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President Trump and his allies have begun weaponizing the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller, even if the full report has not yet been released. And nowhere is that playing out with more intensity than on Facebook.
The president's re-election campaign and joint fundraising committee pumped out nearly 750 sponsored Facebook posts bearing “no-collusion” messaging last week, within days of the attorney general's brief letter summarizing the Mueller report.
“After more than 2 YEARS, and $25 MILLION taxpayer dollars spent, the Mueller Report proves what I have been saying since Day One: NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION -- COMPLETE EXONERATION,” said one version of an ad purchased by the president’s campaign committee, directing users to an email sign-up page. “Democrats worked with the Fake News Media for 2 years orchestrating this Nasty Witch Hunt to use our government as a weapon to take away the votes of 63 MILLION Americans.”
The pro-Trump pages began peppering users’ feeds with similar messages within a day of the release of Attorney General William Barr’s four-page letter announcing that Trump would face no charges — and that Mueller had rendered no judgment on whether the president obstructed justice.
The scale of their ad buys offers a glimpse of how the president’s digital operation is vastly outspending its leading Democratic counterparts, putting spin on breaking news stories as they’re still unfolding in Facebook users’ feeds.
“What mobilizes people are events and news stories and moments that make them feel passionate and engage in a process,” said Tim Cameron, co-founder of FlexPoint Media, a strategy firm that largely advises GOP campaigns. “That’s why you see a lot of news-focused petition efforts. It goes back to MoveOn.org around the Clinton impeachment — and the feelings of Democrats that Republicans overreached. We now find ourselves at the inverse of that.”
The 2016 Trump campaign’s digital strategy relied heavily on Facebook ads, at times testing tens of thousands of different messages a day in the race’s final stretch. With the median age of Facebook users trending upward, strategists say the platform’s users also overlap more directly with the demographics of the Republican base than other social media like Instagram or Snapchat.
So far this year, in the nascent stages of Trump’s 2020 effort, his main page and allied accounts have driven home core hard-line immigration rhetoric and leveled attacks on Democratic opponents. But that changed almost immediately following the publication of Barr’s letter.
“After more than 2 years of an endless Witch Hunt, there is still NO EVIDENCE OF COLLUSION,” read an ad bought Tuesday by the Trump Make America Great Again Committee. “More than half of the country thinks this is a complete Witch Hunt and needs to end. Now we need to know what you think.”
The Trump campaign, led by 2016 digital media director Brad Parscale, has spent nearly $6 million on Facebook and Google so far this year, according to data compiled by the digital marketing firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. That’s roughly seven times the spending by the leading Democrat challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and it’s given Trump a long financial runway to expand his massive email list even further.
The spots last week were packaged with video clips of Mueller or Trump, links to an “official witch hunt poll,” and instructions on how to receive campaign texts replete with yet more “FAKE NEWS” and “NO COLLUSION!” exclamations.
The posts came at a time when news organizations were swarming to cover Barr’s letter and organically shared posts from Trump and his allies were spreading rapidly across different social platforms.
“The challenge for campaigns is to find things that are relevant to a trending topic,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist. Because Trump is so polarizing, Wilson added, he can drive enough engagement on platforms to make it even harder for opponents to break through.
Leading Democratic 2020 contenders placed hundreds of Facebook ads urging users to sign petitions for the release of the special counsel report before Barr’s letter dropped. But they turned soon after toward more positive messaging or direct appeals for money as Sunday’s FEC filing deadline loomed.
“Trump is spending millions of dollars online to drive narratives,” said Rachel Thomas, strategic communications director for ACRONYM, a progressive digital organization. “While the Democrats are spending millions of dollars, they’re mostly going toward individual list-building and fundraising. That’s not helping to push our strategic narratives for the election.”
Outside liberal organizations moved in to fill that gap after the conclusion of Mueller’s work. Need to Impeach, backed by Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer, and the anti-Trump group Stand Up America together blanketed users’ feeds with nearly 1,400 ads mentioning the special counsel over the course of March.
“This is a cover-up,” Stand Up America said in a post that led users to a petition for legislation that would mandate the release of the special counsel report. “Attorney General Barr’s four-page memo on a 22-month investigation is a cherry-picked story to let President Trump off the hook. It’s outrageous, unjust, and we can’t stand for it.”
Other Trump allies did push out ads around the same time. BlazeTV likened the Mueller investigation to a “coup.” The right-wing legal advocacy group Judicial Watch compared it to an “inquisition.” And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign warned that “these investigations will never end” over an image of Democratic leaders.
But those efforts were far outstripped by those of the Trump camp, which has spent so heavily on digital efforts so far that it’s reportedly troubled some outside allies. The campaign boasted $19.2 million of cash on hand in its last FEC filing in December. And with major staffing increases and TV advertising buys still down the road, it can continue pushing its message digitally for just pennies of its unmatched war chest.
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. on March 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya).