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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Facebook ban hits Trump where it hurts: Messaging and money

Few campaigns had tapped into Facebook’s potential for advertising and fundraising as aggressively as Trump’s. His successful 2016 campaign said its prolific use of Facebook had allowed it to send millions of different, hypertargeted political ads to small slices of the population.

By: New York Times |
Updated: May 6, 2021 9:00:22 am
trump Facebook ban, Donald Trump, US elections, Trump-Facebook, Facebook campaign, US news, world news, Indian expressFormer President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Fla. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times/File)

Written by Nick Corasaniti and Shane Goldmacher

Facebook’s decision Wednesday to keep former President Donald Trump off its platform could have significant consequences for his political operation as he tries to remain the leader of the Republican Party, thwarting his ability to amplify his message to tens of millions of followers and hampering his fundraising ability.

Facebook has increasingly become one of the most vital weapons in a political campaign’s arsenal, with its ability to juice small-dollar online-fundraising numbers into the millions, expand and acquire contact information, help build out data on a campaign’s voter file and provide the most sophisticated advertising platform available.

Few campaigns had tapped into Facebook’s potential for advertising and fundraising as aggressively as Trump’s. His successful 2016 campaign said its prolific use of Facebook had allowed it to send millions of different, hypertargeted political ads to small slices of the population.

“Facebook was the method,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager in 2020 and digital director in 2016, told “60 Minutes” in 2017. “It was the highway which his car drove on.”

That continued in 2020, as his reelection operation devoted a nine-figure budget to Facebook advertising. And much as he did with his Twitter account, Trump often turned to Facebook’s advertising platform in times of political crisis.

During Trump’s first impeachment trial, in September 2019, his campaign began flooding Facebook with ads criticizing the impeachment as a hoax and subversive effort by far-left Democrats.

Although Trump is out of office and living at his resort in Florida, he retains broad influence over the Republican Party. But his platform for reaching Americans has diminished greatly without access to big social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which has permanently suspended him. Some Trump aides think that the absence of Facebook, which was crucial to his success in 2016, will hinder him if he decides to run again in 2024, which he has told several advisers is his plan.

Facebook’s ruling was delivered by an oversight board, which also said the company’s indefinite suspension was “not appropriate’’ and gave Facebook six months to come up with a final decision on whether Trump would regain access.

His Facebook ads proved a useful tool to draw big crowds to his signature rallies. Days before the president was scheduled to arrive in a given city, Facebook users around the region would begin seeing ads about the rally, with a link to sign up for a free ticket.

The decision by Facebook does not immediately hamper Trump’s fundraising ability — he still maintains control of a large number of supporter email addresses and phone numbers. But fundraising lists must be continually refreshed, and Facebook has proved a crucial place for Trump to do so.

“He has the best fundraising list, but that decays over time if you’re not adding back into it,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist. “So because they don’t have the ability to run ads on Facebook, they’re losing out on petitions to grow their email list, surveys, things like that — the tactics that every campaign has to be doing 365 to really maintain their fundraising.”

Throughout 2020, the Trump campaign would run ads asking users to “take this SOCIALISM poll” or “Wish Melania a Happy Birthday,” which would help keep lists current and occasionally expand or add new names to their lists — or even spur a direct donation.

In recent days, Trump’s operation has begun to more aggressively solicit supporters for cash via text message, including one reacting to the Facebook decision on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Trump’s team announced he would begin posting his thoughts on political developments to his own website, trying to brand it as the “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump.” But the power of Trump’s pronouncements on social media had been their ability to ricochet quickly across the web and into the streams of his supporters — something far harder to achieve while being deplatformed.

But even without Facebook, some Republican strategists note that Trump still has one of the largest megaphones in the world, simply because of the public interest in his plans, which might lessen the impact of Facebook’s ban.

“I compare it to somebody who has a sprained ankle,” said Tim Cameron, a Republican digital strategist. “It’s kind of hobbling for a little bit, and he’s not going to be at the strength that he would be with the ability to reach people on Facebook and other social platforms, but it’s certainly not something that’s going to stop him.”

Even with the Facebook spigot turned off since January, Trump began the spring with more than $85 million in his various political committees, according to an adviser, after banking tens of millions of dollars that he raised after the election.

But perhaps most immediately, the ban against running any political ads hampers one of Trump’s most current prized roles: Republican primary kingmaker.

“He’s really committed to settling scores and making sure his allies get boosted,” Wilson said. “They won’t have access to Facebook to help the candidates he wants to support in the primaries in 2022.”

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