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How Facebook's Embed in the Trump Campaign Helped the President Win

By Deepa Seetharaman 

After the 2016 presidential election, Republican Party officials credited Facebook Inc. with helping Donald Trump win the White House. One senior official singled out a then-28-year-old Facebook employee embedded with the Trump campaign, calling him an "MVP."

Now that key player is working for the other side -- as national debate intensifies over Facebook's role in politics.

James Barnes left Facebook this spring, and said he is now dedicated to using the digital-ad strategies he employed on behalf of the Trump campaign to get President Trump out of office in 2020. Mr. Barnes, who had been a lifelong Republican, has registered as a Democrat and recently started working with a progressive nonprofit called Acronym, where former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe is on the board.

In a series of interviews over the past three weeks, Mr. Barnes discussed how he helped the Trump campaign leverage some of Facebook's powerful tools and products to extend its reach. He talked about the pressure he felt behind the scenes, both from the Trump campaign and some colleagues at Facebook. His account sheds new light on Facebook's role in the Trump campaign and what Democrats are trying to learn from it going into the next presidential election.

Mr. Barnes said he remains supportive of Facebook's mission but is uneasy about the company's influence on political discourse. One question that has nagged him over the past three years about his time at Facebook: "Did I actually do the right thing?"

Social-media platforms are sure to be a critical battlefield in 2020, with political spending on digital advertising expected to hit $2.9 billion, up from $1.4 billion in 2016, according to consulting firm Borrell Associates Inc. The Trump re-election campaign is already pouring money into Facebook ads, and Democratic candidates are ramping up.

Facebook has openly grappled with its approach to political advertising in the wake of revelations that Russian entities purchased digital ads designed to influence the results of the 2016 presidential election. It has also faced criticism for giving political campaigns access to sophisticated targeting tools, which in some cases allowed political actors to single out groups of users for misleading ads. In response, Facebook has made changes to slow the spread of misinformation and eliminated commissions for employees who sell political ads. The company is also considering ways to make it harder to target political ads to very small groups of people.

Another big change that came out of this reckoning: Last year, Facebook said it would no longer embed its employees with political campaigns, as Mr. Barnes had done.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has discussed his own soul-searching around whether Facebook should accept political ads at all, eventually deciding that it should and that it wouldn't fact-check those messages as it does other content.

Facebook has played an increasingly large role in each of the last three U.S. presidential elections. In 2008, Barack Obama's campaign was lauded for using Facebook to help reach young voters. In 2012, President Obama's re-election campaign created an app that plugged into the Facebook developer platform and allowed users to prod friends in swing states to vote.

The company's political ad strategy was initially modeled on its playbook for top corporate clients: Facebook employees offered on-site support to the U.S. presidential candidates who were considered the presumptive nominees for their parties.

Mr. Barnes joined Facebook's political ad sales team in June 2013 in Washington, following a stint at a digital consulting firm that worked for John McCain's two presidential campaigns.

Like other tech companies, Facebook divvies up its political ad sales team by party. Republican employees usually work with Republican clients; Democrats work with Democrats. Mr. Barnes was part of the team that exclusively dealt with Republicans.

In many ways, Mr. Barnes is the archetype of a Silicon Valley tech worker. He's analytical and measured. He's earnest and idealistic, describing on multiple occasions his desire to do good in the world. He fasts intermittently, sometimes going 72 hours between meals.

In other ways, he cuts against type. He grew up in Hendersonville, Tenn., in an evangelical family that attended church on Wednesday nights. His mother, Tami West, says he was an Alex P. Keaton type: independent and staunchly Republican.

By the time the 2016 campaign was heating up, the developer platform used by the Obama campaign was mostly closed off, as part of a shift in Facebook's strategy, but Facebook's ad-targeting tools had grown more sophisticated.

Mr. Barnes became the Trump campaign's go-to resource for figuring out how to maximize those tools. In April 2016, after a weekend at the Coachella music festival in California, he and his manager flew to San Antonio to meet with Brad Parscale, who became the digital director of the Trump campaign. In Mr. Parscale's office, and later at Bohanan's, a local steak house, they discussed how Facebook could help the campaign.

