The Persuasion Machine of Silicon Valley

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Last Saturday, CBC TV aired a documentary called The Persuasion Machine of Silicon Valley. I recommend everyone who is concerned about the state of democracy and its future spend the hour to watch it. If you can't, here is my synopsis.


This documentary explains how the Trump campaign team used Facebook to win the election.


The team kind of stumbled into a British firm who had developed algorithms to take the FB data and categorize FB users into various demographics. As an example, the producer of the documentary handed over his FB usage to the firm, and it determined that he grew up Roman Catholic but left the religion--yet the producer never discussed his religiosity on FB.  The algorithm somehow figured this out based on other posts. So the Trump team hired this firm to divide the American voter into various groupings.


Once the boundaries of the various demographic groups had been laid out, the Trump FB campaign team (not to be confused with the traditional campaign team) designed FB ads for each of the demographics. It then directed those ads towards the intended demographic. Within a few days, the algorithm could determine whether ad was creating a good feeling or not. If so, the ad run continued. If not, it was changed out.


One of the voter groups was "single mothers of young children." It is hard to see why Trump should go after this demographic, but the FB campaign team did. It designed an ad that had happy children playing in a playground on a sunny day, talking about their positive future. At the end of this clip came a bumper meme that said "TRUMP/pence". Nothing more about the candidate. 


I'm under no illusion that this demographic group was going to be turned  from leaning towards Democrat to leaning towards Republican. But the ad created such good feelings from these struggling moms that: "Mr. Trump is not as bad as the mainstream media says, so let's just stay home with the kids on election day."


In a nutshell, Trump's FB campaign team designed specific ads to deliver specific groups. And given the surprise of the election result, I think it's safe to assume that this under-the-radar campaign delivered Mr. Trump to the White House (much more so than any Russian meddling).


The question is now: Is this new style campaigning actually good for democracy?


It seems to me that the substance behind the people aspiring for political office is going to matter less and less.




