“The extent to which they were helping candidates online was a surprise to us,” said co-author Daniel Kreiss, from UNC Chapel Hill. He called the assistance “a form of subsidy from technology firms to political candidates.”
The study was published Thursday in the journal Political Communication.
Kreiss and the University of Utah’s Shannon McGregor interviewed tech company liaisons to the Trump and Clinton operations as well as officials from a range of campaigns, including those of former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
The researchers’ findings add to the many questions surrounding the part that the country’s biggest tech companies played in the 2016 election. Facebook, Google and Twitter already face heavy criticism for allowing the spread of disinformation, “fake news” and divisive advertising during the campaign — much of which targeted Clinton. All three companies are set to testify at congressional hearings beginning next week on Russian use of their platforms to interfere with the election.
The idea that the tech companies were so deeply enmeshed in the efforts to elect Trump in particular could also complicate the companies’ reputations as political actors. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is among those in liberal-leaning Silicon Valley who have roundly condemned Trump’s actions as president on topics like LGBT issues and immigration.
As Trump emerged as the likely Republican nominee, staffers from each of the three companies set up shop in a strip-mall office rented by the Trump campaign in San Antonio, Texas, home to the campaign’s lead digital strategist, Brad Parscale, the study reports. It attributes that information to Nu Wexler, a Twitter communications official at the time, who is explicit about the value of the arrangement for Trump.
“One, they found that they were getting solid advice, and two, it’s cheaper. It’s free labor,” Wexler said in the study.
While the paper does not detail the specific tasks Facebook carried out for Trump, it describes the sort of work the company did generally for 2016 candidates, including coordinating so-called dark posts that would appear only to selected users and identifying the kinds of photos that perform best on Facebook-owned Instagram. Twitter, meanwhile, would help candidates analyze the performances of their tweet-based fundraising pushes to recommend what moves the campaigns should make next. Google kept tabs on candidates’ travels to recommend geographically targeted advertisements.
Digital experts interviewed by the researchers concluded that the tech company employees, who would work in San Antonio for days at a time, helped Trump close his staffing gap with Clinton.
The White House referred questions to the Trump campaign, and Parscale did not respond to requests for comment. Parscale said in an Oct. 8 episode of “60 Minutes” that he actively solicited the companies’ support, saying that he told them: “I wanna know everything you would tell Hillary’s campaign plus some. And I want your people here to teach me how to use it.”
A source close to the Clinton campaign rejected the notion that her team failed to take advantage of a valuable resource, arguing that her operation was in regular contact with the tech companies to tap their expertise. The source, who would only speak anonymously because of the sensitivity around attributing causes of Clinton’s defeat, said there would have been no advantage to having tech company employees sitting at desks at Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters.
One unnamed tech company staffer is quoted in the study as saying, “Clinton viewed us as vendors rather than consultants.”
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Asked about the arrangement with Trump, the tech companies were quick to point out that they make their services available to all political players regardless of party.
“Facebook offers identical levels of support to candidates and campaigns across the political spectrum, whether by Facebook’s politics and government or ad sales teams,” a spokesperson for the social network said in a statement.
That sentiment was echoed by Twitter, which said it offered help to both the Clinton and Trump campaigns, and by Google, which stressed that it is up to each candidate to determine how extensively to work with the company. During the primary season, Google made available to each candidate an eight-hour session with the company’s creative teams, but only Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s campaign took them up on it, according to the study.
But at least one tech veteran said he can see how it would raise alarms that the bulk of Silicon Valley’s hands-on campaign support went to Trump rather than to Clinton.
“It can be confusing from the outside looking in when it appears one campaign or another is getting more support,” Adam Sharp, a former Twitter executive who led the company’s elections team from 2010 to 2016, said in an interview. But while the companies strive to be balanced, they cannot inform voters “when a candidate doesn’t heed the help,” he said.
An intimate relationship between tech companies and candidates has considerable upside for both. The campaign gets high-quality advice and advance notice on cutting-edge products. The company gets national exposure for its products and builds relationships with politicians who might be in a position to regulate it once they get to Washington.
Silicon Valley had additional considerations during the 2016 campaign. The big tech companies were eager to fight the perception they were unfair to conservatives — and few in the liberal-leaning industry expected Trump to win, with or without their assistance.
Kreiss and McGregor recount one interview in which a pair of Facebook reps struggled to come up with a shorthand way of describing the support they provide candidates. Katie Harbath, head of Facebook’s elections team, suggested “customer service plus.” Ali-Jae Henke, who as an account executive at Google worked with Republican campaigns, including Trump’s, described the role as “serving in an advisory capacity.”
The history of the tech companies’ campaign outreach dates back to the 2008 presidential contest. That year, Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook’s CEO, traveled to both the Democratic and Republican conventions to pitch the political utility of the then-4-year-old social network. Around that same time, the company began offering congressional offices one-on-one guidance on how to use Facebook.
The outreach didn’t always work at first. “I was, like, begging people to meet with us,” Randi Zuckerberg said of the GOP’s 2008 convention. But as political spending on Facebook’s ad products and elected leaders’ dependence on the platform skyrocketed over the years, so too did the company’s close work with politicians.
One constant in the dynamic: The companies break down their political outreach teams along party lines. Facebook’s point of contact to Clinton’s 2016 White House run, Crystal Patterson, was a veteran of Democratic politics, and Henke — Google’s liaison to the Trump operation and other 2016 Republican bids — was once the director of operations for the Western Republican Leadership Conference.
That partisan matching is needed, company representatives say, to allow all involved to speak freely when providing advice. Caroline McCain, social media manager for Rubio’s White House bid, is quoted in the paper saying that when tech company staffers have a similar political background as the campaign they’re assigned to, it raises the campaign’s comfort level in working with them.
“When you realize, ‘Oh yeah, the person I’m working with at Google, they actually worked on Romney back in 2012,’ like, ‘Oh, okay, they actually might have our best interest at heart,’” McCain said. After the campaign, McCain took a position at Facebook.
Kreiss, the paper’s co-author, said the symbiotic relationship between Silicon Valley and political campaigns demands further examination.
“It raises the larger question of what should be the transparency around this, given that it’s taking place in the context of a democratic election,” he said.