Trump’s fake news factory
Donald Trump won the election thanks to the most effective, but perhaps least-known, digital campaign in political history.
It was focused on fake news, massive data retrieval and conscious attempts to get uncertain Clinton supporters to refrain from voting. Aftonbladet has mapped Trump’s “Project Alamo”, which is now being investigated by US authorities and might reveal whether Trump’s administration really cooperated with Russia.
The question, however, is how long Swedish politicians can resist copying these tactics?
Later this fall, Brad Parscale, Director of Trump’s Digital Campaign and Architect of the social media effort, “Project Alamo”, will testify to the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee.
Investigators will try to find out if Parscale and his staff exchanged information with Russia in order to operate more effective social media campaigns.
That those who are investigating the links between Trump and Russia would eventually focus on Project Alamo was just a matter of time.
– Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing, Brad Parscale told Wired shortly after the election last year.
Aftonbladet has with the aid of Rikard Lindholm, an expert in data-driven marketing and optimized advertising on Facebook, mapped Project Alamo. We can now exclusively, as the only magazine in the world, tell you how Project Alamo worked with a network of fake sites and utilized the Facebook ad system to manipulate the electoral process.
Martin Schori, editor in chief at Aftonbladet wrote this article with the expertise of Rikard Lindholm, co-founder Semantiko.
Data driven marketing – The Project Alamo
Brad Parscale is the architect of “Project Alamo”, a project that spent more than half a billion per month targeting ads and articles on Facebook to specifically selected audiences. Brad Parscale worked directly under Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, who is currently being investigated for his connections to Russia.
At the project’s headquarters, Brad Parscale sat and bought Facebook ads directly from his own laptop, for the entire budget of around 20 million dollars. The tactics, however, proved to be so effective when evaluating the best money spent (return of ad spending), “Most for every cent spent that Project Alamo turned into what might be the most comprehensive and advanced digital political campaign in history.
In total, Parscale and his staff are reported to have spent at least 2 billion dollars, i.e. just over 16 billion SEK on data acquisition, relevant articles, and advertising on Facebook.
Somewhat simplified, Project Alamo worked like this:
- Parscale and his team submitted the email addresses of all known Trump supporters in Facebook’s advertising system. They then got their Facebook profiles, which were sorted by, among other things, ethnicity, gender, and home district.
- Through the Facebook Lookalike Audiences tool, they identified “lookalikes”, i.e. other Facebook users with similar interests and profiles. In addition, they built an external database of, among others, GOP’s registry of approximately 100M Americans.
- By adding large amounts of information for each person in the database, for example, interest according to the person’s site statistics, personality type after prior behaviors such as online purchases, credit card purchases, insurance history, etc. they could segment the people into different categories of voters.
- After that, they created large amounts of overly relevant non-truthful news for each segment of people that were then targeted towards the right people on the right occasions.
- Ex: when Hillary was already embarrassed by the emails, they heaped on even more negative news towards the voters who were doubtful of Hillary.
- Parscale’s team then bombarded the various profiles with targeted ads or articles through Facebook
- Nothing was left to chance: the team sent out tens of thousands of variations of the ads, which prompted quick acquiescence of what worked (so-called A/B-testing). On the day of the third presidential election debate between Trump and Clinton for example, 175 000 different ads where used.
The purpose of all this was to strengthen the loyalty and conviction of the already born-again Trump supporters, but also something completely different: to get uncertain Clinton voters to refrain from voting.
Despite the ethically dubious goal, Project Alamo was not a secret intelligence operation: Brad Parscale and his co-workers have on multiple occasions openly talked about how they manipulated the American election process and actively undermined democracy.
Rikard Lindholm comments: I would like to say that Trump’s Administration manages modern data-driven marketing better than anyone has done before. Fish where the fish are.
– We have three major active initiatives to get people to abstain from voting, “a staffer told Bloomberg News in October 2016.
The groups that were the target of Project Alamo were:
- Idealistic white liberals, especially Bernie Sanders supporters.
- Young women
- African-Americans living in cities
These three target groups were drowned with negative news about Hillary Clinton. They overblew her quote from 1996 about African-Americans as “superpredators” and targeted it towards African-Americans specifically. White females, who perhaps were not as susceptible to that message, instead fed the information that Clinton’s husband, the former President Bill Clinton, is a sexual predator. People in the swing state of Florida’s “Little Haiti”, received a message about a controversial hospital project in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
The targeted ads and articles only appeared in the selected feeds, a format called “dark posts”, which allowed them to operate under the radar.
