Introduction

Access to information has exploded in the last 10 years. In fact, about 380 new websites are born online every minute. With more than 1.8 billion websites online, and 188 million of them active, it can feel as if access to information on any topic is unlimited. It is safe to say that facts, data, and opinions have never been more readily available. 

It has long been assumed that when it comes to information, more is better. As writer Bruce Coville has said:

“Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship.”

In 1938, World War II was just around the corner. Hitler had just won possession of Czechoslovakia during the Munich Agreement (otherwise known as the Munich Betrayal). Great Britain’s primary news source, the BBC, was preparing a German language news program, and they knew they would need to contend with propaganda from a totalitarian state intent on keeping the loyalty of its people. 

Their approach was about as different from the German propaganda as possible. So important were facts in counteracting dictatorships and winning over people trapped under oppressive regimes that the BBC during WWII made the delivery of the truth the basis of its famous German programming. 

In fact, the BBC was so convinced of the need to win the trust of their listeners with honest information that they would even report on British losses.

“It is fascinating to see how the BBC provided the German public with accurate information during the war and thereby began to re-educate individuals who had been living, willingly or unwillingly, with 12 years of Nazi propaganda,” Dr. Vike Martina Plock of the department of English at Exeter University, told the Guardian in an April 2017 article. Plock had discovered memos on the subject while conducting research at the BBC Written Records Archives.

The BBC approach became the standard adopted by multiple efforts to win the hearts and minds of oppressed people over the years because it worked. More information meant more freedom.

Information as a political and social weapon

The BBC’s facts-rich approach lay the foundation for a sweeping approach to persuasion. The BBC disseminated its information very strategically. For example, it put the best news last to encourage people to keep listening. It described the actions and attitudes of the British people to teach good citizenship. 

The BBC used facts and information to teach, persuade, and, most importantly, create a perception of reality that undermined German propaganda. It used information to influence listeners in a certain direction.

The example of the BBC is an example of information used with good intentions. Information, of course, has always also been a preferred weapon in controlling the minds and hearts of groups of people. Propaganda has been used to influence people’s ideas and opinions since as early as ancient Greek civilization, and it was the hallmark of regimes like Stalin’s Russia.

However, as Coville pointed out, it has been the withholding of information that has typically been the real weapon. The release only of certain favorable information (or made up information) and the restriction of other information, have always been the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes. It has been the tried and true method of using information as a weapon. 

The BBC led the way in changing this reality. The advent of the Internet, however, and the explosion of information, have completely transformed how information is used to influence people in recent years. 

Today, digital access to information offers both real challenges and great opportunities, particularly for businesses looking for ways to make themselves known to potential customers. In the much smaller war for customer loyalty, the abundance of information can be used to win customers, conversions, and brand awareness. The key is to know how to use all that information, and the digital ways people have of accessing it, to your advantage.

Before businesses dive into digital marketing, however, it is important to see how the use of information is changing in the digital age. Today, it is not the withholding of information that is swaying people one way or another. Nor is it carefully curated propaganda that demands people’s attention. 

It is now impossible to successfully restrict all access to undesirable facts and data and stories. A digital, connected world has made the propaganda of the past all but impossible to maintain in the modern age. 

Today, it is possible to use people’s access to wildly unprecedented levels of information to influence not just their ideas and opinions but their perceptions of reality itself. It is the BBC approach adapted to the digital age. Access to data becomes a new way to control the narrative around certain issues. It becomes a way to change people’s hearts and minds.

As a 1990 article in the Christian Science Monitor reported about social scientist Alvin Toffler’s predictions about the future of control (which was also the basis of his 1990s book Powershift),

“A ‘powershift” is under way from ‘muscle and money’ to ‘mind”’as the main instrument of social control.”

The use of information, and the use of digital strategies to manage that information, can be both good and bad. A company, for instance, can use these tools to advance their business goals and grow their customer base. 

