily than calm, patient deliberation.

This invites Trump’s mendacious hyperbole. “If you’re the Trump campaign,” David Plouffe told the Times: “you look at groups of voters who aren’t going to vote for Trump, and you design communication that makes it intolerable for those voters to vote for Biden.” But another goal is to inflame occasional voters who might be predisposed toward Trump.

Trump has numerous weapons. Using smartphones’ unique IDs, he can microtarget potential voters based on their locations. He can take data on a key voting segment and, through Facebook, identify similar voters nationwide. Further, Coppins relates, the campaign has developed a texting platform that can send anonymous messages to millions of voters without their permission.

This is mind control on steroids. Already Trump’s followers prioritize emotional gratification over truth—accepting disinformation bonds them with their leader. That’s how totalitarianism starts: Loyalists not only countenance untruths, they crave them.

To counteract Biden’s digital shortfall, his campaign has beefed up its Facebook advertising in battleground states, and several independent groups are supplementing this effort in a coordinated overall strategy. But Trump’s relentless dishonesty poses a question with profound implications for democracy itself: How can Democrats win without following suit?

A group of progressive digital experts founded by Tara McGowan, Acronym, proposes an answer: Weaponize truth.

Unlike Trump, McGowan told me, “Democrats don’t need to spread disinformation in order to win. They need to invest in getting the facts to voters. Our hypothesis is that if we can reach them with actual news which supports our message, we can educate and persuade.”

Accordingly, Acronym (and its affiliated super-PAC, dubbed Pacronym) is testing ads with 1.9 million voters across five battleground states, part of a projected $75 million campaign. One focus is “laying out the facts” on Trump’s handling of COVID-19 by identifying voters without fixed political beliefs, then sending them “boosted news”—actual stories from mainstream media. Quicker and cheaper than producing political ads, this method amplifies factual reportage far beyond its original reach.

The results intrigue. In one test, voters reacted with indifference to Trump’s early denigration of the pandemic, but strongly to reports about healthcare workers deprived of the means to protect themselves. Other ads juxtapose clips of Trump bragging about high TV ratings for his COVID-19 briefings with the mounting death toll for the pandemic itself, and his rosy predictions about the economy with the financial catastrophe faced by millions of Americans.

This raises the ultimate question: Can Trump lie his way out of an all-enveloping pandemic? McGowan and her team are betting that he cannot.

We have already seen Trump denying his own past claims and promises, despite the video record. But reality bites. Unemployment claims skyrocket; the Trump-era stock market gains evanesce; the death toll passes 75,000. Truth may, at last, be too hard to erase. The pandemic is writing its own story.

Come November, we will see how it ends.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.