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Facebook May Have Charged Clinton up to 200 Times More Than Trump for the Same Ad Space


Facebook’s ad auction system charged Hillary Clinton‘s 2016 presidential campaign exponentially more than the system charged Donald Trump‘s campaign for the same advertising space, according to senior Facebook sources.

This seemingly bizarre discrepancy was confirmed by a senior Facebook employee on February 23. Antonio García Martínez is the digital architect of Facebook’s overall advertising platform. Writing in WiredMartínez noted:

During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters. But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook’s click model, effectively winning him more media for less money. In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone’s screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices. Facebook users in swing states who felt Trump had taken over their news feeds may not have been hallucinating.

The above description of Facebook’s advertising algorithm was immediately seized upon by Trump’s 2016 digital media director (and recently-appointed 2020 campaign chair), Brad Parscale. Addressing the article on Twitter, Parscale wrote, “Finally, @WIRED gets it right. Here is an insider at @facebook that built the system and saw behind the curtain.”

Responding to questions about the exact difference between what the Clinton and Trump campaigns paid for the same ad space, Parscale later wrote, “I bet we were 100x to 200x her. We had CPMs that were pennies in some cases. This is why @realDonaldTrump was a perfect candidate for FaceBook.” Clinton’s 2016 communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, agreed with Parscale’s estimate. She replied, “Agreed.”

(An “eCPM” is Facebook’s term for an advertising campaign’s effective cost per 1,000 impressions.)

After Martínez’s piece ran in Wired–and as the Parscale-Palmieri interaction raised ire on social mediaCasey Newton, writing in The Verge, attempted to figure out the exact number. That proved difficult. Quoting an earlier article on the issue of ad-payment disparities between the two campaigns, Newton noted:

In my piece, I wrote about a senior Facebook employee who said Trump’s CPM was substantially lower than Clinton’s, according to communications I reviewed. At the time, I couldn’t find a second source for something else the employee said, which was that Trump’s effective CPM averaged $0.06, compared with $1.06 for Clinton.

Newton went on to note a discussion where one Clinton campaign operative revealed they paid an average of $10 to $30 per CPM. While such costs were likely lower on occasion–due to various functions of the algorithm–that’s still quite a heavy contrast with what the Trump-Parscale operation paid; “pennies in some cases.”

Doing the math, it’s entirely possible the Clinton campaign actually paid in excess of the 200x disparity noted by Parscale–and confirmed by Palmieri–above. In any event, Trump paid much less and his team did a better job of maximizing returns than Clinton’s operation.

Facebook’s advertising algorithm–and the rewards it gives to polarizing campaigns like Trump’s is perfectly legal–but could soon become the flashpoint for legal reform efforts.

Due in part to Facebook’s easily-gamed advertising structure and because of the platform’s relative ubiquity, the Open Markets Institute, a non-partisan anti-monopoly think tank, called on the Federal Trade Commission to “conduct a thorough review of Facebook’s dominance in social networking and online advertising; assess the hazards that this dominance poses to commerce and competition, basic democratic institutions, and national security…issue recommendations on how to address these threats…[and] adopt a presumptive ban on all acquisitions by Facebook.”

The Open Markets Institute letter also noted:

Facebook’s role as a critical gatekeeper gives the corporation the ability to regulate communications across vast swaths of American society, and to serve as a self-appointed censor of the content of a large and growing portion of online communications. At the same time, recent events reveal that Facebook has become too big and complex for any executive team to manage responsibly…

Law&Crime reached out to the Open Markets Institute and Facebook for additional comment on this story, but no replies were forthcoming at the time of publication. This space will be updated if and when such responses are received.

[image via JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images]

Follow Colin Kalmbacher on Twitter: @colinkalmbacher

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