It was the end of a tumultuous month for US President Donald Trump’s White House. A redacted version of a report by US special counsel Robert Mueller had been released to the public.
Democratic committee leaders were threatening subpoenas. The special counsel had broken his silence to criticize the US attorney general’s handling of the report’s release.
In Washington, Trump’s presidency was under as much pressure as ever.
However, on Facebook, the Trump circle was asserting another reality.
“While Democrats have spent the last two years wasting your money on a bogus WITCH HUNT that found NO COLLUSION, President Trump has been fighting for YOU,” read the copy in Facebook advertisements run by Trump’s re-election campaign on April 30. “The Democratic Party has sunk so low that they’re embracing Anti Semite [US Representative] Ilhan Omar, who recently minimized the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as ‘some people did something.’ Their party is a disgrace.”
The ads were notable for a number of reasons.
They asked users to donate prior to a “CRUCIAL fundraising deadline” even though the next major deadline would not come until June 30, employing a time-tested marketing trick to create a false sense of urgency.
They were numerous, with more than 200 minor variations of the advertisements running.
They were topical and negative, feeding an intensely divisive controversy earlier that month over out-of-context remarks made by a Muslim US representative about post-9/11 Islamophobia rather than making an affirmative case for Trump’s re-election.
They targeted older Facebook users across the US, in defiance of conventional wisdom about who responds to social media campaigning.
All in all, the advertisements epitomized the unprecedented nature of the massive social media campaign being waged by Trump more than 500 days before the US presidential election next year.
“They’re way ahead of the field this time,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist. “They’re building their infrastructure and list and online fundraising more than a year before the election, even without any sort of credible challenge on the right.”
“They are not only better positioned than the Trump campaign was in 2015, but in a much better place than any of the Democrats right now,” Wilson said.
That Trump’s re-election campaign would go all-in on digital became clear in February last year, when Brad Parscale was appointed campaign director.
Parscale was a digital marketing consultant with little political experience when he was tapped to run Trump’s 2016 online operation. He was not shy about taking credit for Trump’s unlikely presidential victory, touting the sophistication of his Facebook strategy, which he said involved running as many as 60,000 advertisement variants at a time, taking the concept of A/B testing to extremes.
In many ways, that 2016 presidential campaign never ended. Trump filed for re-election on the day of his inauguration and has held dozens of campaign rallies since. Evidence of this permanent campaign is even more apparent online.
The Trump campaign’s spending on Facebook and Google advertisements leading up to last year’s midterm elections dwarfed every other candidate besides Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke — and Trump was not even on the ballot.
In the first six months of this year, Trump spent more than US$11.1 million on Facebook and Google advertisements alone, according to disclosures by the social media companies.