Questioning the Digital Narrative

From inside my digital bubble, I keep hearing about social media, fake news echo chambers and big tech companies throwing elections. This position makes some fundamental assumptions that aren’t grounded in reality.

From the Guardian:

The Biden campaign outspent Trump on traditional broadcast TV ads by $249.9m to $174.6m.

But the Republicans put more money behind digital. In that market, Trump spent $201.46m. Biden spent $166.12m.

Going all in on digital advertising wasn’t a winning strategy. It will be interesting for further research to figure out what exactly went wrong, but my guess is some combination of banner blindness, mis-targeted ads and social media advertising being over-hyped.

Defund Social Media

Meanwhile, blame is starting to be cast for the Democrats — other than Biden — having a miserable election. The most logical explanation would be that embracing widely unpopular platforms such as “defund the police” hurt candidates in all but the most progressive districts.

The response from AOC:

There are folks running around on TV blaming progressivism for Dem underperformance.

I was curious, so I decided to open the hood on struggling campaigns of candidates who are blaming progressives for their problems.

Almost all had awful execution on digital. DURING A PANDEMIC.

With all due respect to the congresswoman, AOC is sitting in one of the safest districts out there. Anything she says is laced with survivorship bias.

I’m a digital native. I get where she’s coming from, but the digital game isn’t everything. Radio, TV and in-person events matter more to many people. Misleading non-digital attack ads claiming you want to defund the police aren’t easy to defend against, regardless of how well your digital execution is.

AOC has a curious relationship with the big ad tech companies. To quote Maciej Cegłowski (the whole twitter thread is worth a read):

Her attacks on Zuckerberg notwithstanding, Ocasio-Cortez has paid Facebook at least $2.8M to run ads for her campaign, possibly the safest seat in America.

One of very few politicians in Congress who could afford to never do business with Facebook is instead one of their best customers

So I guess being good at digital means paying millions to Google and Facebook. This is especially odd given that fact that AOC has a large organic following and little need to actually campaign.

Being “good at digital” looks like a case of misplaced metrics. Does being popular on social media translate into votes and better public policy? Given the most obvious example of an American politician coming to fame via Twitter, I’m not so sure.

It seems like digital exists for the sake of the digital. Cegłowski continues:

If you search on @AOC’s name on Google, the first result is a paid ad linking to her fundraising page. This closed loop of fundraising, an elegant example of a self-contained system, has so far put $282K worth of AOC’s money in Google’s pocket.

So the digital enriches itself with little discernible effect on the outside world.

Recycling Fake News

Big businesses are adept at passing the blame along when their products are toxic. Recycling was a crock by oil companies to transfer blame to consumers. The hysteria over fake news is the same genre.

Fake news, conspiracy theories, anti-vaxers, dog whistles and toxic echo chambers are profitable for Google and Facebook. These types pay to promote their posts, buy ads and otherwise drive engagement. Patronizing messages nagging individual users not to share unverified election data aren’t a good faith effort to solve the problem.

The solution is simple: stop taking money from these types. Fake news exists because it is cheap to produce, can be promoted on social media and then generates ad revenue. It’s pure economics.

Fake news thrives on social media because the business model enables it. Twitter doesn’t ban a certain toxic politician who continually violates their terms of service because he drives traffic and thus revenue.

So rather than getting worked up over fake news on social media platforms, I’d rather see Democrats boycott paid ads on Facebook. Organic posts are fine, but no more money to Facebook.