Why Russians Matter To Your Campaign

Let’s talk about Russians.

Let’s talk about the Russians and online ads and Facebook and what they may have done and what it means for the future of political online ad buying.. Because it’s important. And it’s going to matter to your campaign.

First, what happened? Well, start with the online ad campaign that Giles-Parscale ran for President Trump. In his public statements, Brad Parscale has been clear: He did what every brand advertiser does and took advantage of the power, reach and ubiquity of online to push ads out supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy.

When ads didn’t work – they didn’t lead people to the candidates site – they came down. When they did, they stayed up until they didn’t work. At one point, Giles-Parscale was reported to be running 60,000 different ads at one time.

That’s it. There may be some nuances in this account but they’re just that – nuances. At the end of the day the Trump online campaign boiled down to this: Use as much money as you need to buy as many ads as you can making sure those ads are performing as well as they can.

This is where the Russians come sneaking in. And this is probably why special counsel Robert Mueller is looking hard and long at ‘social’ media sites as he investigates the Trump campaigns connections to Russian attempt to influence the 2018 election.

The ad server data from the campaign described above – like ALL server data – would provide a valuable starting point for anyone wanting to use social media to boost – let’s call them nefarious ideas – about Hillary Clinton, the U.S. election process or pretty much anything else. And that data can be shared simply by giving someone a password and log-in. It’s done all the time on brand campaigns (and some political, too).

For instance, let’s say an ad touting President Trump’s support of the 2nd Amendment did really well in Nashville, TN. Someone – anyone – could use that information to start a Facebook group for Nashville residents to share their views on the 2nd Amendment. The group would get started by asking people who may have joined pro-Trump groups on Facebook to “like” or “share” news about the new 2nd Amendment group and its members.

This bad actor could join more groups as she found more people sharing her “interests” all the while pumping in links to (real or imagined) stories about Hillary Clinton’s anti-gun stance, and of course, layering on other claims as the election neared. Note, this has little to do – except for the very important data – with the online ad campaign. The two can run in parallel, not in concert.

So what does this mean? Well, in combination with a lot of bad feelings toward Facebook and Instagram on other fronts, it almost certainly means the end of self-service political ad buying. Either Congress or the FEC will put an end to automated buying.

What’s automated buying? It’s the way most political ads are bought. You have a DSP? You’re buying automatically. You have a vendor who buys Google display or search? That’s automated, too. And automated buying doesn’t have a lot of restrictions: No disclaimers, no substantiation, no standards and practices. All you need is a credit card and a web browser.

Along the way, we’re probably going to see some sort of standard setting online campaigns for disclosures – something that most local news outlets enforce and a practice Google and Facebook have been successfully putting off for years.

Why? Well, standard setting and review mean that both companies have to use humans to look at and evaluate ads. It also means both companies will need to decide what they will and won’t tolerate – and stick with it, consistently and without regard for political affiliation or message.

These are chores traditionally handled by – wait for it – media companies. And if there’s one thing Google and Facebook have sworn they are not, is media companies.

Why? Media companies employee people and Silicon Valley hates people. People are an overhead expense that breathes, not the kind that can run all night on a battery pack. People make mistakes . They’re also expensive – reducing that $450 million Facebook made on political to something like $350 million (still a fraction of a fraction of the $33 billion the company took in last year).

Automated buying can make a company money 24/7/365. But it has no sense of humor or ability to read a disclaimer and know it’s following the law. It may take a while – automated ad buying is hugely popular with a variety of political firms because it’s cheap and easy – but it’s time the political ad buying market matured. Because what the Russians can do today your opponent can do tomorrow.

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