Smear campaigns have been around for as long as politics. In the United States, so-called “opposition research” is a major political branch. But rarely or never has it been done with greater precision and organization than Project Alamo.
The key to this success is Facebook’s extremely accurate advertising system. If you buy a full-page ad for a car in a paper magazine, you will pay a big sum of money. In addition, a lot of people who see the ads will not care about the message because they simply are not interested in buying a car. With Facebook’s advertising tools, your audience can be small as you like – and you only pay to reach people you optimize your ads towards, for example a selected relevant group of people
– I bought Facebook ads for a restaurant that advertised ready-made dishes. The ads were sent out at 14:00 on Fridays. We directed them to men aged 18-23 who passed the actual restaurant and we sent them out at 2pm on Fridays. It totaled about 60 people. After half a year, half of them had bought the food box. It is an unbeatable result for a small sum of money, but you get such good results because the ads are so relevant for the target group, “says Rikard Lindholm, founder of the marketing company Semantiko.
Thus, in the business world, Facebook ads are used extensively and deliver an effective result with relatively little expense. But in political communication it has been relatively unexplored ground. Up until now.
– Brad Parscale has actually been open with how they accomplished this. They decided early on not to go for “the popular vote”. They said: which states should we focus on? Which groups? What do we know about them? If you have weak ethics and a weak party program, you can find other things to rile people up about, “says Gustav Martner, former chairman of Sweden’s Communicators and founder of the social media project Digital Reliance.
Team Trump used Facebook’s advertising system to target both Facebook ads and negative news articles (via Facebook links) to people they surveyed.
And the way they did it is to say the least, astounding.
Project Alamo received a large portion of its data from the company Cambridge Analytica, which received access to 230 million US voters’ profiles – And by default all other information about them – Through, among other things, Facebook quizzes. According to information in the American media, Project Alamo had around 4,000 points of data on each individual.
The team also had a large database of well-known Republican voters, as well as those who signed up for Trump’s newsletter, submitted their email addresses at Trump events and made purchases at Trump’s web shop.
All details about Project Alamo as described so far in this article have been recounted in American media.
Rikard Lindholm does not agree:
I do not think that Facebook violates anyone’s integrity by feeding companies with information gained by analyzing data through the pixels. Facebook clearly informs about data collection to its users, if you just read the Terms and Policies updates that users must regularly approve.
I have to point out that the basic purpose of collecting data from Facebook pixels is not in any way sinister. It is about relevance. It is about not giving the one who has the most money the most and best media space but giving the right ads to a potential buyer when it is best suited. It is about getting rid of all the casino advertising if that is not of interest to you.
Rikard Lindholm, at Semantiko.com who shortly after Donald Trump won the election made an analysis of Donald Trump’s marketing channels and then discovered not only one Facebook pixel, but four.
– It is relatively unusual for a large organization with such experienced marketers to have four pixels. I, therefore, decided to see if these pixels are used on other pages, says Rikard Lindholm.
The result surprised him. In general, the Facebook pixel is placed on your own websites to collect data, but the same unique Facebook pixels that were on Donald Trump’s campaign site featured on about a dozen of other sites, the daughter Ivanka Trump’s clothing firm’s online store and some obvious smear sites.
In practice, this means that Ivanka Trump’s online shop ivankatrump.com was able to advertise against visitors of Donald Trump’s campaign page.
The pixels have now been removed, but a new one has been added. Just as before, it is also on Ivanka Trump’s website, as well as dozens of other sites.
Thus, the survey of the American electorate did not only extend to those who actively chose to engage in Trump or seek information. If you visited any of the pages in the created network, Facebook noted which site you were on and then shared that information with Trump’s team through the ad account.
– From an integrity point of view, there is a huge problem with this. You cannot ban this type of “targeting” because at its core it is a good thing. But should we have laws and guidelines regulating it? Definitely, says Gustav Martner at Digital Reliance.
According to a search on builtwith.com, which has tools for tracking ad and statistics codes between sites, it is even likely that Trump’s own staff created the sites
BILDTEXT: Makeamericafascistagain.com är en anti-Trump-sajt, som använder en pixel som fortfarande finns på Donald Trumps kampanjsida donaldjtrump.com.
