It’s not unusual for Silicon Valley firms to do a little management consulting, usually partnering with large advertising companies for a hefty price. However, according to a study conducted by professors at the University of Utah and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, major tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft played an unprecedented role in political campaigns during the 2016 election.
Was it simply a sign of the times, where print newspapers are becoming obsolete to Twitter feeds and Google searches for political information, or something deeper? The researchers suggest the latter.
“Facebook, Twitter, and Google,” wrote study authors Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor, “go beyond promoting their services and facilitating digital advertising buys, actively shaping campaign communication through their close collaboration with political staffers. We show how representatives at these firms serve as quasi-digital consultants to campaigns, shaping digital strategy, content, and execution.”
The study reports that an unusually high amount of “surrogate staffers”—one from Google, three from Microsoft, and two from both Facebook and Twitter—joined forces with Trump’s 2016 election team’s assembly of digital experts. Staffers from Google, Facebook, and Twitter assisted in digital ad sales while the Microsoft staffers lent their expertise on digital infrastructure at the RNC. By “digital infrastructure,” the researchers are referring to a growing trend of providing creative spaces, from journalism hubs to photo booths to bars, designed to facilitate connections between journalists and the tech industry.
Why, in the previous election more than ever before, were tech industries investing in building real-life connections with politicians?
“In the United States, firms such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Twitter actively seek political business for revenue purposes, as is clear in the extraordinary power of the Trump campaign to convene these companies and their extensive behind-the-scenes work with campaigns to facilitate the adoption and revenue-generating use of their platforms,” wrote Kreiss and McGregor. “These facts, coupled with the desire of these firms to influence policymakers for regulatory ends, may provide the political field with greater voice into the workings of these firms.”
According to research by Borrell Associates, the average digital political campaign advertising spend in the United States increased by 789 percent, about $1.4 billion. By working as consultants, tech firms can seize more control in how they profit during election cycles off an industry boom that they created.
“Facebook offers identical levels of support to candidates and campaigns across the political spectrum, whether by Facebook’s politics and government or ad sales teams,” said a Facebook spokesperson. While that notion is true, Silicon Valley’s influence became imbalanced as the election persisted. Donald Trump’s camp continued to hire tech “embeds” while Hillary Clinton’s campaign treated tech employees as “vendors rather than consultants,” a Silicon Valley staffer deployed to their Brooklyn campaign headquarters told Politico.
Renting the outside expertise of tech giants helped propel Trump to the finish line, a surprise win that in turn brought into question just how much of an upper-hand Silicon Valley gave team Trump when digital consulting activities are taken into consideration in addition to Russia’s hijacking of the 2016 election through bogus political ads and fake profiles.
“The implications need to be considered in the context of the ends we desire in democratic, market societies,” wrote Kreiss and McGregor. “While state accountability over commercial technology firms in Western democracies such as Germany might be desirable from a democratic perspective, the same might not be true in China or even the contemporary United States.”