Pardero Added Feb 19, 2018 - 12:30pm
     I agree that the Madison avenue packaging of candidates is despicable and undermines our system. It is not just the States. Europeans oftentimes elect celebrities without well developed platforms and policies. 
     We have a celebrity culture. Besides being an unpleasant person with skeletons in her closet, Clinton made a poor celebrity. Two deeply flawed candidates ran. One had a greater appeal to working people that see America going to hell in a handbasket. If she had only been anti-war, I may have been able to hold my nose, but I could not find a single redeeming quality in her.
     Bernie had an appeal for young people but Venezuela is an example of his policies taken to extreme.
     I liked Webb for the Dems and Paul for the GOP. I was shocked when Webb couldn't get any traction going against a vile creature like Hillary. 
     I don't know if a non-celebrity can ever win again. All that campaign money and they couldn't make Clinton into a likeable product.
Leroy Added Feb 19, 2018 - 12:47pm
Thanks, Dave, for the interesting article and summary.  I was not aware that team Trump made such a heavy use of social media.  Was there a Clinton equivalent?  I know that they had The Mook and he was a technology hipster telling the campaign where they should focus their effort, but I don't know how much he used FB.
opher goodwin Added Feb 19, 2018 - 12:51pm
Dave - you've made me feel really bad now. To think that it was the Brits that won the election for Trump. What a weight to have to carry.
Leroy Added Feb 19, 2018 - 12:56pm
"Dave - you've made me feel really bad now. To think that it was the Brits that won the election for Trump. What a weight to have to carry."
Don't feel so bad, Opher; you had Chris Steele ensuring that Trump didn't get elected.  He probably had more sway.
Pardero Added Feb 19, 2018 - 12:56pm
     I don't think Facebook ads helped Trump so much. Maybe mitigated the losses to that crowd. I think the huge crowds of ordinary people cheering had a big influence. Sometimes you gotta pick a side. Some of us saw BLM, Antifa, LGBT, anarchists, and entitled crybabies aligned against ordinary working people that looked a lot like themselves. 
     Sometimes ordinary folks will make a selection based on some seemingly inconsequential observation. I was appalled when Trump emerged. I thought people had gone crazy. One idea that I couldn't shake, was how Hillary would scream, disrespect, and cuss at her aides, while Trump's employees bragged about how nice he was to them and paid them well. When ordinary folks are conflicted about policies, they may sometimes choose the person that their gut tells them to.
     It could very well be that the absolutely horrible human being, Hillary Clinton, is the only candidate that Trump could have defeated in a general election.
Doug Plumb Added Feb 19, 2018 - 1:09pm
Democracy has never been the good part of Republicanism. Its just a necessary evil. Both sides used sophisticated propaganda techniques and both sides will continue doing so.
George N Romey Added Feb 19, 2018 - 1:12pm
Another example of the big data fail. From my reading campaign managers in the swing states saw the election being lost but brain child Robby Mook and his spreadsheets said differently. Mook will never get a job again in politics. HRC ended up the worst politician and candidate in US history. Personally I won’t step foot on FB.
Recently a company I applied for a job wanted all my social media accounts. I said no and they were shocked to learn I did nothing on FB.
Pardero Added Feb 19, 2018 - 1:26pm
Several powerful memes come to mind. The market was saturated with them.
     These memes illustrate a disregard for human life, dishonesty, and the cost of 'exporting democracy': "At this point, what does it matter?" "We came, we saw, he died." "You mean like with a cloth?" "Grab them by the pussy" is pretty tame in comparison. It was a battle of negative memes and Hillary's were insurmountable. Hillary's arrogance and surrounding herself with toadies cost her the election. Not Facebook or clever ads.
George N Romey Added Feb 19, 2018 - 1:36pm
HRC in her own little billionaire bubble thought Obama fixed the economy. Sanders proved otherwise. After effectively dispatching with Sanders she tried to tact his way. Being nothing more than a walking empty talking points memo sealed her fate.
opher goodwin Added Feb 19, 2018 - 1:41pm
Thanks Leroy - you cheered me up.
opher goodwin Added Feb 19, 2018 - 1:46pm
Dave - it highlights to me the impossibility of having a proper democratic system. While the elite play on people's emotions with their expensive adverts rationality goes out the window. This becomes the battle of the megabucks.
EXPAT Added Feb 19, 2018 - 2:49pm
opher. It should not be a surprise to you that voters are being manipulated. This term; Democracy, that keeps being tossed around, does not exist, except in Philosophy People have always been tools of the ruling class. The only thing that has changed is the greater ability of Cyber mind invasion. The ability to convince you that you are making a choice, when actually you are acting as programed.
Doug Plumb Added Feb 19, 2018 - 3:10pm
It should be that candidates get signatures to run rather than dollars and they should debate on public access TV rather than run ads.
re "Recently a company I applied for a job wanted all my social media accounts. I said no and they were shocked to learn I did nothing on FB. "
If they saw my FB account I could never get a job, even as a doctor, if I was the only one and everyone was lying on their deathbed.
opher goodwin Added Feb 19, 2018 - 3:34pm