CAPTION: Donaldtwump.com, which is also an anti-Trump site, has both the same Facebook pixel and Google Analytics code that Donald Trump’s campaign page used. It is down nowadays, but we recreated it with Wayback Machine.
– This is clever. If you can control the negative image of yourself, decide what arguments your opponent uses against you. You have a good position. Many Middle Americans might think that it is exaggerated to call Trump a fascist. It is like if Stefan Löfven would be called a Nazi, it would be good for the social-democrats if that became a dominant message because it is so absurd, says André Frisk, PR consultant at Edelman Deportivo.
The purpose has probably also been to survey and retrieve information about political opponents, which they could then send targeted anti-Hillary messages to.
–– Very clever to gain access to data about anti-Trump voters. Keep your enemies close. Says Rikard Lindholm.
For Project Alamo, it was equally important to know who would vote for Trump, as it was to know who was leaning towards voting for Hillary.
Rikard currently withholds a record of 600 connected websites, which now are deleted, and how they are linked together.
THE FAKE NEWS SITES
If one were, to sum up, 2016 with a single term, it would doubtlessly be “fake news”. A term that was used as soon as a politician felt he was exposed to a negative review. Trump has been at the forefront of this. During the campaign, and later the presidency, he has repeatedly appointed CNN, Washington Post and others who examined him as “fake media”.
“Fake news “is an overused term that has different meanings depending on who is the originator.
When researchers at Stanford University were to define the concept, they came up with the following:
- News articles that are consciously and provably fake and may mislead the audience.
- Articles coming from satire sites, but which may be perceived as real.
- Unintentional mistakes from journalists, like when a reporter wrote that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King from the White House
- Rumors that do not originate from any news site
- Conspiracy theories
- False statements from politicians
- Articles that are partisan or misleading, but not entirely false
During the US election, all these forms of fake news were prevalent. In some cases, completely fabricated news had monumental consequences, like when a person opened fire inside a pizzeria which had been claimed to be a pedophile den linked to Hillary Clinton.
There are also many examples of fake news sites where people simply fabricate “news” and then spread them, often for the purpose of earning ad revenue.
At a recent, nowadays, infamous press conference after the election, Donald Trump was asked to define what he meant when describing data that came from leaks in his own staff as “fake news”.
– The leaks are real, the news is fake, the president answered.
The statement caused confusion, but it can be interpreted as referring to paragraph seven on Stanford’s list: The media is not lying, but they exaggerate, misinterpret and discard information that is positive for Trump.
That, however, is just how he himself – and Project Alamo – worked before the election.
According to Aftonbladet’s survey, Trump’s staff created a network of sites solely to distribute fake, very partisan or unilateral messages about their opponents. Sites that can be linked to each other through IP addresses, administrators, and servers.
They had addresses like poorhillaryclinton.com, obamacosts.com or lyingcrookedhillary.com.
CAPTION: LyingcrookedHillary has the same Google Analytics code as Donald Trump’s site.
The same goes for the site poorhillaryclinton.com. It is deleted but can be recreated using the Wayback Machine tool.
On these sites, “real” news got published, misinterpreted with a heavily-angled headline.
In some cases, the sites have been launched with press releases From the Republican Party or Trump’s campaign. In other cases, they have been launched silently.
But it is beyond doubt that, despite the fact that Trump’s staff, despite the fact that Trump himself rejects established media as “fake news,” they have interacted with, or even created their own fake news sites.
If there, for example, was a news story that was negative towards Hillary in the feed, the sites would write about this (hard-angled). They then targeted these articles, against, for example, African Americans and white women.
With data-driven marketing, one can influence people in a decision-making process.
Let me explain:
The key is to constantly measure.
- By measuring engagement with a selected audience’s advertised articles.
- Have strategically analyzed publication streams of elaborate articles
- Fueling the fire aka subtly affecting an individual from being doubtful to convinced.
Or as in Trump’s strategy to refrain from voting.
Says Rikard Lindholm at Semantiko, an expert in data-driven marketing who first discovered the network.
In previous elections, the political parties have left the worst smearing to interest groups, so-called Super PACs. Super PAC’s pumped out negative news in the 2016 election as well, but Trump’s campaign itself was engaged in a massive smear campaign against Clinton.
Sometimes lifting the curtain and doing it openly. Clinton also had a small number of attack sites that can be linked to her campaign site, but they have been labeled with a message that they were paid for by the Democratic Party.
