Even Former Clinton Strategist Mark Penn Says That Russia Did Not Win The Election For Donald Trump With Facebook Ads

Clinton and many of her supporters claim that a trivial expenditure by Russia on Facebook ads caused her to lose to Donald Trump. Even her former strategist Mark Penn realizes this is nonsense. Earlier this week Penn wrote an op-ed entitled You Can’t Buy the Presidency for $100,000–Russia didn’t win Trump the White House any more than China re-elected Bill Clinton in 1996. Here is an excerpt:

The fake news about fake news is practically endless. Americans worried about Russia’s influence in the 2016 election have seized on a handful of Facebook ads—as though there weren’t also three 90-minute debates, two televised party conventions, and $2.4 billion spent on last year’s campaign. The danger is that bending facts to fit the Russia story line may nudge Washington into needlessly and recklessly regulating the internet and curtailing basic freedoms.

After an extensive review, Facebook has identified $100,000 of ads that came from accounts associated with Russia. Assume for the sake of argument that Vladimir Putin personally authorized this expenditure. Given its divisive nature, the campaign could be dubbed “From Russia, With Hate”—except it would make for a disappointing James Bond movie.

Analyzing the pattern of expenditures, and doing some back-of-the-envelope math, it’s clear this was no devilishly effective plot. Facebook says 56% of the ads ran after the election, reducing the tally that could have influenced the result to about $44,000. It also turns out the ads were not confined to swing states but also shown in places like New York, California and Texas. Supposing half the ads went to swing states brings the total down to $22,000.

Facebook also counted ads as early as June 2015. Assuming they were evenly spread and we want only those that ran the year of the election, that knocks it down to $13,000. Most of the ads did not solicit support for a candidate and carried messages on issues like racism, immigration and guns. The actual electioneering then amounts to about $6,500.
Now look at the bigger picture. Every day, Americans see hundreds of ads on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines, on billboards and smartphones. North Americans post to Facebook something like a billion times a day, and during the election many of those messages were about politics. Facebook typically runs about $40 million worth of advertising a day in North America.

Then consider the scale of American presidential elections. Hillary Clinton’s total campaign budget, including associated committees, was $1.4 billion. Mr. Trump and his allies had about $1 billion. Even a full $100,000 of Russian ads would have erased just 0.025% of Hillary’s financial advantage. In the last week of the campaign alone, Mrs. Clinton’s super PAC dumped $6 million in ads into Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

I have 40 years of experience in politics, and this Russian ad buy, mostly after the election anyway, simply does not add up to a carefully targeted campaign to move voters. It takes tens of millions of dollars to deliver meaningful messages to the contested portion of the electorate. Converting someone who voted for the other party last time is an enormously difficult task. Swing voters in states like Ohio or Florida are typically barraged with 50% or more of a campaign’s budget. Try watching TV in those states the week before an election and you will see how jammed the airwaves are.

Considering how absurd the claims are, it is not surprising that, as BuzzFeed News reports, many employees at Facebook feel like they are the victim. Much of the article also plays into the hysteria being spread, but it also points out that:

those with knowledge of Facebook’s ad system say that there’s a solid case to be made that the disclosed Russian ad spend — and even the reported millions of impressions those ads received — pales in comparison to the billions spent by political groups in the run-up to 2016 on Facebook’s ad platform and the hundreds of millions of impressions that the platform delivers daily on all types of paid and unpaid content. Basically: Facebook’s unprecedented scale, when applied to the Russian ads, renders the scandal’s impact far less consequential than news reports would suggest.

The article also notes the problem mentioned by Penn of curtailing basic freedoms on the internet.  I also discussed recently that concern over spreading “fake news” can result in suppression of legitimate discussion. Buzzfeed wrote:

Sources familiar with recent discussions inside Facebook told BuzzFeed News there’s some concern that the strong reaction to 2016 election meddling and the desire for fast reform could push the company to assume a greater role in determining what is or isn’t legitimate news…

Facebook, too, has long been concerned about assuming any sort of media watchdog role and the company’s objection usually takes the form — as it did last week in an interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — of its well-worn argument that Facebook is a technology company, not a media company. “We hire engineers. We don’t hire reporters. No one is a journalist. We don’t cover the news,” Sandberg told Axios’s Mike Allen.

Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook employee who helped lead the company’s early ad platform, worries that the momentum to correct for what happened during the 2016 election will push Facebook a step too far. “Everyone fears Facebook’s power, and as a result, they’re asking them to assume more power in form of human curation and editorial decision-making,” he said. “I worry that two or three years from now we’re all going to deeply regret we asked for this.”

Freedom can be messy, including people spreading fake news, and even people from Russia posting on the internet. The alternative to freedom is far worse, including the restrictions on expression by Americans on Facebook which we are already experiencing.


  1. 1
    Bob says:

    Poor Facebook. They’re just minding their own multi-billion dollar business model literally based on invasion of privacy and targeted dissemination of unverified information that might originate anywhere in the world from enemies of democracy using bots and troll farms.

    What about the freedom of people to not be detrimentally manipulated by irresponsible corporations or malicious parties? Should we bring back Joe Camel and marketing cigarettes to kids? And what about all those pesky, freedom-limiting pure food and drug laws?

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Free speech is different from either cigarette ads or pure food and drug laws. It gets far more dangerous when we are speaking of regulating free speech.

    As Mark Penn demonstrated, the whole idea that we were threatened in the 2016 election is nonsense. The real danger is that an imagined threat is being used by Clinton Democrats to both undermine the legitimacy of our electoral system and to attack freedom of speech.

  3. 3
    Bob says:

    The White House insists it’s un-American for the press to question a lying spokesman because he’s a general, but we should worry about Facebook’s freedom from totalitarian Clinton fans?

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    Freedom of speech must apply to everyone.

  5. 5
    Bob says:

    To make it only about free speech is to oversimplify. Privacy rights and national security also apply to everyone.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    Privacy rights are not enhanced by censorship. False claims about national security needs are far too often used to justify suppression of civil liberties. 

  7. 7
    Bob says:

    I didn’t mention censorship. The problem is technology outpacing means of legitimate speech and allowing mass manipulation by hostile interests.

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:

    Rescrictions on speech is censorship. Deciding which speech is "legitimate speech" means censorship. The presidential candidates of both major parties in the last election have used this to support censorship. 

  9. 9
    Bob says:

    It’s quite simple: Legitimate speech does not originate from anti-democratic bots or troll farms.

  10. 10
    Ron Chusid says:

    It is not so simple. There is room for disagreement as to what is an anti-democratic bot and what is a troll farm. Russia has a legitimate right to express their views, although not to do so in a surreptitious manner such as being deceptive as to the purchaser of ads. Much of what was posted on Facebook would have been perfectly legitimate if not for such deception, and this can be handled by regulations to enhance transparency rather than censorship.

    Much of what is currently being blocked on Facebook in response to the current hysteria is coming from Americans expressing their political views–not from Russia, not from bots, and not from troll farms. The restrictions on speech advocated by Trump and Clinton would hit far more than bots and troll farms.

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