Letter to the Editor: Get Big Money Out of Politics

Our president’s ignorant tweet about the London bombing made me doubly curious about how he got elected, since I think that most Americans are better than this. I finally found a credible answer in a review by Sue Halpern of two new books on the role of the internet in our election (New York Review of Books, June 8, 59-61). Along with voter suppression and whatever we find out about Russian hacking from the special prosecutor, the answer lies in fantastic amounts of money spent on messaging tailored scientifically to match profiles of different groups!

Since 2000, when Republicans developed a voter base called Voter Vault, and 2008 when Dems developed Vote Builder, both parties have drawn from voter rolls, public records, the census and commercial data covering hundreds of data points to guide their campaigns. The 2016 election was different in the volume of social media traffic, the process of selecting targets, and the amount of money spent.

Early in the primaries, Brad Parscale, the digital director of Trump’s campaign, bought $2 million in Facebook ads, uploaded all known Trump supporters into the advertising platform and, using a variety of Facebook tools, matched the actual supporters to virtual twins with Facebook accounts and then divided them by their known identities and affinities. His team then used Facebook to test “tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of different campaign ads” (59) to reach their target audiences.

For example, on the day of the third debate, the campaign ran 175,000 variations of ads. The Trump digital team spent “in the high eight figures just on persuasion” in social media (60) – that is, something like $90 million. All of this activity was legal; it just happened on a scale that no one thought was possible and without the knowledge of those who were targeted. The election was “won” by a few thousand votes in three states, at least in part because the American public was manipulated by advertising that seems awfully close to subliminal propaganda.

The “Move to Amend” initiative addresses the Supreme Court decision (Citizens United) that in fact allows unlimited spending (big money and dark money) in elections. You can join an active chapter in Door County. Maybe we also need a way to regulate the use of social media platforms (designed for information exchange and commerce) for electioneering.  In the meantime, let’s remember the adage “fooled me once, fooled me twice,” but never again.


Estella Lauter

Fish Creek, Wis.

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