– Personally, I think that it is scary that they do this so openly, says Marie Grusell, Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Gothenburg.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, and Brad Parscale’s boss have in interviews told how data collection paved the way for Trump’s victory. How his background in the corporate world, rather than politics, allowed them to think in new ways.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt agrees:
– Jared understood the online world better than the mainstream media community. He managed to put together a presidential campaign on a shoe string, using new technology – and he won. Do you remember all the articles about how they had no money, no people, and no structure? Well, they won and Jared was in charge of it, Eric Schmidt tells Forbes.
Cambridge Analytica, the company that provided Project Alamo with 200 million profiles, is managed by Robert Mercer, an affluent businessman, and a big Trump supporter and financier. In the inner circle is also Steve Bannon, who previously served as vice-president of the company. Cambridge Analytica also participated in the Brexit vote, on the “leave” side (who won the selection).
Following the US election, the founders of Cambridge Analytica have downplayed the importance of Facebook in Trump’s victory. Experts have dismissed the organization’s claim about “psychometric forces”, meaning that you can measure people’s personality traits and behavioral styles, as a “sales pitch” and “untrue”.
Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has also called the idea of fake news on Facebook influencing the election “crazy”.
A lot of the sites have been erased after election night and it is impossible to say exactly how much of a role they played in Trump’s victory.
However, Trump won the election by a total margin of only 78,000 in three swing states. States were chosen and massively targeted by Project Alamo. Just before the election, Brad Parscale said that they had “identified 13.5 million voters in 16 states” that they considered possible to influence.
And since the election night, new sites have been created. Loads of new ones, which through Google Analytics’ codes can be linked to the White House’s official website.
CAPTION: One of the new sites is Drumpfhouse.com, a site that mocks Trump and was started in January 2017. It contains the same Google Analytics code that the White House’s official site uses.
– One can assert that someone copied the sites and then this code would follow. But why do they not shut them down if they are fake? One possibility is that the Trump administration is collecting data from visitors of these sites. Data that can be used in the next election, says Rikard Lindholm.
In other words, a new data collection campaign with new sites is currently under way with the aim set for the 2020 election.
THE RUSSIA CONNECTION
Both the US Congress and law enforcement agencies like the FBI are convinced that Russia tried to influence the US election. At the moment, a special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, is investigating whether there are any links between Donald Trump’s staff and Russian saboteurs.
Russia had according to information revealed a 1,000 people who were working to create fake news and send them out to US voters, not least in swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan. Democratic senator Mark Warner has said that it is possible that the Russians had help from Trump’s staff in order to know who to target the articles towards.
But others believe that Russia could easily have carried out – successful campaigns on Facebook without any secret exchange with Trump’s staff. Buying audiences on Facebook is easy and it is quite possible for an outsider to figure out where to spend the money.
– It was no secret that we needed to win Cleveland or Detroit, Andrew Bleeker, who controlled Hillary Clinton’s digital marketing, told Wired.
Fake and exaggerated news also tend to be very engaging in nature, which means that the audience themselves shares and comments on them. Then, there is no need to buy ads or additional exposure. The readers become distributors themselves.
A survey from Buzzfeed showed that fake news spread through Facebook gained three times more engagement in comparison to “real” news.
Investigators are also examining whether the Russians, who managed to hack systems containing registered voters in Arizona and Illinois, may have provided information about these voters to Trump’s campaign staff in order to help them with their targeted ads.
Parscale has denied having any knowledge of Russian involvement and there is currently no evidence that an exchange took place.
Martin Schori, editor in chief at Aftonbladet wrote this article with the expertise of Rikard Lindholm, co-founder Semantiko.
A SWEDISH PROJECT ALAMO?
In a year we will have an election in Sweden. If Trump’s Facebook strategy was so successful, can it be used here?
– It is already being used. It is not the same context, not the same budgets, not the same huge data collection, but the parties have begun to wrap their head around it, says Andre Frisk at Edelman Deportivo.
Only a few of the Swedish parties currently use Facebook pixels. Almost all use Google Analytics.
- Social Democratic Party: Google Analytics, Facebook pixel
- Left Party: Google Analytics
- Green Party: Nothing
- Sweden Democrats: Google Analytics, Facebook pixel
- Liberals: Google Analytics
- Moderate Party: Google Analytics
- Christian Democrats: Google Analytics
- Centre Party: Google Analytics, Facebook pixel
The Social Democratic Party, Centre Party and Sweden Democrats receive information from Facebook about those who actively visit their official sites. None of them, however, have posted the codes on other sites, have any obvious links to fake news sites or engage in activities aimed at reducing opposition voters.
