Washington • Donald Trump’s presidential campaign relied on more hands-on help from tech firms during the 2016 election than previously thought, using teams from Facebook, Twitter and others as almost entrenched political operatives, a new study by a University of Utah professor and a colleague found.
While social media and other tech companies routinely work with large advertisers, including political campaigns, the study shows that Trump’s team looked at the Silicon Valley employees as almost its own in pushing its online strategy to woo voters. Hillary Clinton’s campaign built its own digital effort and didn’t rely on the tech companies help to the same degree.
“These firms had some of their staffers working inside the Trump campaign digital offices during the general election,” said one of the study’s authors, Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at the U.’s Department of Communication. “This was something that was much more routine than we had known before. This was offered to all campaigns, but it was unequally taken up. The Trump campaign, relatively as compared to the Clinton campaign, was understaffed and made much greater use of these staffers than the folks on the Clinton campaign.”
McGregor, who wrote the study with Daniel Kreiss, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says the findings have raised concerns about whether the help offered the campaigns could be construed as in-kind contributions from corporations and whether new laws are needed to make public such efforts.
The peer-reviewed study, published Thursday in the journal Political Communication, relied on interviews with the Silicon Valley liaisons to the Trump and Clinton campaigns as well as other would-be White House hopefuls.
“What we found in the course of these interviews is that these technology firms offer this digital subsidies, basically, to campaigns,” McGregor said. “It goes beyond just trying to facilitate ad buys. [It includes] shaping the conversation through this sort of close collaboration.”
That included helping to target voters and form campaign messaging.
“Facebook, Twitter and Google go beyond promoting their services and facilitating digital advertising buys, actively shaping campaign communication through their close collaboration with political staffers,” the study reported. “We show how representatives at these firms serve as quasi-digital consultants to campaigns, shaping digital strategy, content and execution.”
Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale, had hinted at such an effort during an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” earlier this month, saying he had sought out the help from tech companies.
“I wanna know everything you would tell Hillary’s campaign plus some,” he told the news program. “And I want your people here to teach me how to use it.”
Adam Sharp, Twitter’s head of news, government and elections through the end of 2016, said that he believes Parscale’s interpretation of how the help from tech companies worked is an “exaggeration.”
“Ultimately, my understanding is that every company offered equivalent services to each campaign and the campaigns can choose how much or how little of that support they wish to utilize,” Sharp said in an interview, noting that such services have been provided to presidential campaigns since many of the companies were founded.
He noted that because campaigns can choose how much help they get, it can create “optical challenges” but defended the outreach as a boon to candidates and their ability to communicate with potential voters.
“More broadly, I believe that anything that brings candidates and elected officials closer to their constituents, making them more available for direct interaction and direct questioning by the voters is a good thing,” Sharp said. “And I think all the companies in creating these teams to reach out to candidates and bring them into the conversation, to bring them out of the comfort of the TV studios into a space where they can have this direct interaction with users is potentially a positive thing for the democratic process.”
A Facebook spokesman said Thursday the company offers all candidates and interest groups “equal levels of support, no matter their political affiliation.”
“It’s up them to decide how much help they want,” the representative said. “But this is key: The campaigns make their own strategic decisions about how to use Facebook’s platform.”
That extends to guidance on how to use the social media site, the representative noted, as well as addressing technical issues and advertising.
McGregor says the research into the tech companies’ assistance with the campaigns shows the firms have built “basically a partisan structure,” hiring former Republican and Democratic campaign aides to help boost relationships with current challengers in a way that goes far beyond a tech company soliciting ad buys.
She added the advent of social media and technology in political campaigns has opened a whole new field of political research that needs to be done to show the public just how modern efforts to sway voters are operating.
“One of the most important takeaways is that this is just the beginning,” she said. “There needs to be more examination about this, given this is quite routine.”