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What Can We Learn About The Effects Of Social Media Ads?


Now, information keeps coming out about Russia's role in the 2016 presidential election, particularly the Russians' use of Facebook and Twitter. Now, initially, the focus was on the spread of false information - fake news. But now the focus is on something else - posts that play up social divisions. Last month, Facebook said a Russian-based agency had bought $100,000 worth of ads on its platforms during the campaign season. Last week, The Washington Post and CNN reported that ads bought by Russian operatives targeted groups concerned about African-Americans such as Black Lives Matter and even zeroed in on users in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., places that had seen civil unrest.

To learn more about how the social media ad buys are supposed to work, we called Scott Tranter, director of analytics for a Washington, D.C., based data and technology firm. He's a Republican who ran digital analysis for Senator Marco Rubio's presidential run. I started our conversation by asking about the Russians' $100,000 ad buy on Facebook.

SCOTT TRANTER: A hundred-thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket in terms of the amount of money you need to spend to get an impact online. And, you know, I think everyone's focused on, oh, $100,000 is a lot. Your average presidential campaign was probably spending anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 a week for almost a year. So you can kind of see where $100,000 is a lot of money, but in the grand scheme of things, not necessarily a lot of money if you want to have an effect. So at least my opinion is I think if the Russians were really trying to do something and if it truly was them that we're going to find more.

MARTIN: And so what's the goal here? What have we learned about what these ads were meant to do?

TRANTER: When you're on the Internet, you're trying to - especially on all advertising - you're trying to evoke a response, right? So when we're doing a traditional political campaign, we want to evoke a response in the person we're speaking to, whether it be emotional, whether that be visceral or something like that. We want them to have a response to it and make a connection to our candidate. And so these ads were clearly divisive. They were designed to get a visceral reaction and create some action potentially at the voting booth or potentially in certain people's minds.

MARTIN: So what does - is the goal to get people to vote? These ads don't really mention candidates, at least so far as we know. So what was the point there?

TRANTER: I'll have to speculate outside my expertise but it's kind of like maybe they didn't necessarily want a specific candidate, they just wanted to create turmoil. Because if you create turmoil, then you muddy the waters and you make it difficult for everyone there. And if you look at it, a lot of these ads were played over a year ago. It's something that we're going to be talking about for a long time. So if you're the Russians, this is - whether or not you got the candidate you wanted, this is actually having an effect.

MARTIN: You know, a number of far-right groups already promulgate the same kinds of information. I'm thinking about Breitbart, for example, which tends to be very interested in crimes committed by African-Americans. Similarly, there are African-American-oriented legitimate information sites which are very interested in reporting on misconduct toward African-Americans or particularly police misconduct toward African-Americans. And so how is what the Russians are - or what we believe the Russians were doing different from what these groups, which we know are run by Americans, are doing?

TRANTER: You mean from a tactics standpoint?

MARTIN: Yeah. How is it different?

TRANTER: I would say the tactics are pretty standard. You're picking a hot-button issue. You're putting some explosive content or explosive accusations around it and you're trying to get people to react. They're adding amplification of a message. So, for instance, the ads we're specifically talking about, the ads around the Black Lives Matter stuff and specifically targeting Ferguson, specifically targeting around Baltimore, I mean, that was an issue that was widely - correctly covered on lots of local news, lots of national news. And then all of a sudden, they said, hey, here's a constituency that if we put ads in front, we're going to get them to respond.

MARTIN: So for people who support Donald Trump and who are happy that he was elected, you know, setting aside the whole question of whether there was collusion or not because that's not at all what we're talking about here, but for people who are happy that he's elected and say, so what, so what that they did that, so what if it helped him, what would you say?

TRANTER: Well, the fact that they were able to a use advertising medium that skirted around some of the regulations that the other political communications have is worrisome. As a practitioner, as an expert in this field, if I know that someone can spend some money and potentially affect a race that I'm in, I'm worried about that because our job is to play by the rules. Our job is to abide the law. And our job is to make sure that we target the right people with the right message.

And so when I see someone coming in and spending money and affecting an outcome that we're supposed to not playing by the rules, yeah, we should be worried about it. And we're not talking about a football game. We're not talking about, you know, your kid's baseball game. We're talking about our democracy. So whenever we play around with that, we should be very careful and make sure that we understand how this is being played and who's being involved.

MARTIN: That's Scott Tranter He's the director of analytics for a Washington, D.C., based data and technology consultancy. He was the former director of analytics for the Marco Rubio presidential campaign and he's working with a number of Republican campaigns in the Washington, D.C., area in this election cycle. Thanks so much for coming in.

TRANTER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.