Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Russia didn’t decide the 2016 election. Facebook did

Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at the SNHU Arena on Nov. 7, 2016, in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at the SNHU Arena on Nov. 7, 2016, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Cast your mind back a year, to Nov. 7, 2016. Be honest: Who did you think would win the presidency of the United States?

Twelve months ago, I was in a tiny minority amongst commentators in thinking Trump would win. On the widely read Daily Kos website, for example, Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency stood at 90 percent. According to “The Upshot” in The New York Times, the number was 85 percent. Betfair said 79 percent. Best of all was the Princeton Election Consortium, which wrote, on Nov. 6, two days before the election: “Whether [Clinton’s] Presidential win probability is 91 percent or 99 percent, it is basically settled.”

Why were the professionals so wrong about last year’s election? After 12 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,” published in 1962. Habermas was writing about the 18th and 19th centuries, but his insight was a universally applicable one. Often, historical changes in attitudes, behavior, and politics are rooted in changes in the structure of the public sphere itself.

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The key change in our time 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 are now regular users of Facebook, a company that did not exist 14 years ago. Around 45 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook’s News Feed. In April 2016, Facebook said it was capturing on average 50 minutes of every American’s day. We must be up to an hour by now.

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The effects are radically different from, say, the advent of radio or television, for three reasons. First, the content on Facebook is mostly user-generated. Between March 2015 and November 2016, to give just one example, 128 million people in America created nearly 10 billion 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 customized 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 monetizes its users’ data by selling advertisements 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. This also explains why it was possible for Russian intelligence to meddle so effectively in last year’s election.

Perhaps you didn’t see any of the political 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 noncollege-educated American living in a swing state, you probably did see quite a few of them. My personal favorite is the picture of Satan and Christ arm-wrestling, with the caption:

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“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 around 3,000 ads in this vein and that (including its other platforms, such as Instagram) as many as 146 million users may have seen them. That is more people than voted (139 million).

The wrong conclusion is that the Russians decided last year’s election. In the ocean of Facebook content, the Russian ads were mere drops. The correct conclusion is that Facebook decided last year’s election.

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Facebook sent employees to work with both the Trump and Clinton campaigns to maximize the effectiveness of their advertising. No prizes for guessing which campaign took more advantage of this.

“These social platforms are 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 that she out-spent him, overall, by roughly 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.

This 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 on Facebook: Nyet.

Niall Ferguson’s new book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power.”