Expat - no, you are right. It is no surprise to me. It was ever thus. What does surprise me is the everlasting gullibility of the populace.
opher goodwin Added Feb 19, 2018 - 3:35pm
Doug - I agree with you - it should be unfunded and run on public networks without advertising.
EXPAT Added Feb 19, 2018 - 3:51pm
People are to screwed up, to be active participants in their government. They do not have the ability to understand the complex world we live in.
Perhaps the next form of American government will be ;  100 children will be chosen to be raised in the finest academia, and a process of elimination will Leave a Board of Supreme rulers, similar to the Supreme Court, with a Federal Army.
EXPAT Added Feb 19, 2018 - 3:55pm
P.S. All of China was ruled by a class of Mandarins who lived in the forbidden city. Perhaps they were our future? 
opher goodwin Added Feb 19, 2018 - 4:00pm
Expat - that already happens doesn't it? The next ones will be AI.
EXPAT Added Feb 19, 2018 - 5:05pm
Expat - that already happens doesn't it? The next ones will be AI.
No opher. We spend billions on meaningless elections, only to have our needs ignored. It is a giant comedy show, that goes on 24/7.
I want to see ALL of these political commentators, who used to be Journalists, actually produce something useful!
Dave Volek Added Feb 19, 2018 - 5:33pm
Americans have a tendency to have close elections. So anything that can sway a half of a percentage point or two has great significance in close electoral races. You and I may be able to tune out Facebook and Google ads, but they do influence others--especially if they are done well. When I saw the ad for single mothers not to vote for Hillary, there were probably 100,000 votes right there. A few ads like that to shift voter patterns, and there is the American election.
There have been many analysts who have pointed that the left-leaning media gave Trump a boost to win the Republican primary--in hopes he would be such a joke candidate that sensible voters could only vote for Clinton. I believe those lefty forces were significant for setting up the final stage. But a few bad calls on part of the D's turned the election into a coin flip.
Dave Volek Added Feb 19, 2018 - 5:40pm
I was careful in my article to differentiate between the Trump campaign team and the Trump Facebook campaign team. The first team believed that Mr. Trump was the best person for the job. The second team took the Trump campaign as a technical challenge with obstacles to overcome. While they wanted their FB campaign to win, they really didn't care who won (if you know what I mean). 
The Trump team paid these people $85m. Some guy in the UK probably took a few of those millions home.
From the documentary, Mr. Trump knew there was an active FB campaign team, but I don't think he really understood what was happening.    
The D's probably had a FB campaign as well. But they probably didn't take it the level of the Trump campaign team. Very likely, both sides will be equally armed next election. 
Dave Volek Added Feb 19, 2018 - 5:45pm
In 1997, I penned these words:
A second big change in the last 50 years has been the political parties' ability to market themselves better. When we inspect the machinations inside any moderately successful political party, we see great investment into creating a better image. In the future, we should expect better TV commercials, better staged media events, and better 15-second sound clips to influence opinion. The parties will become better at recognizing those individuals who are more electable from an image perspective.
We should expect parties to create better election strategies. They will be better at swaying the 10 to 30% of swing voters on election day, for it is often these fickle swing voters who decide, on one particular day, the government for the next few years.* The parties will become better at identifying various voter segments, polling them, interpreting these polls, and designing their marketing messages for them. They will become better at persuading certain voter segments without offending other voter segments. They will improve their techniques to identify and keep their “soft support” intact while trying to convince the “soft support” of their opponents to change their minds or stay away from the polls. They will learn advertising tricks to defend their soft supporters and get them to the polls.
*Before I became an active worker in a political party, I was one of these fickle voters. In at least two elections, I went to the polls to vote as part of my civic duty, but I had no idea which individual or political party I was going to vote for—despite being a reasonably informed citizen. What made me cast my vote one way and not the other at that time is still a mystery to me.
The parties will be better at finding the talented campaign managers who have a great flair for creating images, interpreting polls, designing marketing messages and making the right decisions at the right time in the midst of an election battle. These individuals could go to the highest bidder.
Some experts may argue that improving the marketing skills of political parties allows them to better serve the citizens. But the motivation is all wrong. Better marketing skills mostly serve to win elections, not necessarily provide better governance. When I align better marketing skills with the 12 limitations, I see no transcending any of the 12 limitations. If anything, better political marketing will make some of them worse.
I don't think anyone was predicting anything like Facebook in 1997. But the way the Trump facebook campaign team used this tool more or less made my prediction come true.
Please think about that!
