Facebook exec: Trump won 2016 not because of Russians but because of an outstanding digital campaign

A high-ranking Facebook executive named Andrew Bosworth, who is said to be a “confidant” of Mark Zuckerberg, wrote a 2,500 word memo to his staff about lessons the company learned from the 2016 election and how the company should approach the 2020 election. In it he mentions a lesson he learned from Lord of the Rings. We’ll get to that in a bit but first, the NY Times published the memo in full and a separate story about the memo. A comparison of the two is interesting. First, here’s the opening of the Times’ story:

Since the 2016 election, when Russian trolls and a tsunami of misinformation turned social media into a partisan battlefield, Facebook has wrestled with the role it played in President Trump’s victory.

Now, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times, a longtime Facebook executive has told employees that the company had a moral duty not to tilt the scales against Mr. Trump as he seeks re-election.

On Dec. 30, Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality division, wrote on his internal Facebook page that, as a liberal, he found himself wanting to use the social network’s powerful platform against Mr. Trump. But citing the “Lord of the Rings” franchise and the philosopher John Rawls, Mr. Bosworth said that doing so would eventually backfire.

What’s striking if you read the entire memo is how very different this summary is in tone and in content. It’s not that the Times’ is making anything up but it does seem to be coasting on assumptions about Facebook which the bulk of the memo seeks to dismiss. Were Russian trolls and a “tsunami of misinformation” deciding factors in the 2016 election? Anyone reading the three paragraphs above would be forgiven for believing the answer was yes. After all, if Bosworth believes Facebook could sway the 2020 election then surely all of that misinformation swayed the 2016 election, right?

Bosworth says no. Here he is on Russian interference [emphasis added]

It is worth looking at the 2016 Election which set this chain of events in motion. I was running our ads organization at the time of the election and had been for the four years prior (and for one year after). It is worth reminding everyone that Russian Interference was real but it was mostly not done through advertising. $100,000 in ads on Facebook can be a powerful tool but it can’t buy you an American election, especially when the candidates themselves are putting up several orders of magnitude more money on the same platform (not to mention other platforms).

Instead, the Russians worked to exploit existing divisions in the American public for example by hosting Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter protest events in the same city on the same day. The people who shows up to those events were real even if the event coordinator was not. Likewise the groups of Americans being fed partisan content was real even if those feeding them were not. The organic reach they managed sounds very big in absolute terms and unfortunately humans are bad at contextualizing big numbers. Whatever reach they managed represents an infinitesimal fraction of the overall content people saw in the same period of time and certainly over the course of an election across all media.

Sorry, Hillary, but if you’re still trying to blame your loss on the Russian social media campaign, that dog won’t hunt. What about the tsunami of misinformation?

Misinformation was also real and related but not the same as Russian interference. The Russians may have used misinformation alongside real partisan messaging in their campaigns, but the primary source of misinformation was economically motivated. People with no political interest whatsoever realized they could drive traffic to ad-laden websites by creating fake headlines and did so to make money. These might be more adequately described as hoaxes that play on confirmation bias or conspiracy theory. In my opinion this is another area where the criticism is merited. This is also an area where we have made dramatic progress and don’t expect it to be a major issue for 2020.

But Bosworth does believe Facebook was at least partly responsible for getting Trump elected, but his explanation won’t provide much solace to wounded progressives:

So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.

To be clear, I’m no fan of Trump. I donated the max to Hillary. After his election I wrote a post about Trump supporters that I’m told caused colleagues who had supported him to feel unsafe around me (I regret that post and deleted shortly after).

But Parscale and Trump just did unbelievable work. They weren’t running misinformation or hoaxes. They weren’t microtargeting or saying different things to different people. They just used the tools we had to show the right creative to each person. The use of custom audiences, video, ecommerce, and fresh creative remains the high water mark of digital ad campaigns in my opinion.

Why isn’t this the lead in the NY Times story? They do finally mention it in the 4th paragraph from the bottom. I guess that’s something but I suspect it’s not what their readers wanted to hear.

Finally, looking forward to 2020, Bosworth says it’s certainly tempting to him personally to abuse the power Facebook has to secure a different result, but when he considers the possibility he remembers a moment from Lord of the Rings:

That brings me to the present moment, where we have maintained the same ad policies. It occurs to me that it very well may lead to the same result. As a committed liberal I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result. So what stays my hand?

I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment. Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.

Personally, it worries me a great deal that a top Facebook exec is casually admitting that he believes Facebook could sway an election if people behind the scenes were so inclined. I’m glad he hasn’t given in to temptation (assuming that’s true) but it seems to me there are lots of far-left people at Facebook who may not be as familiar with the wisdom of JRR Tolkein. And if the Lord of the Rings teaches us anything it’s that there will always be people who succumb to the temptation of power. That was the case for Gollum, the Nazgul, and Saruman. Even Frodo nearly failed at Mount Doom.

So long as Facebook exists, the temptation to use it’s power will exist as well. And we all know there was only one way to put an end to it on Lord of the Rings. It had to be utterly destroyed. I wonder if Andrew Bosworth has thought about that.

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