Earlier today, at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Brad Parscale, the digital director of Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign, revealed much more about Trump’s election campaign and the role that Facebook played in it.
In conversation with renowned investigative journalist Michael Isikoff, Parscale also suggested that if anyone was seeking support from the Russian government during the campaign — or ignoring nefarious signs about Russian actors — it was the social media platforms, all of which were chasing the money.
Isikoff started the interview by remarking on the Democratic wins in Virginia yesterday but quickly pivoted, asking Parscale what he understood about social media during the campaign season that the “Clinton campaign did not.”
Parscale said that two things worked to his benefit: the recognition that “eyeballs were moving to social media and mobile phones and devices in huge numbers” and that he “had a great piece of product that would resonate with Americans,” meaning Trump.
“It was the right mix,” he added. “Whenever anybody is in marketing or advertising, it’s a lot easier to sell an iPod than [its short-lived competitor] Zune.
Parscale also shared more detail about the campaign’s need to raise money — “when Donald Trump became the candidate, we didn’t have any money other than Mr. Trump’s money and I don’t think he wanted to write all that check himself.” And Parscale said he saw the need to “create a grass-roots campaign and find millions of people to be our grassroots supporters.” He said that Facebook “allowed us to do that in alarming numbers, very fast.” In fact, he credited the Trump campaign’s Facebook initiative with producing $280 million dollars, $100 million of which was then poured into targeted ads, on Facebook, with the help of Facebook employees.
The employees “weren’t crafting ads,” insisted Parscale. “They were there to help us support their platform.
“Look,” he said, “you go spend $300 million [on advertising], [and] $100 million dollars on social media, [and] a lot of people show up at your office, wanting to help you spend that money on their platforms. Facebook would rather have me spend that $100 million on their platform. Twitter would rather me spend it there. Snapchat. Google They were all wanting to have that money. So teaching us and educating us how to to use that platform as best as possible was a good thing [for Facebook] to do.”
Isikoff went on to ask about claims Parscale has made that the campaign would produce and shoot out up to 60,000 ads that were targeted to specific audiences each day; he wondered how the campaign had done it — and why.
Parscale’s explanation probably won’t surprise anyone in the programmatic ad world, though it might strike others, including the voters who were targeted, as surprising. “We had multiple programmatic buyers and platforms running across Facebook,” said Parscale. “What that would do is, sometimes, when you’re trying to raise money, different people like different colors, people like different messages, [people like] long form, short form, pictures, images. You put those across each other and automate the construction of the ads, and your math goes up really fast.”
The “machine learning would auto-remove those underperforming ads,” he continued, “and that’s what would drive the ability for us, for the first time in history, to generate more than $1 dollar in donations for less than a $1 spend on the ad. That provided the surge of revenue that allowed us to compete in the general election.”
Much of the rest of the talk centered on politics, with Isikoff asking if Parscale regrets putting forward a candidate who promised voters that he’d repair their roads and bridges, and who has “done none of that,” said Isikoff. (“He has a lot of time still,” said Parscale of Trump. “He’s working on tax reform right now. American people want more money in their pocket.”)
Isikoff then dived into the controversy about Russia’s role in the election and the role specifically of Cambridge Analytica, a London-based company that uses data mining and data analysis to create so-called psychographic profiles of voters to predict their vote — and which Parscale had hired during the campaign.
Cambridge “didn’t play a role in crafting ads” Parscale insisted, telling Isikoff that it instead “helped with a research strategy to help us raise money.”
Its help was crucial nonetheless, he suggested. “We needed to build an infrastructure. [Cambridge] provided staff, resources, because we had to grow a large organization, fast. They did a lot of polling, and they did a lot of building some directional arrows for us [regarding] where to place the money, being able to provide reporting back that says, ‘Here are trends that are happening,’ so I could move the budget around in a way and I could make recommendations to [then candidate Trump] and to leadership, saying, ‘Here’s an opportunity. We should go into this part of Michigan. We should go into this part of Wisconsin.’ They were able to drive that kind of information . . . and in a simple consumption model, daily.”
Later in the interview, Isikoff called out Parscale for retweeting a message from a “Russian bot” designed to look like a Republican from Tennessee. Isikoff noted that many from the Trump campaign — including then campaign manager Kelly Ann Conway, former U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and Donald Trump Jr. — all retweeted messages being published by Russian bots on Twitter, including about the “biased media.” Did Parscale regret amplifying their messages? Isikoff asked.
“I don’t want Russia or any foreign entity to meddle in our election any more than any other American,” said Parscale. “I think Facebook and the platforms should regulate and make sure foreign entities don’t come on there. That’s their responsibility, probably. And the government and Facebook will figure that out,” he added.
But to say that Russia had “any influence over Trump and his voice would be saying that if we took this whole [arena where we’re sitting] and made it a salad bowl and dropped two pieces of salt in it, you could taste it. I just don’t think that’s a possibility.”
Parscale later said he regretted being fooled by a bot, but suggested he was less concerned about feeling manipulated by Russia than getting blamed for Twitter’s failure to better identify for users who is behind its accounts — or what.
“Do I feel manipulated by Russia for retweeting a tweet?” said Parscale. “Twitter went to Russia and tried to sell 15 percent of our entire messaging to them for millions of dollars. Jack Dorsey wanted Russia’s money. I didn’t take Russia’s money; I retweeted a tweet that says the media is biased, which I believe it truly is.”
Twitter declined to comment on the claim.