Last Sunday, 60 Minutes plucked from his richly deserved obscurity a former website designer with no prior political campaign experience, and celebrated him as the self-identified architect of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. He did it, he said, with Facebook. He cited no evidence whatsoever for for this claim of omnipotence for a social medium that Betty White once described as “a very great waste of time.” But a fawning Lesley Stahl bestowed the CBS seal of legitimacy when she murmured, early on in the interview, “And Facebook IS how he [Trump] won.”
Really? CBS used to call itself “The Tiffany Network,” but it’s more like Wal Mart than Tiffany’s now. And its crown jewel, 60 Minutes, seems more like a child’s charm bracelet, green with corrosion. The entire segment on Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s digital director, was as uncritical of its subject and his grandiose claims as a Fox News segment on the compassion of Donald Trump.
Parscale’s unsubstantiated claim in the interview was that, by micro-targeting ads to individual people on Facebook, based on collected data about their preferences (one example he gave was that some people prefer green buttons to click on, some blue) and by repeating the process hundreds of thousands of times a day thanks to the wonders of automation, he won the war. I mean the election.
This is all about data analytics — the finding of patterns that might predict behavior in the minutiae of individual preferences expressed in past behavior, such as the color of button one prefers to push. This “science,” also known as data mining, has come a long way from its origins — the finding of predictive patterns in the entrails of sacrificial goats. In the fields of politics and advertising today, it has all the magical buzz of “artificial intelligence” in the tech world, and “driverless cars” in the auto world — with about the same nonexistent record of success.
Now let’s do what 60 Minutes neglected to do (because we are the Tiffany of web sites). Let’s check in with Hillary’s campaign, specifically with her data analytics guy, campaign manager Robby Mook. So deeply did Mook believe in the religi0n — I’m sorry, the “science” — of data mining that he relied on a computer program he called Ada to predict, based on the data he fed her, what the American electorate would do and why. On that he based not only his Facebook buys, but his whole campaign.
When the American electorate began to tell the Hillary campaign, through polls and through screaming phone calls from the heartland, that they were not going to react as Ada had predicted, Mook ignored them and, especially during the final two weeks of the campaign, listened only to Ada. For this he is widely blamed for Hillary’s loss.
So Mook lost Hillary’s campaign by doing exactly the same thing — applying data analytics to micro-targeted ads — that Parscale did, who thereby won Trump’s campaign. Clear?
But wait there’s more. Hillary seems to believe that the Russians defeated her. How? By doing the same thing that Mook and Parscale did — applying data analytics to micro-targeted ads on social media. They spent, we now pretty much know, over $100,000 on Facebook and $10,000 on Twitter. To give just one example of their cunning, they targeted dog lovers, because as everybody knows, if you like dogs you like Trump. With cunning like that, can there be any doubt that the Russians will soon rule the world?
But wait a minute. The Russians spent $110,000, and derailed a campaign that spent $84 million just on advertising? While the late lamented Jeb Bush spent $130 million in the primaries and was unable to secure the vote of anyone, including his mother? (Don’t tell me it was because he didn’t use data analytics, because they cannot explain why your own mother won’t support you.)
And wait one more minute. As I wrote here a few months ago (Digital Advertising: The Rise and Fall of Crappy Crap), the world’s largest advertisers, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, who buy Facebook ads by the hundreds of millions of dollars worth every year, have concluded that the ads simply do not work. They deliver nothing.
That alone makes all the claims mentioned here — that Parscale won the election, that Mook lost it, that the Russians decided it — ridiculous on their face. Yet as Democrats and Republicans gear up for the midterm elections next year, everybody is out to hire their own data analytics guru to tell them what color their button should be.
Better you should slaughter a goat.