With the TDG, the ability to manipulate Facebook or any other platform is not going to be influential in who becomes a societal decision maker.
Dave Volek Added Feb 19, 2018 - 5:48pm
You are one of the few to recognize the futility of western democracy. You should read about Tiered Democratic Governance.
Dave Volek Added Feb 19, 2018 - 6:09pm
The D's are going to do the same thing again in 2020. They will believe that the election is already won, and will proffer a candidate more acceptable to the party establishment than the people. . . . . 
. . . . unless they can convince Oprah to run. It would be hard for D establishment to turn her down. But one never knows in politics.
I'm predicting a Trump victory in 2020 . . . unless he gets tired of this life adventure.
George N Romey Added Feb 19, 2018 - 6:15pm
My sense is that this has been far more difficult for Trump than he imagined. Quite possibly he will call his 4 year term an outstanding victory and move on.
James Travil Added Feb 19, 2018 - 6:19pm
I don't use Facebook so it didn't sway my vote. Hillary being the worst candidate possible certainly did. And Padero makes some good observations about the kind of low lifes that supported her. Bernie turned out to be a sellout. In the end Trump got my vote for the absolute need to keep Hillary "war with Russia" out of the White House. And that had zero to do with any social media. I just listened to the crazy coming 24/7 from Hillary’s mouth!
George N Romey Added Feb 19, 2018 - 6:47pm
Me thinks differently. As more and more Americans see both parties as whores for corporations and Wall Street ginned up party platforms won’t work. 16 establishment Republicans were beat by a man with zero finesse. Without the back room moves by the Clinton campaign and the rigged super delegates Sanders may have won,
People have never quite trusted politicians and that distrust is only growing.
Pardero Added Feb 19, 2018 - 7:01pm
If Dave is right, Trump wins in a landslide in 2020.
If George is right, and Trump tires of it, he is already setting up to turn the reins over to Ivanka, and she would be a formidible candidate.
Dino Manalis Added Feb 19, 2018 - 7:29pm
Trump appealed to mainstream America, while Hillary was just interested in Trump's womanizing.  The 2016 campaign was either about Hillary's emails or Trump's womanizing, little on issues that matter.
James Travil Added Feb 19, 2018 - 11:26pm
Ivanka vs. Oprah would make for an interesting race, and at least we wouldn't have to listen to idiots saying that you are a misogynist for not voting for the women.
What would impress me is if either of them ran as an independent instead of continuing to promote the two-party system. An independent president could do more to unite the country by being truly bipartisan.
opher goodwin Added Feb 20, 2018 - 3:43am
Dave - well predicted!! Those tools sure do not produce better governance - that's for sure!
Bill Kamps Added Feb 20, 2018 - 10:03am
Dave, many  factors contributed to the election results.  This may or may not have been one, but  yes it probably contributed at least as much as the Russians who I think were a small factor.
The election really hinged on lack of turnout for HRC.  Trump got almost exactly the same number of votes as Romney.  Even on a state by state level the votes were very close.  However, the turnout for HRC was significantly lower than for Obama.  Since the Democrats rely on high turnout in a smaller number of precincts, that spells trouble for them.  HRC won only slightly fewer precincts than Obama won, but she won them with lower margin. 
So the question is, why was the turnout lower?  Well HRC's low approval rating probably was a factor.  Also presumably minorities voted in larger numbers for Obama than for HRC. 
I think the reason the predictions were off was that turnout is the most difficult  thing to predict.  It is much easier to predict which precincts a candidate will win, than predicting the number of votes they will get in those precincts.  In fact most election predictions generally have to assume some turnout numbers. 
Getting high turnout requires an enthused voter base.  Not many were enthused about HRC, even a lot of women didnt care for her style.  Further the election was about change.  Sanders and Trump represented change, and had the most enthused voter bases. 
Dave Volek Added Feb 20, 2018 - 10:11am
Just think: power and influence now belong to those who know how the hire the better Facebook marketing team. This has very little to do with good governance. 
Western democracy has indeed been improved. At least that is what the British fellow said in the documentary--after he moved a few million dollars from America to Britain. 
Ian Thorpe Added Feb 20, 2018 - 10:43am
Opher, don't beat yourself up for being British, it wasn't a social media equivalent of "It's The Sun Wot Dun It," that got Trump elected, probably nothing to do with any British organisation at all.
Between trips to Morecambe at the moment I'm halfway through an article on how ineffective web advertising campaigns really are - and according to my research they're almost totally so.
The case is that thanks to a dodgy deal made in 2008 the Democrats hamstrung themselves by putting up a candidate viewed by most Americans as utterly repugnant.
And Hillary's campaign promise to start WW3 as soon as she was inaugurated probably didn't help her cause.
Bill Kamps Added Feb 20, 2018 - 11:16am
This has very little to do with good governance. 
Very little of ANY campaign has to do with good governance.
opher goodwin Added Feb 20, 2018 - 11:25am
Dave - as the algorithms kick in even more we will probably find advertising and campaigning focussed in on small groups or even individuals.
Tamara Wilhite Added Feb 20, 2018 - 12:00pm
