The night before America’s election, Fast Company reported: On the internet, we’re subject to hidden A/B tests all the time, but this one was also part of a political weapon: a multimillion-dollar tool kit built by a team of Facebook vets, data nerds, and computational social scientists determined to defeat Donald Trump. The goal is to use microtargeted ads, follow-up surveys, and an unparalleled data set to win over key electorates in a few critical states: the low-education voters who unexpectedly came out in droves or stayed home last time, the voters who could decide another monumental election. By this spring, the project, code named Barometer, appeared to be paying off. During a two-month period, the data scientists found that showing certain Facebook ads to certain possible Trump voters lowered their approval of the president by 3.6%… “We’ve been able to really understand how to communicate with folks who have lower levels of political knowledge, who tend to be ignored by the political process,” says James Barnes, a data and ads expert at the all-digital progressive nonprofit Acronym, who helped build Barometer. This is familiar territory: Barnes spent years on Facebook’s ads team, and in 2016 was the “embed” who helped the Trump campaign take Facebook by storm. Last year, he left Facebook and resolved to use his battle-tested tactics to take down his former client. “We have found ways to find the right news to put in front of them, and we found ways to understand what works and doesn’t,” Barnes says. “And if you combine all those things together, you get a really effective approach, and that’s what we’re doing….” By the election it promises to have spent $75 million on Facebook, Google, Instagram, Snapchat, Hulu, Roku, Viacom, Pandora, and anywhere else valuable voters might be found… Barnes had been a Republican all his life, but he did not like Trump; he says he ended up voting for Clinton. The election, and his role in it, left him unsettled, and he left Facebook’s political ads team to work with the company’s commercial clients… In the wake of Trump’s election and its aftermath, Barnes helped Facebook develop some of its election integrity initiatives (one of Facebook’s moves was to stop embedding employees like him inside campaigns) and even sat down for lengthy interviews with the Securities and Exchange Commission and with then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Last year, after some soul-searching, some of it in Peru, Barnes registered as a Democrat, left Facebook, and began working on a way to fight Trump… Acronym and a political action committee, Pacronym, were founded in 2017 by Democratic strategist Tara McGowan, in an effort to counter Trump’s online spending advantage and what The New Yorker called his Facebook juggernaut… For Barnes, Acronym’s aggressive approach to Facebook, and Barometer’s very existence, isn’t just personal, but relates to his former employer: Facebook hasn’t only failed to effectively police misinformation and disinformation, but helped accelerate it… But while Barnes is using some of the weapons that helped Trump, he’s at pains to emphasize that, unlike the other side, Acronym’s artillery is simply “the facts.” The PAC’s donors include Laurene Powell Jobs, Steven Spielberg, venture capitalists Reid Hoffman and Michael Moritz, and (according to the Wall Street Journal) Facebook’s former product officer, Chris Cox (who is also an informal adviser.) But in addition, the group “can access an unprecedented pool of state voter files and personal information: everything from your purchasing patterns to your social media posts to your church, layered with AI-built scores that predict your traits…”
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