For example, by targeting ads to their chosen demographic (hello Google Ads) and populating those ads with compelling facts and stories, they can present potential customers with a (hopefully accurate) narrative about why their business is the one customers should choose. They can change customers’ hearts and minds in favor of their brand. 

In other examples, however, information has been used as a weapon, to lend bad actors power. Take, for example, the language Roberto Detarte used to describe a war on drugs in the Philippines.

Touted by mainstream media and social media during his election in 2016, Detarte’s message later became the basis for thousands of murders of his own people. Getting people on board with the idea of defeating drugs didn’t just help him win the election, it allowed him to carve a path toward violence among his own people. 

As Peter Pomerantsev points out in the article  “The Disinformation Age: A Revolution in Propaganda” in The Guardian:

“What we are seeing is, in the words of Columbia law professor Tim Wu, a situation where ‘speech itself is seen as a censorial weapon.’ This questions the old idea that the answer to ‘fallacious speech’ is ‘more speech’ – that we live in a ‘marketplace of ideas’ where the best ‘information products’ will win out. What if that market can be rigged?”

The “rigging” of the free speech market isn’t a theoretical possibility, though. And it isn’t happening in faraway locations. Instead, the digital manipulation not just of information but of large groups of people through that information, has happened right here in the United States, and at a time when we cherish and depend upon our access to abundant data the most: The presidential elections. 

Digital Marketing and the 2016 Election

On November 8, 2016, into the wee hours of the morning on November 9, many people watched in shock as the United States presidential election returned result after result in Republican candidate Donald Trump’s favor. At 2:35 am Eastern Standard Time on November 9, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton called Trump to concede defeat. Trump had become the 45th President of the United States.

Trump’s victory caused ripples of disbelief around the globe. According to one source, Trump had rarely exceeded a 44 percent approval rating in polls. As a result, his come-from-behind win, which was a decisive one with more than 300 of the electoral votes, left many astounded.

However, the signs of Trump’s victory had been evident, at least from a digital marketing standpoint, much earlier. 

In October 2016, I noted in a Facebook post that:

“Say what you want about Donald J. Trump, but I can’t deny that his digital marketing has been the best I’ve ever seen for a politician at any level. Facebook ads are always targeted and on point. He’s gamified his campaign through his ‘gold membership.’ When I google almost any other candidate I get ads for him instead. He’s got a solid marketing team behind him.”

It was clear then, even while Trump was trailing in the polls, that he had digital marketing on his side. Thanks to that top notch digital marketing campaign, Trump had set himself up for a stunning victory supported by what the Scientific American described the day after as “the silent Trump vote.”

I use the example of Trump’s election not as a political statement but as the latest and most obvious example of the power of information, and the power of digital marketing in particular, to bring about huge, transformative change. Trump did not win by restricting information. He won by using the abundance of information available at our fingertips to weave a narrative that had one ending: Him as the leader of the American people. And if that approach worked to help him win a presidential election, chances are it can work to help businesses achieve greater brand visibility and success. 

The Trump Election: A Closer Look

Digital marketing was employed to great effect during the 2016 campaign on two fronts: Trump’s own campaign and Russia’s campaign of disinformation. To get a better grasp of just what drove Trump’s campaign success, we will look at his approach to Facebook and Twitter. More than almost any other marketing channel, these two social media platforms drove Trump’s visibility during his campaign.

The Role Of Facebook

Undoubtedly one of the biggest contributors to Trump’s 2016 success was his extensive Facebook marketing campaign. Trump’s digital manager, Brad Parscale, in an interview with BuzzFeed News, described the social media platform as “The single most important platform to help grow our fundraising base.”

The campaign’s success on Facebook was, in part, due to extraordinarily rigorous testing. Parscale’s team tested, for example, 40-60,000 Facebook ads daily in order to achieve the perfectly targeted ads I noted in my own Facebook post.

