Cast your mind back a year, to the first week of November 2016. Be honest: who did you think would win the presidency of the United States? Readers of this column may recall my prediction. “Trump leads by substantial margins among male voters, white voters, over-64 voters and degree-less voters,” I wrote. “In short, his support looks a lot like the support for Brexit. If, as happened in the UK, those groups turn out more than the pollsters expect and other groups turn out less, the polls will be wrong. He can win.”
I was in a tiny minority among commentators. On the widely read Daily Kos website, for example, Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency stood at 92%. According to The Upshot in The New York Times, the number was 85%. Betfair said 83%. Best of all was the Princeton Election Consortium, which wrote two days before the election: “Whether [Clinton’s] presidential win probability is 91% or 99%, it is basically settled.”
Why were the professionals so wrong about last year’s election? After twelve months of thinking about this, my conclusion is that it was because they had not read Jürgen Habermas’s seminal book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962). Habermas was writing mainly about the 18th and 19th century, but his insight was a universally applicable one. Often, historical changes in attitudes, behaviour and politics are rooted in changes to the structure of the public sphere itself.
Mentioning a German philosopher in a British Sunday newspaper violates a number of important rules of journalistic conduct. Bear with me. In most western countries the public sphere used to consist of a few national newspapers, a not much larger number of radio stations and a very few television networks. In the past 10 years that has ceased to be the case.
The key change is the advent of giant online social networks and the smartphones that allow us to be on them practically all the time. Two-thirds of adult Americans — and more than 2bn people in the world as a whole — are now regular users of Facebook, a company that did not exist 14 years ago. Around 45% of Americans get their news from Facebook’s news feed.
The effects are radically different from those of, say, the advent of radio or television for three reasons. First, the content on Facebook is mostly generated by its users. Between March 2015 and November 2016, to give just one example, 128m people in the US created nearly 9bn Facebook posts, shares, likes and comments about the election.
Second, this content is sorted and ranked not by human editors but by algorithms. Every time you open Facebook’s app, an algorithm sorts through all the posts and serves you a customised selection based on its estimate of the probability that you’ll like, comment on or share them. This is the origin of what Eli Pariser of the website Upworthy has called the “filter bubble”. You see in your news feed only what the algo thinks you’ll like. (Maybe that’s why you’re reading this column.)
Third, Facebook makes money from its users’ data by selling ads that can be targeted with staggering precision. With Google, it now enjoys a duopoly on digital advertising, which explains the vast sums of money these companies now make. (Last week Facebook announced revenue of $10.3bn, or £7.9bn, in the third quarter.) This also explains why it was possible for Russian intelligence to meddle so effectively in last year’s election.
Perhaps you didn’t see the advertisements posted on Facebook by Russian entities such as the blandly named Internet Research Agency. You weren’t the kind of user they were targeting. But if you were a white, non-college-educated American in a swing state, you probably did see quite a few of them. My favourite is the picture of Satan and Christ arm-wrestling, with the caption:
Satan: If I win Clinton wins!
Jesus: Not if I can help it!
Press ‘Like’ to help Jesus win!
After much humming and hawing, Facebook has now admitted that Russia used false identities to post about 3,000 ads in this vein and that (including on its other platforms such as Instagram) as many as 146m users may have seen them. That is more people than voted (139m).
These ads had real-world consequences. In May 2016, for instance, two Russian-linked Facebook groups organised opposing protests in Houston. A group called Heart of Texas announced a rally in front of the city’s Islamic Da’wah Centre at noon on May 21 to Stop Islamification of Texas. Another Russian-created group, United Muslims of America, advertised a Save Islamic Knowledge rally for the same place and time. People turned up for both sides, and confrontation duly followed.
The wrong conclusion is that the Russians decided last year’s election. For, in the ocean of Facebook content, the Russian ads were mere drops. The significance of the Russian interference is that it has finally focused the political elite’s minds on the transformation of the public sphere.
It wasn’t just the Russians. As BuzzFeed has shown, in the final three months of the presidential campaign, the top fake election news stories on Facebook generated more user engagement (shares, reactions and comments) than the top true stories from outlets such as The New York Times. Some of the fake news was coming from abroad (Macedonia as well as Russia), but much of it was homegrown. Two years ago the alt-right website Breitbart had a small Facebook page with just 100,000 likes. By July 2016 Breitbart was generating more Facebook interactions than The New York Times.
Facebook sent staff to work with both the Trump and Clinton campaigns to maximise the effectiveness of their advertising. No prizes for guessing which campaign took more advantage of this. “I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump,” Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon has said, “if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine. Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.”
“These social platforms were all invented by very liberal people on the West and East Coasts,” mused Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital media director. “And we figure out how to use it to push conservative values. I don’t think they thought that would ever happen.” That, surely, is the most compelling epitaph for the Clinton campaign — which, in a rich irony, nearly all Facebook and Google employees supported.
To get it right last November, all you really needed to know was that Trump dominated Clinton on both Facebook and Twitter. The fact she outspent him, overall, by about two to one was irrelevant. The Clinton campaign wasted millions of dollars on the old public sphere, and wholly failed to grasp what the populist right was doing in the new one.
Last week’s Economist cover warns solemnly of “Social media’s threat to democracy”. A more accurate headline would have been “Social media’s threat to elite liberalism”. Which reminds me: what was The Economist’s cover 12 months ago? Ah, yes. Hillary Clinton — “America’s best hope”. As they say in, er, Texas: nyet.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)