Joe Biden’s victory is a reality check on Facebook’s power to win elections

On October 15, Donald Trump’s campaign paid Facebook $30,000 (£23,000) to share the message “Biden and Harris would enact UNCONSTITUTIONAL gun control measures while ANTIFA terrorizes our cities and the Radical Left calls to DEFUND the Police” to adult voters in swing states Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona.   

The advert, which included a video of a cannon in an apparent attempt to outwit the social network’s rules around using pictures glorifying guns, was just one of several in a social media campaign that cost $201m in the seven months leading up to the election, according to figures from the Wesleyan Media Project. 

The political advertising tracker says the 2020 election was the most expensive in political advertising history, with an estimated $1.5bn spent between April 9 and October 25.

But if we learn anything from the competing campaigns, the biggest spender on social media will not necessarily be the winner.   

Donald Trump, whose campaign staff are connoisseurs of shareable, attention grabbing memes and GIFs that flood Facebook news feeds, spent more on the social network than Biden’s campaign. 

The Trump campaign forked out around $201m, or 47pc of its entire advertising budget on Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat and 41pc on broadcast TV. In contrast, the Biden campaign poured $249m or 44pc of the kitty into broadcast TV, according to Weslayan. Just 29pc, or $166m of Biden’s budget went on social media.   

A Facebook advert paid for by the Trump campaign

Another clear difference between the pair’s strategy was its allocation for local TV and radio.   

Burned by what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016, the Biden campaign placed targeted advertising on local TV channels which were shown in swing states and cities.   It focused on the really close states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, investing just a little in Ohio and Iowa and states that turned out not to be that close, like Texas.

Overall, it spent $81m, or 14pc of its advertising, on local cable and 4pc on local radio. Trump spent just 2.8pc and 0.6pc on local TV and radio, respectively.   

 Joe Biden’s victory is a problem not only for Trump but Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg because it proves the social network is not as influential as he may like Wall Street to believe. 

“I do think social media is overrated,” says Travis Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University and director of the Wesleyan Media Project.  

“I’m not yet convinced that this year or 2016 was a social media election as Biden pumped money into TV advertising in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona which were states that ended up being really close.   

“While both were targeting people in those states on social media I would be hard pressed to say that TV no longer matters and social media is where it is right now, given the pattern of results”.   

US Presidential election 2020, in pictures

Despite less overall spend on social media, Biden did pay slightly more than Trump for campaigns on Google and Snapchat. This suggests that it might be Facebook in particular that has proven less effective in this election cycle, Ridout says.

This is the first Presidential election that we are able to look at how much politicians are spending on social advertising for a US election. This makes it difficult to compare it to 2016, when Trump’s use of Facebook was regarded as hugely influential.   

Zuckerberg has tried to publicly downplay political advertising and last week he claimed that it takes a “relatively small cut” from the market. As of late October, Facebook had sold $2.2bn worth of political advertising since May 2018 (when it first began publishing the figures).  

He and fellow Big Tech chief executives have been toeing a fine line between keeping advertisers convinced that their platforms have a huge influence on its users, while assuring governments (and regulators) that they couldn’t sway an election.  

The company was caught charging the Biden campaign higher fees to place adverts in the run up to November 3. An advert shown to older voters in Arizona cost the Trump campaign $14 per 1,000 people who saw it. But a Biden advert targeting the same demographic cost $91 per 1,000 impressions, according to the Markup. Facebook says this was due to its automated bidding system.   

What is interesting, is the differing ways in which each campaign used Facebook: Biden to get a message out and Trump to source more donations or sign ups to mailing lists or his app, something that could be stored for use at a later date.   

“I’m not saying Facebook is useless for a campaign as some people will say Facebook is useful for raising money that you can spend on TV advertising,” Ridout says.   

“Social media campaigns are often a way to get more fundraising or to get people’s email addresses and are just one part of a comprehensive media strategy but to assume that targeted advertising made the election day for a specific candidate is just going too far. We just do not have any evidence that it is the case.”  

Steve Passwaiter, the vice president of consultancy Kantar’s political advertising intelligence division agrees.   “It has its defined place but is social media enough on its own to win a campaign?” he says.   

“That’s probably giving it too much credit.”