Why Russia’s Facebook ad campaign wasn’t such a success
There was a sense in this past week’s congressional hearings with executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign was a raging success. “If you look back the results,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), “it’s a pretty good return on investment.” Facebook lawyer Colin Stretch, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee , concurred : “It’s clear that they were able to drive a relatively significant following for a relatively small amount of money. It’s why this activity appears so pernicious.”
Lawmakers made much noise about how such intervention undermines American democracy and threatens national security. And some went as far as to suggest that it tipped the presidential contest. “In an election where a total of about 115,000 votes would have changed the outcome, can you say that the false and misleading propaganda people saw on . . . Facebook didn’t have an impact on the election?” asked Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
I’ve run digital advertising campaigns on behalf of candidates in contested battleground states. And if the ads revealed this past week were an attempt to influence the election, they were a laughably botched and failed attempt. The total amount spent was less than what I’ve seen spent online in competitive congressional races. The ads were not well targeted to the battleground states that were most decisive. And the subject matter was designed to engage extremist voices on the political fringe, not persuadable voters undecided between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Vladimir Putin’s propaganda victory is not the advertising itself, but the notion that just over $100,000 worth of poorly targeted Facebook advertising could swing a presidential election. It can’t.
It is important for the United States to acknowledge that Russia’s efforts were a direct attack on our democracy. But in the same way that we do not describe a terrorist attack as a victory for the terrorists, those seeking other explanations for November’s results shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to declare Russia’s meddling decisive. Besides that being a greatly exaggerated view of Russia’s capabilities, deeming the effort a geopolitical success emboldens Russia in its efforts to undermine Western democracies.
News of Russia’s meddling has produced some scary-sounding numbers: as many as 126 million Americans reached on Facebook alone, a further 20 million on Instagram, and 1.4 million tweets sent by Russian-affiliated accounts in the two months leading up to the election.
Yet, the Russian content was just a tiny share of the 33 trillion posts Americans saw in their Facebook news feeds between 2015 and 2017. Any success the ads had in terms of reach seems attributable largely to the sheer doggedness of the effort, with 80,000 Facebook posts in total. Facebook reported that a quarter of the ads were never seen by anyone. And — with the average Facebook user sifting through 220 news-feed posts a day — many of the rest were simply glanced at, scrolled past and forgotten.
With $81 million spent on Facebook by the Trump and Clinton campaigns, mostly to mobilize core supporters to donate and volunteer, a low-six-figure buy is unlikely to have tipped the election. The Russian effort looks even less influential when one considers the tiny amount of Russian Facebook spending directed at key battleground states — $1,979 in Wisconsin, $823 in Michigan and $300 in Pennsylvania. From an electoral perspective, the campaign was remarkably unsophisticated.
Of course, some people did click and like and share. Where Russia appears to have made more headway — before and after the election — is in further animating partisans, capitalizing on their need to have their existing beliefs confirmed. It didn’t matter that those confirming their beliefs were foreign adversaries.