There were two other Facebook strategies the Trump campaign utilized to great effect: Messaging and demobilization. For example, instead of focusing primarily on smear campaigns, Trump and his team focused on discussions of policy. This focus was the result of their rigorous testing, which revealed a preference among their target audiences for this policy focus. 

Trump’s campaign also used what one senior official described as “voter suppression” Facebook campaigns. While the term “voter suppression” is often used to refer to tactics that go beyond digital, Trump seemed to have been referring to ads. Specifically, these campaigns delivered targeted ads to white liberals, African-Americans, and young women to discourage them from turning out to vote for Clinton.

The power of social media marketing was on full display as Trump’s targeted, tested ads eventually contributed to his stunning victory. 

No matter what you think of Trump’s politics, his approach to Facebook marketing does offer insights into how to leverage Facebook for your own business. In particular it demonstrates the value of testing and targeting. 

Testing

Testing tens of thousands of ad variations a day gave Trump’s campaign the information it needed to use ads that maximized the response they wanted from voters. They didn’t just settle for good enough ad performance. They tested until they found the best ads for each message and each demographic. 

Of course, small businesses do not have millions of dollars to spend testing tens of thousands of ads. However, they can use the budgets they do have to continually test their own, smaller, sets of ads. Even smaller scale testing can help you improve your ad effectiveness by helping you pinpoint the most effective ads for your target audience.

Targeting

Trump’s campaign did not set out to win over every American. Instead, it focused on delivering specific messages to specific audiences to elicit specific actions. For example, some ads were targeted specifically at African-Americans to persuade them not to vote. Others delivered policy discussions to audiences who preferred this content to get them to vote for Trump. 

While certain tactics, such as trying to prevent some Americans from voting, are unethical and not to be emulated, businesses can benefit from targeting their ads to the people who are most likely to need their products and services. 

For example, if you are a makeup company, it makes sense to target the content and appearance of your Google Ads or Facebook ads to women between the ages of 18 and 36. If you run a pizza shop in Greencastle, it makes sense to target people who live or travel in that area. Doing so gives your ads more chance at earning click throughs and conversions.

The Role of Twitter

Of course, Facebook wasn’t the only avenue Trump used to influence potential voters. He was also active on Twitter, to the tune of an average 87 tweets a day.

While not the fundraising powerhouse that Facebook was (most of the $250 million the campaign raised online came from Facebook), Twitter did serve as an effective way to disseminate Trump’s messages. His most successful tactic was his blunt, often offensive, communication style. 

Trump would tweet unscripted commentary on everything from recent news articles about the campaign to opinions on hot button topics, like immigration. He would also engage in personal attacks on people who criticized him.

Trump received significant backlash for these unvarnished messages. While his Facebook ads were often focused on policy, some of his most decried tweets were attacks on people like journalist Megyn Kelly and even President Obama. 

Despite the outcry over his Twitter presence, and even rumors that an aide had taken over his Twitter account toward the end of the election in order to convey a more presidential tone, it seems that Trump knew what he was doing. According to one source, his Twitter campaign a full year before the election had sparked more than 6 million Twitter conversations and netted him twice as many retweets as Clinton.

Part of Trump’s success on Twitter, and elsewhere in his digital marketing campaign, was his ability to get people talking about him. It almost didn’t matter whether they were saying positive or negative things about him. What mattered was the lightning speed with which conversations about him and his message flew around the Internet. 

Almost every tweet, for example, was followed by conversations throughout the Internet, defenders taking up Trump’s side, detractors condemning and arguing against his latest message. All of it resulted in a top-of-mind mentality. People were always thinking about Trump, and when it came time to vote, many of them put those thoughts into action. 

While businesses are not likely to succeed by tearing down competitors or adopting abrasive communication styles, they can benefit from creating a social media presence that sparks conversation. 

