In the final weeks of the 2016 election campaign, voters in swing states including Nevada and North Carolina saw ads appear in their Facebook feeds and on Google websites touting a pair of controversial faux-tourism videos, showing France and Germany overrun by Sharia law. French schoolchildren were being trained to fight for the caliphate, jihadi fighters were celebrated at the Arc de Triomphe, and the "Mona Lisa" was covered in a burka.
"Under Sharia law, you can enjoy everything the Islamic State of France has to offer, as long as you follow the rules," intoned the narrator of one ad.
Unlike Russian efforts to secretly influence the 2016 election via social media, this American-led campaign was aided by direct collaboration with employees of Facebook and Google. They helped target the ads to more efficiently reach the intended audiences, according to internal reports from the ad agency that ran the campaign, as well as five people involved with the efforts.
Facebook advertising salespeople, creative advisers and technical experts competed with sales staff from Alphabet Inc.'s Google for millions in ad dollars from Secure America Now, the conservative, nonprofit advocacy group whose campaign included a mix of anti-Hillary Clinton and anti-Islam messages, the people say.
The content of some ads left some employees of Harris Media—the Austin-based digital advertising firm that runs campaigns for Secure America Now—feeling uneasy. "It was designed to strike fear in people's hearts," sas one former Harris employee who requested anonymity.
The extent to which Facebook and Google work with political campaigns and groups hasn't been widely understood. On Oct. 8, "60 Minutes" aired an interview with the Trump campaign's digital director saying he had Facebook employees work as "embeds" in the campaign who were selected for being Republicans. Facebook says its services for Trump were standard for any advertiser during an important event.
Google also works with political groups on their advertising strategies, helping them hone their copy and figure out how to best target their desired audiences, says Wendy Moe, professor of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "It's a tricky issue," she says, because once the companies decide they'll do hands-on work for political groups, "it's hard for them to say we'll help these groups, but not others."
The issue gets thornier when it comes to working with groups on the fringes of the political spectrum. Earlier this year, for instance, Facebook worked closely with Germany's far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which was also represented by Harris Media. In meetings at Facebook's Berlin office, executives encouraged the AfD and Harris Media to use Facebook Live in addition to its ad spending to better target German voters, Bloomberg Businessweek reported last month.
Google and Facebook, similarly, worked closely with Secure America Now as it spent several million dollars on election-season ads, according to the people who worked on the campaign. On June 16 of last year, for instance, sales managers from Google's elections team hunkered down in its New York offices with officials from Secure America Now and Harris Media to talk about how to improve their digital ad campaigns.
In the months that followed, Secure America Now targeted swing-state voters not only with its faux-tourism videos, but also ads that linked Democratic Senate candidates with Syrian refugees and terrorists. "STOP SUPPORT OF TERRORISM. VOTE AGAINST CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO," stated one ad targeting the Nevada Democratic Senate candidate who eventually won the race. "YOU SAW THE THREAT. NOW VOTE TO PROTECT NEVADA," declared another ad.
In some cases, the ads were highly targeted on social media and aimed at groups of people, such as Hispanic voters in Nevada, that they felt could be swayed by the anti-refugee message, according to two people who worked on the campaign. The ads were viewed millions of times on Facebook and Google, according to the internal reports about the campaign.
Facebook's collaboration with Secure America Now went beyond optimizing its ad reach, and included efforts to test new technology. In one instance, Facebook used the Secure America Now campaign to try out a vertical video format, which the Facebook reps were eager to see used on a large scale.
Working with Harris Media, Facebook devised a case study last year to compare the popularity of the new format to others. The video they used was "Are We Safe?", which contrasts colorful scenes of Main Street America with black-and-white pictures of Muslims who have carried out attacks in the U.S. Facebook tested 12 different versions of the video. It then followed up with a survey of users who had viewed the video to see which format was most popular. (Square videos, it turned out.)
Officials for Facebook and Harris Media declined to comment. Secure America Now didn't respond to several requests for an interview.
Google also declined an interview request. But a spokesperson for the company says Google eventually blocked several ads from Secure America Now for violating its policies, including ads for the faux-tourism videos. The company wouldn't say when it blocked the ads, but in a written statement it said that if ads violate its vigorously enforced policies, "we immediately disapprove them and stop showing them."
Secure America Now was launched in 2011 to oppose the construction of a community center and mosque in Manhattan near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The group's president is Allen Roth, a longtime political adviser to Ronald Lauder, the heir to the Estee Lauder fortune and a supporter of conservative and pro-Israel causes. As a nonprofit, the Washington, D.C.-based group keeps its donors secret.
In the ensuing six years, the group has been sharply critical of the Obama administration's handling of Benghazi, where U.S. personnel were killed in a 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Libya, as well as its nuclear deal with Iran.
During the 2016 campaign, in addition to its ads about Muslims and refugees, the group made a parody site, "Hillary's Inbox," with fake email chains between the candidate, her advisers and public figures. Secure America Now ran ads for the site on the Fox News politics page last October, according to internal reports, generating more than 206,000 visitors to the parody site.
-- Bloomberg News