By Tahiat Mahboob  

Along Interstate 410 in San Antonio, Texas sits a beige, unassuming five-storey office building. In 2016, this was home to the digital nerve centre of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. A team of roughly 100 people, from call-centre volunteers to data scientists, worked out of this location to collect data, analyze it and apply the findings to digital ad campaigns in an effort to help Trump win the U.S. presidential election.

How Facebook Wins Elections

Here’s a look at the key players and techniques they used to successfully sell a presidential candidate that many thought would never win.

Gathering massive amounts of voter data

Over the course of the election, Trump’s digital team focused on gathering information about Americans. One set of data was provided by the Republican National Committee’s GOP Data Center (formerly Voter Vault). This database had 300+ terabytes of information and contained 20 years of voter contact data.

Another set of data came from the Trump campaign’s own custom database, named Project Alamo, built using email addresses collected from rally RSVPs and through small donations made to the campaign.

The campaign also employed Cambridge Analytica, a data science firm principally owned by Trump backer and Breitbart investor Robert Mercer, to provide “useful analysis of data about the American electorate” as reported in Wired. The firm sent three staff members to the San Antonio office, including its chief product officer, Matt Oczkowski.

"We are extremely proud of the work that we were able to do in collaboration with the campaign. Data's alive and kicking. It's just how you use it and how you buck normal political trends to understand your data," Oczkowski said in a press release.

Cambridge Analytica provided Trump’s digital team with a daily tracker of polling to gauge how Trump was doing in key swing states. In an effort to better understand the potential Trump voter, Cambridge Analytica conducted hundreds of thousands of voter surveys. They also bought television ads for the campaign, managed an advertising budget, and helped the campaign identify which voters in the RNC’s data file were undecided but seemed likely to shift towards Trump. In addition, they drew up lists of voters who were most likely to become donors.

Using the surveys, the data collected from the RNC and the Trump campaign, and information from companies that collect and sell consumer information, Cambridge Analytica developed a heat map of America that indicated where Trump should visit to maximize his impact on potentially persuadable voters.

Channeling Trump

This data also helped Theresa Moore Hong, the Trump campaign’s Digital Content Director, to craft social media posts that would resonate with American voters. According to Hong’s LinkedIn profile she directed, planned, created and oversaw digital content strategy and messaging for the campaign.

Theresa Moore HongTheresa Moore Hong was the Trump campaign's Digital Content Director.

“I did a lot of his Facebook. So I wrote a lot for him. I kind of channeled Mr. Trump,” Hong said in an interview. “A lot of ‘Believe me’s’. A lot of ‘Alsos’. A lot of ‘Verys’. Actually, he was really wonderful to write for just because it was so refreshing. It was so authentic.”

The success of Trump’s digital strategy was built on the effectiveness of Facebook as an advertising medium and Hong gives credit where it’s due.

“Without Facebook, we wouldn’t have won. Facebook really and truly put us over the edge,” said Hong. “Facebook was the medium that proved most successful for this campaign.”

Learning every single secret button and click

Hong’s boss Brad Parscale had a similar take about the social media platform. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Parscale, the Trump's campaign Digital Director said, “I understood early that Facebook was how Donald Trump was going to win. Twitter is how he talked to the people. Facebook was going to be how he won.”

Parscale also revealed in the interview that Facebook provided the campaign with their employees, working out of the Project Alamo office, and helped educate the digital team on how to use Facebook ads. And it wasn’t just Facebook. According to Parscale, Google employees, and Twitter employees also visited the digital office multiple days a week.

Parscale’s job was to send out carefully-tailored, low-cost digital ads to millions of people. And he made sure he learned the ins and outs of all these major platforms.

“I asked each one of them by email, ‘I wanna know every, single secret button, click, technology you have. I wanna know everything you would tell Hillary's campaign plus some. And I want your people here to teach me how to use it’,” he told journalist Lesley Stahl. And to avoid a Trojan Horse scenario, Parscale requested that the embeds from these tech companies be people who support Donald Trump.

Facebook denied Parscale's claim that his team handpicked Facebook employees to work for them. They said that the support the company offered the Trump campaign was standard practice, both for Facebook and across other industries.

“For candidates across the political spectrum, Facebook offers the same levels of support in key moments to help campaigns understand how best to use the platform,” the company said in a statement. Facebook had offered the same level of support to the Clinton campaign, but they had declined to use it.

Parscale and the digital team harnessed Facebook in two ways.

One was to regularly test small variations in the background, colour, design, and phrasing of Facebook ads, to maximize impact. Each day, 50,000 to 60,000 variations were tested each day. On some days they tested 100,000. These micro-targeted ads weren’t limited to Facebook. But the Trump campaign did spend the lion’s share of its advertising budget, around US $85 million, on it.

The other Facebook strategy, according to a BusinessWeek report, was to dissuade voters from showing up to the polls by bombarding Facebook with "dark posts" — non public posts whose viewership the campaign controlled. “Only the people we want to see it, see it,” Parscale explained to Bloomberg.

For instance, they created a Facebook ad that said, “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators," and targeted it to African American voters. The goal was to depress Clinton’s vote total.

“We know because we’ve modeled this,” Parscale told BusinessWeek. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

It was a risky move — using microtargeted ads to speak to the opposition’s supporters — but one that may have to some degree worked in Trump’s favour.

“These social platforms are all invented by very liberal people on the west and east coast,” he said. “And we figure out how to use it to push conservative values. I don’t think they thought that would ever happen.”

While Hong and Parscale both give Facebook much credit, it’s difficult to prove that micro-targeting ads on the social media platform is what secured Trump’s victory. However, their strategy to make Facebook a priority and focus their efforts on using it for targeted outreach certainly helped boost Trump across America.