For example, a business can engage in conversations its followers are already having by retweeting and commenting on these conversations in meaningful ways (i.e. say something useful, insightful, and respectful). They can post content and ideas that are of interest to their followers and ask questions designed to elicit thoughtful responses. And every business should take the time to respond to followers who comment on, retweet, or otherwise mention them on social media. 

By developing relationships with followers and being part of the social media community, as well as by offering awesome content, a business can make sure that people start talking about them. 

These examples demonstrate that Trump, whatever you think of his politics, was able to understand, and leverage, the digital age and its abundance of information to his advantage. Far from suppressing information, he was able to get enormous amounts of information to targeted, responsive audiences who spread his message. 

Of course, no discussion of digital marketing and the 2016 election would be complete without touching on another carefully crafted use of information to sway public opinion: Russia’s campaign of disinformation. 

Russia and the 2016 Disinformation Campaign

An investigation by Robert Mueller into Russia’s influence over the election found that there was no evidence of Trump’s involvement in a conspiracy to rig the election in his favor (although there were other indictments handed down as a result of the investigation). 

What is indisputable, however, is that Russia did employ the power of information, the power of the Internet, and the power of digital marketing to exert influence over people’s perception of the campaign.

Russia accomplished its goals through a number of techniques intended to use the abundance of information available at our fingertips to create chaos and confusion around the election. 

Here is a look at some of the biggest strategies employed by Russia during the 2016 election:

Public Discourse

One of the great things about today’s digital age is the fact that we can instantly connect with communities of other people to discuss ideas and share information. The comments section of any article, as well as social media conversations, are public forums where discussions can happen freely. Here we can not only access information but also share information and opinions of our own.

There is a great potential for influence and change in these forums. When, for example, you read 100 comments pointing out factual errors in an article or refuting a blog’s viewpoint, it becomes easier to adopt that contrarian viewpoint. 

At the same time, these public discussions can get heated, and confusing, fast. You only need to read the comments section of any news article or blog dealing with a hot button political issue to see people at their worst: Angry, vitriolic, insulting, and argumentative. These arguments can feel more like all-out brawls than reasoned discussions. They can make you come away with the sense that the world is in chaos. How does one take a thoughtful stance in the midst of it?

Creating these heated discussions, and the resulting sense of confusion, was one of the results of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 campaign. They created this sense of confusion by commenting on both sides of the most divisive issues. For example, they might argue both for and against Trump’s border wall. With many conflicting voices bombarding them from fake accounts, voters had a harder time dealing with the issues at hand. 

People who thought they were accessing honest information and conversations were instead swamped with fake comments and arguments that led to paralysis in their decision making. They dealt with information overload. Instead of one message, people were battered with a hundred messages. Instead of one voice, they were overwhelmed by a dozen. Instead of one channel of information, they were swamped on every side, from news sites to social media. Abundant information quickly became too much information. How does one sift through the chaos to find the truth?

Fake (but Appealing) Ads

During the 2016 election, ads, forums, and social media discussions were major drivers of people’s ideas about the campaign. They had the chance to get real information from people like them to help them make decisions about who to vote for. For example, in one ad, a Pennsylvania man named Melvin Redick encouraged voters to check out DCLeaks for information about Clinton. 

The problem was that this man didn’t exist. His picture had been stolen from a Brazilian gentleman. And DCLeaks was created and run by Russia using information stolen by Russian hackers.

The occasional disingenuous ad may not seem like a huge deal. But that ad was only one of a veritable onslaught of fake ads and fake social media posts. In fact, estimates are that there were 6.6 million tweets around the 2016 election driven by fake news. One estimate placed the number of people affected by fake social media posts at 126 million

Even though people were aware of “fake news” during the campaign, actually identifying it and avoiding it proved to be very difficult. This fake news predominantly favored Trump. One Stanford study found that fake pro-Trump news (like the DCLeaks ad) were shared 30 million times during the campaign. This was 4 times more often as pro-Clinton news was shared during the same time period. Much of this fake news was generated by Russian sources. 