One of the first things Mr. Barnes and his team advised campaign officials to do was to start running fundraising ads targeting Facebook users who liked or commented on Mr. Trump's posts over the past month using a product now called " engagement custom audiences."

The product, which Mr. Barnes hand-coded, was available to a small group, including Republican and Democratic political clients. (The ad tool was rolled out widely around Election Day.) Within the first few days, every dollar that the Trump campaign spent on these ads yielded $2 to $3 in fundraising dollars, said Mr. Barnes, who added that the campaign raised millions of dollars in those first few days.

Mr. Barnes frequently flew to Texas, sometimes staying for four days at a time and logging 12-hour days. By July, he says, he was solely focused on the Trump campaign. When on-site in the building that served as the Trump campaign's digital headquarters in San Antonio, he sometimes sat a few feet from Mr. Parscale.

The intense pace reflected Trump officials' full-throated embrace of Facebook's platform, in the absence of a more traditional campaign structure including donor files and massive email databases.

The Trump campaign would give Mr. Barnes certain videos or images, such as a video of Donald Trump Jr. urging voters to build the border wall. Mr. Barnes would experiment with different ways to display the ad. One ad might say "donate" while another would say "give." Some videos would be vertical; others were square. Buttons could be highlighted in red or green.

Each variation of the ad would be targeted to certain demographics. It could be as specific as 18-to-24 year old men who visited the Trump campaign donation page and made it to the third step but never finished, according to Mr. Barnes. They tested all the variations and doubled down on those that raised the most money.

Trump campaign officials have said that some days the campaign churned out 100,000 separate versions of Facebook ads. Mr. Parscale is overseeing the Trump re-election campaign this year.

One official from the 2016 Trump campaign said it primarily relied on Mr. Barnes for troubleshooting and complained to Facebook about periodic technical issues that the campaign argued hurt the campaign's performance. The official, who is also working on Mr. Trump's re-election campaign, declined to comment further.

Mr. Barnes's Democratic counterparts at Facebook weren't getting the same reception. Tatenda Musapatike, a former Facebook employee who worked with Democratic PACs and other independent expenditure groups in 2016, said she felt many Democrats held Facebook at arm's length.

"For James, he'd suggest something and they'd say, 'Sure, let's try it,' " said Ms. Musapatike. "It was a battle for us to get anything accepted at a much smaller scale."

Hillary Clinton's campaign didn't have Facebook employees stationed on site, according to people familiar with the campaign. One former Clinton campaign official said the campaign didn't want to give Facebook staffers a "24/7 opportunity" to sell more ads by embedding with the staff. A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton didn't respond to a request for comment.

Facebook referred to its prior comments on the embed program. Last year, Facebook told lawmakers that it didn't assign anybody "full-time" to either campaign and that it offered "identical support" to both sides.

Mr. Barnes said the experience was exhilarating but isolating. He was thrilled that the tools he helped build were working. But while he had a good relationship with Mr. Parscale and the campaign's digital advertising director, Gary Coby, at times Mr. Barnes had reservations about Mr. Trump's tone and rhetoric.

Still, Mr. Barnes said he felt he had a responsibility to help Facebook follow through on its commitment to help candidates regardless of their politics.

"I used to describe my job as defending Trump to Facebook and defending Facebook to Trump," he said.

Internally, Facebook staffers questioned the company's role in politics. Sometimes they would ask why Facebook was offering assistance to the Trump campaign in the first place, according to Mr. Barnes and other former Facebook employees.

The critiques wore on Mr. Barnes. "It felt really isolating and lonely that I was at the nexus of all of this stuff," he said.

During the campaign, Trump campaign officials frequently threatened to go to the press if Mr. Barnes and other Facebook employees failed to address problems to their satisfaction, he said.

(MORE TO FOLLOW) Dow Jones Newswires

November 23, 2019 10:23 ET (15:23 GMT)

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