– It is most likely the new trend that will take off here as well, negative campaigns trying to demoralize and split the electorate. Corporate gains in welfare is such an area, half of the Social Democrats oppose it, half are for it. Or immigration, where half of the Moderate Party are negative towards it and half are positive. Here, lies great opportunities for the opposing side to try to split the parties, says André Frisk.
Social media is dominating the news consumption more and more. 62 percent of Americans say they get their news from social media. In Sweden, the figure is not as high: around 50 percent.
But the impact of Facebook is huge: while 49 percent of Swedes between the ages of 15 and 74 say they consumed news on Facebook on an average day during the period, the same figure for Sweden’s largest news site, Aftonbladet, was 46 percent. 28 percent respond that they are consuming news from SVT daily.
Despite this, and the fact that 6 million Swedes are on Facebook, the Swedish political parties instead appear to focus on more traditional channels.
– Generally speaking they are bad at utilizing Facebook. This is where you find the voters and Facebook is sitting on incredible amounts of data. I think it is due to ignorance. But if you are not visible on Facebook you do not exist that is where you should be instead of posters in the towns, “says Tommy Skålberg, CEO of Semantiko MTWABP Sweden AB
– When we use Lookalike audience for our commercial customers, it works incredibly well. It is obvious that this would work just as well for the Centre Party if they are looking for multiple voters with common interests. But you can do it a lot more fairly than Trump did. Making voters lie at home on the couch is a dubious goal. Segmenting Facebook profiles and testing different messages and arguments on the other hand is just clever.
Instead on Facebook, private individuals, individual politicians, loose groupings, sites and what is sometimes described as the “alternative media” dominate. Here, the use of Facebook pixels is not very common, but many of the players use similar methods as Trump’s fake news factory: to exaggerate and angle “real” news, which then often gets huge spread.
– The difference between Sweden and the United States is that in the United States, news are often shared, but in Sweden, opinions about news from the established media are shared. Media outlets in Sweden have greater public confidence than those in the United States, “says Marie Grusell, associate professor of journalism at Gothenburg University.
She does not believe that Swedish political parties will try to copy Trump’s tactics by bombarding selected audiences with fake news.
– Most trends that start in the United States reaches us. But if the political parties did this, it would be noted and would blow back against them. It is more likely that others will do this, she says.
Her colleague Henrik Ekengren Oscarsson is also skeptical about whether it would be particularly effective in a Swedish context.
– One might wonder how big the potential effects of such campaigns can be in a political system like the Swedish one, where we have a multi-party system and more than half of the voters vote for the same party that they have always voted for and are not accessible to change their strong habitual political behavior particularly much, he says.
The question, however, is how long the Swedish parties can resist the temptation of Facebook’s pixels and advertising systems.
André Frisk thinks that this kind of targeted messages against small audiences will be “the norm”, but only in the 2022 election.
– And it could work well if it was done in a good and positive way and directed relevant messages to the right audience. Then, we can achieve a more effective political communication and a lot of people might find politics more interesting, he says.
Rikard Lindholm at Semantiko ends surprisingly by commending Trump’s election campaign as a great example of how modern data-driven Facebook marketing can be used to influence several smaller groups of audiences to go in a certain direction.
– Trump’s team has been smarter than Hillary’s when it comes to understanding the possibilities of marketing on Facebook, understanding the voters’ needs by analyzing data and then applying it to an election campaign.
When it comes to our Swedish political parties they do not have the knowledge internally to apply a communication model like this for the next election. The majority will probably continue with the usual posts on their Facebook page.
I, however, think that Swedish companies with an international market and online based marketing or marketing strategies should focus on data-driven marketing and Facebook as soon as possible to have a competitive edge when it comes to being where the customer is.
Rikard Lindholm continues to point out that Facebook’s strengths are not anything negative, on the contrary. It is about relevance. It does not matter what you think about the technology because it is here to stay and for example legislating it away is not even possible.
He compares it to a soccer game:
– You get no sympathy from nagging the referee because you did not master the development of the game as well as the innovative opponents did. One should retreat, train, get organized and come back stronger.
Martin Schori, editor in chief at Aftonbladet wrote this article with the expertise of Rikard Lindholm, co-founder Semantiko.