With reach like that, it can be easy to see how the power of instantly accessible information can be used to influence wide swaths of people. It may not have been real information, but wrapped in the illusion of reality, it significantly impacted voters nonetheless. 

Trolls and Bots

Fake ads and social media posts weren’t the only digital influencers in the 2016 election. Profile accounts and commenters were often also fake. Driven by what are called troll farms, numerous accounts were actually created artificially. That person you argued with over immigration in 2016 may have been nothing more than an Internet bot.

The influence of Russian troll farms was pervasive, according to Mueller’s report (which led to the indictment several people, including 13 Russians suspected of participating in a troll farms called the IRA).

If accusations from U.S. prosecutors are true, these troll farms went so far as to steal American identities, purchase Facebook ads, develop promotional material for unsuspecting organizations, and even organize protests both for and against Trump.

On Twitter, discussions were often cultivated automatically by bots. These bots would often release the same tweet minutes apart from each other, up to more than 1,500 tweets in the space of a few minutes or hours. Investigations have shown that there could have been thousands of such Russian bots, primarily devoted to releasing pro-Trump and anti-Clinton rhetoric into the campaign discussions.

Their purpose wasn’t necessarily to get either Clinton or Trump elected. Their goal was to manipulate the conversations people were a part of in order to create disagreements and chaos. For some groups, like African Americans, they wanted to discourage voting at all.

Russia’s digital efforts stand out because they too used the availability of information to shape people’s perceptions of reality. By creating false accounts, ideas, and conversations, they created the illusion that the conversation was going one way or another. They used the sense people had that they were accessing an abundance of true information to guide their thoughts and ideas about the election.

Interestingly enough, the 2016 election was not the first time misinformation was used to try to influence people to think or act in a certain direction. After all, as early as the Peloponnesian War in the 400s B.C. nations have used what are called “fifth columns” of agitators inside an opposing country to help them take down their foes. 

Even during World War II, while the BBC used accurate information to win over German listeners, another British radio program sought to undermine the Nazi regime with false information. British journalist Sefton Delmer created what he called a “Black Propaganda” campaign which masqueraded as a legitimate German radio broadcast by a disgruntled Nazi leader dubbed Der Chef. His broadcasts raised concerns about an outbreak of illness among German children, sexual crimes committed by Nazi leaderahip, and other criticisms of German leadership. Delmer also created other fake news radio stations to turn listeners against the Nazi regime. 

The idea behind campaigns like Delmer’s is similar to Russia’s disinformation campaign: To manipulate people’s thinking by providing false information masquerading as real. The efforts, however, are far wider reaching today thanks to the Internet and the unprecedented access people have to information of all kinds. 

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em (sort of).

So what conclusions can we draw from these examples (Besides the obvious need to continue combating fake news)? I think the obvious conclusion, first of all, is that digital marketing is powerful. Digital marketing didn’t just sell a clothing line or craft beer. It influenced an entire election.

I want you to think about that for a minute. In a digital, information-rich world, it is possible to win hearts and minds with smart digital marketing. The right messaging to the right people at the right times can spark conversations, awareness, and action. 

Now, obviously, any legitimate company is going to avoid any illicit or deceptive marketing practices. False messages, bots, trolls, and misleading Facebook campaigns have no place in any legitimate company’s digital marketing. 

However, we cannot deny that digital marketing has an incredible ability to shape and influence people’s hearts and minds. As a business yourself, you have an opportunity to take advantage of the benefits that digital marketing offers you. Sure, your pharmacy isn’t going to become the subject of national debate, but a compelling website and engaging social media presence might make you the subject of some positive conversation, and business, among your target customers.

In order to enjoy the impact of digital marketing for your own business, you need the help of a digital marketing agency. Here at Distinct Web Design, we take the best digital marketing practices and use them to help your business stand out among the people you want to reach. Don’t let the digital era pass you by. Information has never been more readily available, and neither has the chance to use that access to information to get the word out about your business.