I Ran Digital For A 2016 Presidential Campaign. Here's What Russia Might Have Got For $100,000

Even the pros struggle to know how far messages travel when Facebook is paid to promote them — but Russia's $100,000 could have reached millions.

One common response to the news that a Kremlin-linked online operation in Russia bought $100,000 worth of Facebook ads during the 2016 election campaign has been that the money is a drop in the bucket relative to the more than $1 billion spent on ads during the cycle, or the $27 billion in revenue earned by Facebook last year.

But as one of a handful of Americans who managed the digital operations of a 2016 presidential campaign, I think $100,000 smartly spent on Facebook could have a much larger reach than you may realize. And more importantly, nobody — not the political pros, or the advertising gurus — truly knows how far a message spreads when Facebook is paid to promote it. The social network still contains many mysteries, even to those pouring millions into it.

What I do know, from managing the digital operations for Gov. John Kasich’s campaign, is how the game was played in 2016. So how much impact would $100,000 of advertising have on Facebook during the cycle? The short answer is…that completely depends on how large the targeted audience was, and how long the campaigns were running.

Let’s make some very conservative estimates, for argument’s sake. For a nationally targeted campaign, assume the Russians paid $0.50 per click, and they were the deploying the kind of super click-bait ads that are specifically designed to catch people’s attention on Facebook. I can see that kind of campaign producing roughly 10 million impressions — meaning the number of times it could have been seen in somebody’s Facebook timeline — and 200,000 clicks, using another conservative estimate of a 2% click-through-rate.

Those 200,000 clicks could mean a number of things: either sharing the content, commenting on it, clicking through to a new website — maybe a “news” site loaded with more hyper-clicky headlines, each designed to cause emotional reactions and in some instances, outright mislead voters (remember when #FakeNews was really about fake news?).

So how far could this information have spread with that many impressions and clicks? That is a really great question and likely one that we will never be able to measure — we’re all still trying to figure out Facebook’s many mysteries. But to even make an attempt at it, you have to understand how Facebook works.

For example, if my uncle shares a news story and I somewhat regularly engage with his posts, Facebook is going to make sure that I see that new thing he just posted, even days later. Their algorithm has determined that I’m interested in his posts due to my past behavior.

But he doesn’t actually have to share something for me to see it. These days, Facebook could show me that content simply because he “liked” it or left a comment. That is very important because it means that a single post can reach multiple layers of people who may have had no connection at all to the original poster.

This is important, and it plays a big part in one of the questions I’m most frequently asked when discussing the role Facebook played in 2016: Did the people on the campaigns notice all the dishonest and misleading content spreading on social media? Yes, I did. But I didn’t realize the scale of what I was seeing — and I assumed voters would reject things that were obviously false.

One of the more interesting studies that came out after the election revealed that nearly 60% of people who share news stories on social media do so without ever having clicked the link to read the article. That certainly helps explain some of the virality of this misleading content, doesn’t it?

One post I saw on Facebook, months after Gov. Kasich had left the race, declared that “John Kasich Left the GOP!” It had nearly 40,000 shares. Aside from the fact that this is an absurd claim, the reach of that one post sent shivers down my spine. That was the day I realized how widespread this had become.

Which brings us back to those Russian accounts and their 200,000 clicks. It’s very conceivable that millions of people actually saw the message that was being promoted, in ways that wouldn’t show up in traditional ad reporting.

This isn’t a bug — this is the power of Facebook. And it’s why there is a huge migration happening away from things like TV and mail in the political advertising space, and why modern campaign organizations are investing so heavily in Facebook and other digital advertising methods to shape voter opinions.

The Russians took advantage of that power. Figuring out how far their $100,000 went would require solving some of the big mysteries of the platform.

For example, if they did target geographically, how large was their target universe? The larger the universe, the fewer times their audience would have seen the ad. Too few times and you could argue it would have had little impact on actually shaping opinions — at least to that first tier of people who were directly targeted.

And if many of the people who clicked on these ads were taken to a fake news site, what other content did they consume or share from that website? We will likely never have a good way to measure the complete reach of an ad but it’s important that we find ways to do better so we can understand how to face this challenge.

Most intriguingly, Facebook was only able to identify these ad purchase because the people who placed the ads did a sloppy job at pretending to be within the United States. Could foreign-funded ads have been a more widespread issue in 2016, one that stoked fears and anger and ultimately impacted the decisions of large numbers of voters?

I imagine that we’ll find out at least some of the answers to this when the various Russia investigations release their findings.

In the meantime, we must be honest with ourselves and ask the tough questions. How far do these ads reach? How can we improve the way we assign value and measure impact? How can we embrace the positive benefits of Facebook and other online communities without leaving ourselves vulnerable to creating platforms for dishonesty?

Facebook is a very powerful tool that has the capacity for good. Just ask any small business owner or charitable organization that has a good digital marketing strategy and they’ll tell you that Facebook is a unique tool that allows them to grow, create jobs and help those in need.

Let’s strive to ensure that these kinds of powerful tools don’t become powerful weapons that undermine our democracy.

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