Little by little, we are finding out how Trump won using technological support. It was a campaign of masterful, digital manipulation. Europe’s populists are already interested in his strategies.
Just a few weeks ago, half of America was ridiculing Donald Trump as a digital illiterate; a man whose correspondence consisted of giving his assistants handwritten notes and whose digital skills were limited to blasting unpolished sentences over the net via Twitter. His recipe seemed simple: He concentrated on the bluster, corrosiveness and injuriousness; others took care of dissemination. The liberal media conveyed their indignation in an endless series of articles. And right-wing revolver sites like Breitbart took on the vocal dissemination of attacks, half-truths and lies.
After his victory, more and more details of a well-camouflaged digital campaign machinery are being discovered, which significantly helped Trump’s success, in the opinion of American political strategists. It overcomes its toughest competition and instills fear in anyone who relies on traditional political communications. If the Democrats used to be seen as the masters of the digital campaign, now it has been shown that Trump’s people used methods of online marketing in ways that they have never been used before in politics. Italian, French, and German populists have already indicated their interest in Trump’s service providers.
Trump’s Clandestine Digital Squad
The extent of his digital strategy was only revealed after the election, due to various publications from the New York Times, Forbes, and the Swiss Magazine. According to them, Trump was working with a secret digital team who supported him in all the rules of the art. The team consisted of psychologists, marketing specialists and nerds, and was led by his closest confidant Jared Kushner, the 35-year old real estate tycoon and the husband of his daughter Ivanka. Apparently he provided exactly what the presidential candidate so desperately lacked: “Jared understood the online world in a way the traditional media folks didn’t,” says Eric Schmidt of all people, the one-time CEO of Google and supporter of Hillary Clinton’s digital campaign. “He managed to assemble a presidential campaign on a shoestring using new technology and won. That’s a big deal.”
What surprised the man from Google even more was the uncompromising exploitation of millions of Americans’ user profiles for the purposes of election propaganda. While the world is still discussing the influence of “fake news” on the campaign results, it is clear that Kushner has developed an entirely new dimension in the new networked world. “I called some of my friends from Silicon Valley, some of the best digital marketers in the world, and asked how you scale this stuff,” Kushner tells Forbes, whose journalist has been the only one to speak with the interview-shy multi-millionaire. “They gave me their subcontractors.”
Three Levels of Digital Marketing
The Kushner squad used three key levels of digital marketing: the vast data knowledge about the country’s online users, a psychological filter to categorize the attitudes of individual voters, and modern distribution technologies for targeted advertising on the internet. All this with the utmost intensity and an overarching goal: to reach the addressees with the help of Facebook more emotionally than with traditional mass campaigns on the internet and television.
The dilemma of classic campaigns is always the high scatter losses: Some people feel repelled or react indifferently. Protest voters were often [motivated by] a dominant issue. Some wanted to prevent a Democrat from reaching the vacant chair at the Supreme Court. For others, Obama’s health reform was totally against the grain. Still others wanted to stop Muslim immigration.
In order to address all of these particular interests more precisely, Kushner hired a data company, Cambridge Analytica. The specialists belong to the British consultancy group SCL Group, which is well known for its techniques of psychological warfare in anti-terrorism. In addition, Cambridge Analytica had previously attempted to stand out as a support for Brexit advocates in Great Britain. The company offered an Orwellian dimension for the American election campaign: Over the course of many years, they want to collect psychological profiles of more than 230 million adult Americans – almost all potential voters.
They were successful with a simple tactic: They bet a lot on personality tests on Facebook that are popular with many online users. Many hundreds of thousands of users took part and left behind a detailed psychological profile. Through classic matching technologies of online marketing – whoever behaves similarly online is also guided by similar interests – a huge database was created. The users were also categorized according to the five so-called ocean factors, i.e., emotional liability, enthusiasm, openness for experiences, conscientiousness and tolerability. Cambridge Analytica claims that it has stored 3,000 to 5,000 data points for every registered user.
Now it was necessary to give these users highly personalized messages, which, considering their psychological disposition and their interests, were able to influence their decision. Kushner had gathered around a hundred specialists in an inconspicuous office building on the outskirts of the Texas city of San Antonio, who launched a huge social media campaign. Fearful voters received messages about rising crime, Americans of color were played out of context statements by Clinton, in which she had called blacks “super predators.” At times the data team claims to have had several tens of thousands of different and often slightly modified statements posted on Facebook. This happened via a new Facebook offer for advertisers, the so-called “dark posts,” which only reach explicitly marked users.
Sober Rhetoric Does Not Work in the Excitosphere
Though achieving superiority on the radio and television used to be important in winning an election, Kushner’s people have proven that it is now more important to dominate the social networks with all available resources. Nothing is more effective for distribution than indignation and anger. It is an irony of history that the most advanced technology of humanity is not primarily a medium of enlightenment, but a tool for the exchange of emotional messages. What the populist movements all have in common is that they have far more Facebook fans than the established parties. Sober rhetoricians such as Angela Merkel or Frank-Walter Steinmeier simply do not function in this sphere of agitation.
What Kushner’s team has demonstrated will not be the end of this development. Stephen Bannon alone will be responsible for this – Trump’s chief strategist and senior adviser, who is familiar with the new propaganda technologies in ways that his predecessors were not. Bannon has been on the board of Cambridge Analytica and has also been in charge of the Breitbart news site. It is hardly imaginable that he will not continue to use the strategies tested in the election campaign.
It is equally inconceivable that Europe’s movements of anger will ignore the techniques of targeted emotionalization. Although the data protection is more stringent, no party has consistently used the far-reaching possibilities of so-called “targeting.”
The future of political communication is already apparent. It will develop in parallel with the technologies that are currently foreseen for the world of online marketing and online media. Everything points to a further personalization in the form of speech and information. As with so many new developments, the technology itself is neutral; it is no more than an increasingly intelligent tool. What is decisive is the intention with which it is used: in the service of real enlightenment, for ordinary advertising, with the clear intention of spreading political propaganda, or even with the purpose of disinformation, to destabilize a state or a society. The Achilles’ heel is that it can be used both as a useful tool and as a destructive weapon.
While in this election campaign the messages were spread by the classical forms of online use, i.e., through writing, picture and video, the next election campaign could be characterized by the new digital assistants – intelligent microphone loudspeakers for the living room table. They are currently being developed by all major digital companies with great gusto. Amazon, Google and Apple have assigned their best minds to improving the artificial intelligence behind the hitherto rather rudimentary-looking assistants. For many in the upper echelons of digital companies, this is the next revolution. For Kushner’s squad, it would be the tool par excellence: a kind of super-personalized radio. Every morning, a new motto of Trump, configured and presented by the audio assistant in time for breakfast. It would be Facebook transferred to the audio world; it would be the acoustic bubble. Brave new political world. We only need people like Kushner and Bannon to raise the chances.