Belmont Club

The frontier moved

AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky

Hillary’s supporters are still trying to understand how they got beaten in 2016 by opponents with vastly inferior resources. Ro Khanna, a Democrat representing California’s 17th Congressional District, argued in the Washington Post that somehow Trump beat Silicon Valley at its own game and now it was up to the Valley to put its thumb down harder on the scale to make amends.

President Trump’s election last year shook Silicon Valley’s belief that the Internet always fosters societal good. Ironically, Trump used the tools of technology to win despite Silicon Valley’s overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton. It’s almost as if Trump bested tech leaders at the game they invented. … Even if tech companies do not adopt the journalistic standards of newspapers, they must offer readers, particularly students, some way of distinguishing fact from opinion. It’s heartening to see companies already making efforts to take some of these steps.

But Khanna’s exhortation does nothing to explain the central mystery of where the Donald got the smarts to outfox both Silicon Valley and Hillary Clinton.  How did he beat them at their own game? The obvious answer to this is the Russians helped him, since the liberal belief is Trump could have never figured it out for himself. But this theory has its own drawbacks. Alexis Madrigal examined the proposition that the Kremlin tipped the electoral scales in the Atlantic but concluded the Russian effort was too puny to make a material difference.  “Earlier this month, the company [Facebook] announced that Russian-linked accounts had purchased $100,000 worth of advertising.”

In an election where billions of dollars were spent, why even bother to spend $100,000? It seems like a drop in the bucket, but also more than nothing. For comparison, in 2015 and 2016, all campaigns directly paid Facebook a collective $11,313,483.59 across all races, according to Federal Election Commission numbers. The Trump campaign paid Facebook $261,685 directly for ads. But those numbers are only lower bounds for the amount of money spent on Facebook because many campaigns pay consultants, who then purchase ads on their behalf. (For example, Cambridge Analytica, which worked with the Cruz and then Trump campaigns, took in $15.4 million during the cycle, including $5 million in one payment from the Trump campaign on September 1.)

The Russian effort was in fact so small, especially when laid alongside Hillary’s giant purchases, that when asked to find the ads Facebook couldn’t even detect them. “Instead of searching through impossibly large batches of data … Facebook zeroed in on a Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency, which had been publicly identified as a troll farm. ‘They worked backward,’ a U.S. official said of the process at Facebook.” Only then could they find the needle in the haystack.

Faced with the numbers Madrigal concludes the ads themselves were unimportant.  The Kremlin must have bought the ads as research; to discover what messages bombed and which succeeded.  “Think of it as a real-time focus group to test for the most viral content and framing.”  But the theory that Russian genius guided Trump’s diabolical babblings fails before one fact. It is now known that Facebook itself that was guiding Donald’s campaign.

Yes, Facebook helped Trump.

This was a regular product offering. Facebook had built analysis tools and offered consulting services to both candidates but apparently only Trump’s newbie team used the analytics Facebook supplied.  Hillary’s team decided it did not need help, while Donald’s team took full advantage of it. “The Trump campaign’s digital director, Brad Parscale, says Facebook targeting played a major role in the president’s win last November. Parscale says the campaign accepted help from Facebook employees, which he ‘heard’ the Clinton campaign did not do.”

In a statement, Facebook said it offered the campaigns “identical support” and had teams assigned to both Trump and Clinton. “Everyone had access to the same tools,” the company said, adding that it did not let campaigns “hand pick” employees or assign its workers full time to Trump or Clinton.  “Both campaigns approached things differently and used different amounts of support,” Facebook said.

David Karpf writing in the Civicist explains why Clinton’s team made the fatal choice to reject the FB advice.  Facebook’s analytical tools had not worked very well in previous elections and Hillary’s team decided, perhaps justifiably, they were better off rolling their own. But unknown to them the product had been improved. By 2016 Zuckerberg’s engineers had ironed out the bugs and Trump was naive enough to buy Zuckerberg’s sales pitch. “Digital inexperience paid off in the Trump campaign,” is how Karpf put it.

Set aside all the Russia intrigue for a minute. There’s a basic puzzle here. The Clinton digital team was supposed to be one of the smartest, most sophisticated operations in history. The Trump digital team was, by their own admission, “just a few guys and a big Twitter account.” Trump invested $60 – 70 million in Facebook advertising, and used it as an online fundraising engine that brought in $240 million in online donations. How the hell did team Trump leapfrog team Clinton in the use of social media for campaigning? …

The Clinton digital team had seen the experimental results. They had been around for past cycles, and had heard all these bold social media promises before. Facebook was touting its new-and-improved lookalike advertising product and asking for a giant slice of the digital advertising pie. The data from past elections said otherwise. Parscale, meanwhile, effectively responded by saying, “Magic beans?!? Take all of my money!”…

That’s generally a terrible way to run a campaign. You’ll get sold a bill of goods more often than not.

Except this time, the beans turned out to actually be magic.

If the facts bear up they illustrate the extraordinary danger of being a half-step behind in a critical, but rapidly advancing technological area, when the difference between Version 18 and Version 19 can be enormous. Hillary may have been but one cycle out of date yet that was enough to tip the scales.  Perhaps the slight backwardness was a reflection of the management style of the candidate herself.  There was always a ponderous orthodoxy about the Clinton campaign that was both her chief weakness and her strength.  She was conventional and eminently predictable — that was her style — compensating in sheer power for what she lacked in nimbleness, like a giant icebreaker crunching its way across icy seas crushing all before it. That was what she knew and she believed it was enough to win.

But not this time.

How did Donald beat both Hillary and Silicon Valley at their own game? By doing the obvious just a little quicker than the big boys, helped by a healthy dose of luck. In a close run race much turns on fortune.  “I’d rather be lucky than good,” as Lefty Gomez once put it.  But it was flexibility and “digital inexperience” that allowed Donald’s campaign to risk the road that Hillary, with her set ways, would leave untaken.

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Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan, by Sean Parnell and John Bruning.  This book is Lieutenant Parnell’s personal account of the legendary U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division’s heroic stand in the mountains of Afghanistan. Acclaimed for its vivid, poignant, and honest recreation of sixteen brutal months of nearly continuous battle in the deadly Hindu Kesh, it is an action-packed, highly emotional true story of enormous sacrifice and bravery.

Afterlife – A Novel, by Marcus Sakey. From the author of the Brilliance Trilogy comes this mind-bending thriller that explores our most haunting and fundamental question: What if death is just the beginning?

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel P. Huntington. The classic study of post-Cold War international relations, more relevant than ever in the post-9/11 world.

Dog Company: A True Story of American Soldiers Abandoned by Their High Command, by Lynn Vincent and Roger Hill.

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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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