Jeremy B Merrill, ProPublica - Who was targeting whom with what on Facebook during the presidential campaign?

Jeremy B Merrill, ProPublica
Who was targeting whom with what on Facebook during the presidential campaign?


One way to look at the 2020 residential election is that a dark reality defeated an even darker fantasy, however narrowly.

The Biden campaign, at least as seen in its political ads on Facebook, was relentlessly and narrowly focused on the two basic – and hard – realities of 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences for Americans. And of course, Donald Trump’s mishandling of both.

The Trump Facebook campaign hardly bothered with these issues, other than to assert that the president had done a great job and the economy could have been even worse. Trump was selling something else, the nightmare vision of his Inaugural Address: the threat of contagious “carnage” from “Democrat-run” cities. 

This theme entered the Facebook campaign after the violence in Minneapolis that followed the police killing of George Floyd in late May, and only grew over the summer. 

You probably won’t be surprised that the period of the violent confrontations between federal forces and protesters in Washington and Portland saw a radical increase in the portion of the Trump campaign’s Facebook ad budget devoted to crime and policing. And the radical increase that was sustained. 

What had begun as a weekly Facebook advertising investment of a few thousand dollars in May had grown to close to a quarter of a million a week following the deadly violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin in late August.

Here’s a surprise – the radical ramp-up of law and order emphasis in Trump’s Facebook campaign actually began a few days before odd assortments of federal officers flown into town for the occasion aggressively cleared protesters across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House in Lafayette Park, and started clouting and carting off demonstrators in Portland. 

In both cases, the White House claimed it was responding to realities imposed upon it, but the timeline of the ad campaign suggests the response was already choreographed for use, awaiting the first opportunity.

Tracking the campaigns’ use of Facebook is important because the platform itself has become supremely important. Want proof? 

How’s $82 million spent on ads on Facebook by the Trump campaign between January and September of this year. Of that bundle, $6.6 million was spent on ads relating to crime and policing, more than was allocated for any other issue.

Campaigns spend on Facebook not so much for the opportunity to sell their concepts and candidates – there are a lot of places to do that – they spend millions because Facebook helps them target their messages to the most susceptible, the most strategic audiences.

The ways in which Facebook messages can be tailored, with a “just for you” precision for particular recipients were at the heart of the infamous Cambridge Analytica contribution to the 2016 Trump campaign and there’s plenty of evidence the same tactics were used in this year’s election.



Jeremy B. Merrill is a former news apps developer at ProPublica, concentrating mostly on Congress data and our Represent app. Before joining ProPublica, he worked at The New York Times, building tools for journalists and using computer code to report on political Facebook ads, trains and online legalese. Before that, he worked at ProPublica as a fellow.




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