The frontier moved

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.