By Simon Bond

Fake news has been hitting the genuine headlines since the US election and, as the infographic below shows, it's a real problem. As research by Buzzfeed using Buzzsumo shows, from August until election day, fake news stories had more engagement on Facebook than mainstream stories did. The most 'popular' story falsely stated that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency - receiving almost one million engagements (shares, reactions and comments). In a time of 'post-truth' though, these revelations are unlikely to sway the opinions of those that cast their vote for the now president elect.

So how much did Facebook help get Donald Trump elected? The answer is, much more than you may think. One of the few ways the election of Donald Trump was similar to that of Barack Obama was his use of a new medium that will forever change politics. For Obama, that medium was the internet 2.0. For Trump, it was Facebook.

This reality, coupled with the fact that Facebook’s U.S. ad revenue is now, for the first time ever, larger than the biggest traditional media companies, has cemented the platform’s role as the new gatekeeper of democratic life. Since Trump is unlikely to curb the machine that brought him to power unless it is politically advantageous to do so, to stamp out the opposition, or future political rivals the burden of oversight, at least for the moment, rests with Mark Zuckerberg, the year’s most reluctant politician. 

Image: Mark Zuckerberg, AAP

In the final months of the campaign, the Trump team fearing it was headed for a loss, unleashed a direct marketing effort that they insisted would “shock the world” come election day. The foundation of this operation, according to an October feature story by Bloomberg, was the “sprawling digital fundraising database and social media campaign” that Jared Kushner began building for his father-in-law in November 2015, and which became the nerve center of the campaign. Although the polls were not in Trump’s favour, something else was: an audience of die-hard supporters, numbering in the millions, his son-in-law built on Facebook.

“I called some of my friends from Silicon Valley, some of the best digital marketers in the world, and asked how you scale this stuff,” Kushner said recently in an exclusive interview with Forbes. “They gave me their subcontractors.” By August, “Project Alamo,” as the database came to be called, would become the driving force behind much of Trump’s political and travel strategy. As would data supplied by the RNC and Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that worked on the “Leave” side of the Brexit campaign. For several years now, Cambridge Analytica has been using Facebook quizzes to create personality profiles that represent 230 million Americans, according to how they rate on the “big five” psychological traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, also known as your Ocean score. The firm is also an occasional defense contractor known for its counter-terrorism “psy ops” work in Afghanistan.

Using this digital firepower, which cost the Trump team around $70 million a month, the campaign was able to capture somewhere between 12 to 14 million email addresses, contact details, and credit card numbers for 2.5 million small donors, who collectively gave around $275 million. For fundraising they utilised machine learning, pitting digital marketing companies against each other on a trading floor to make them compete for business. As Kushner explained to Forbes, “Ineffective ads were killed in minutes, while successful ones scaled.

The campaign was also able to identify 13.5 million voters in 16 battleground states whom it considered persuadable. The magnitude of this operation, according to Bloomberg, is what ultimately lured Steve Bannon, one of Cambridge Analytica’s key board members, to join Trump’s team: "I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine. Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience."

We know its power. Direct-marketing has been around since at least the 1960s, but the degree to which individual digital ads can be tailored and targeted at people, based on their personalities, is something new.

One Facebook advertising tool that was broadly utilised by Trump’s campaign is known as the “dark post”—a newsfeed message seen by no one other than users being targeted. Under the guidance of Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s digital team used dark posts to deliver different ads to different potential voters, aiming to provoke certain reactions from the exact right people at the exact right times. The New York Times opined on a future scenario: Imagine the full capability of this kind of “psychographic” advertising. In future Republican campaigns, a pro-gun voter whose Ocean score ranks him high on neuroticism could see storm clouds and a threat: The Democrat wants to take his guns away. A separate pro-gun voter deemed agreeable and introverted might see an ad emphasising tradition and community values, a father and son hunting together.

While many of the dark posts were designed to get out the Trump vote, others were designed to depress support for Clinton. “We have three major voter suppression operations underway,” a campaign official told Bloomberg, revealing that Trump’s team had targeted white liberals, young women, and black voters with negative ads focused on the Clinton’s politics. According to Bloomberg, Trump’s digital team sent dark posts reminding certain selected black voters of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “super predator” line. It also targeted Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood with messages about the Clinton Foundation’s troubles in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Federal Election Commission rules are unclear when it comes to Facebook posts, but even if they do apply, the power of public censure vanishes when no one else sees the ad you see. What is also unclear is if dark posts and other targeted ads actually affect how and when people vote. Facebook ran a study in 2010 that found social messages shared on the network could boost voter turnout. The Trump team’s predictive voter behaviour models showed that running negative ads, targeted at selected people, would dramatically affect Clinton’s ability to turn people out. And yet it is difficult to gauge how people will react. Trump’s ads could just have easily backfired, inspiring people to go to the polls for Clinton. 

Until those facts are sorted out, future campaigns on both sides of the aisle will find it difficult to resist the allure of psychographic advertising, given the stunning upsets of Brexit and Trump. What better endorsements could Cambridge Analytica have hoped for? As one senior staffer from Trump’s digital team told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election, “Growing the digital footprint has really allowed us to take his message directly to the people,” adding that even if Trump were to lose, “We own the future of the Republican Party.”