Tamara Wilhite Added Feb 20, 2018 - 12:02pm
And Facebook's censorship of conservative groups and individuals is established fact, as well. So no, Facebook was biased AGAINST Trump and working against him.
Trump won despite systemic oppression of the conservative viewpoint, not because conservatives played it in their favor.
Dave Volek Added Feb 20, 2018 - 9:35pm
Bill Kamps
Very little of ANY campaign has to do with good governance.
I have been saying this for 20 years. The skill sets for electioneering have limited application for real world governance. In my book, I use the analogy of getting a driver's license for a car, then hopping into an 18 wheel truck. Both the car and the truck have the same road rules, but beyond that, the truck requires a lot more skill and attention to operate properly. If a politician or his team runs a good campaign, he might have 5% of the skills necessary for good governance.
Skills for governance are gained by working in the lower levels of governance. If the skills are respected and admired, those representatives should find their way into the higher levels. That's how Tiered Democratic Governance works.  
Dave Volek Added Feb 20, 2018 - 9:57pm
I went to your link. It's kind of hard for me to verify the truthfulness of the article.But rather than get into a quibble, I would just like to add that if the "left" media was so biased, why did it report:
1) the email scandal,
2) the "basket of deplorables" quote,
3) Clinton's role in the Libyan civil war,
4) The D Establishment tilting the primaries in her favor,
4) and a few others things
I really didn't see Ms. Clinton being given a free pass in the campaign from any media outlet. At best, they gave her the benefit of "not being like Donald Trump." And if that swayed votes in her favor, the media were just reporting the truth, right?
A couple months ago, a WB contributor complained that Google searches only gave negative search results for Mr. Trump. So the algorithms must be stacked against him. All I could say was that Mr. Trump is a terrible manager of media relations, and if he gets negative press, it is his own fault. Or maybe there just are many more people writing negative articles than positive articles. When I did my google search on "Donald Trump News," high on this list were a summary of his recent tweets. It's hard to fault Google for putting these tweets high on the list. If they are negative, then maybe they shouldn't have been put on twitter in the first place.
Dave Volek Added Feb 20, 2018 - 10:01pm
If there is indeed a conspiracy of the media, maybe it's against me. After all, I'm offering a new kind of democracy that won't thrive on the circus we are now seeing. The media have a vested interest in ensuring Tiered Democratic Governance is not going anywhere. With the TDG, we won't be getting controversial figures like Ms. Clinton or Mr. Trump to generate ad revenue. Yep, they are indeed against me!
Neil Lock Added Feb 21, 2018 - 5:26am
The skill sets for electioneering have limited application for real world governance.
I think you understate your case there, Dave. The skills needed to win an election are all but diametrically opposed to those needed to govern well.
Dave Volek Added Feb 21, 2018 - 9:45am
There are valuable skills in electioneering. Getting in front of microphone and trying to make sense for average voters is something that can be parlayed into good governance. Dealing with the media is another. And a good campaign shows one has energy and endurance for the job of an elected public official.
But, as you have hinted, some of the dialogue in electioneering is counterproductive; for example, the denigration of political opponents. It may help win elections, but it is not good for incorporating points of view that are a little different.
I often wonder, in continental European elections, political parties are often in competition for the same voter segment with similar parties. They need to bash each other up during the election, yet when the election is over, they form alliances to form the government. 
Doug Plumb Added Feb 22, 2018 - 5:49am
Expat re "Perhaps the next form of American government will be ;  100 children will be chosen to be raised in the finest academia, and a process of elimination will Leave a Board of Supreme rulers, similar to the Supreme Court, with a Federal Army.  "
That is Plato's Republic.
Doug Plumb Added Feb 22, 2018 - 5:53am
re "Ivanka vs. Oprah " Oprah is another man-bear-pig but of a different form than Gore of Blood and Gore.
Phil Greenough Added Feb 22, 2018 - 8:52am
“This documentary explains how the Trump campaign team used Facebook to win the election.”
With Zuckerberg firmly ingrained in the Democratic Party and millennials loyal Democrats as well, there is no question Facebook was a far more powerful tool for liberals.  I can appreciate the sentiment that Twitter helped Trump with the election, but that’s only because the MSM was committed to defeating him.  Trump had no choice but to out the media as frauds and plead his case directly to the people, which Twitter enabled him to do. 
Dave Volek Added Feb 22, 2018 - 10:29am
Watch the documentary. The Trump team spent $85 on FB ads, using a very professional team with a new way to use FB. It's kind of hard to believe that Zuckerberg and that British firm took the money and did nothing for the Trump campaign.
But if you can see past the traditional D vs R dialogue, the documentary and my article tell of a new way to electioneer. Is this where we want democracy to go?
And before you answer that, the R advantage will be short-lived. The D's will be using the same tools next time around.

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