By Jon Swartz
The day after a widely panned debate performance in late September, President Donald Trump turned to a tried-and-true strategy: Scathing ads on Facebook Inc.’s social-media platform stoking false claims about immigrants that were quickly taken down.
Eight days later, during the vice presidential debate, a wayward fly landed on the head of Vice President Mike Pence, prompting the Biden-Harris campaign to make light of it with a $10 blue fly swatter inscribed “Truth Over Flies” on the handle and Biden-Harris 2020 logo. The fly swatter quickly sold out, with sales going to the campaign.
Such are the contrasting uses of social media between the two major parties as the election nears. While conservatives have generally turned to Facebook Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +2.19% and Twitter Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +0.10% to push their talking points and organize the masses through highly sophisticated statewide operations in swing states, liberals have used a lighter touch while microtargeting supporters to raise money and gather data on voters.
Trump’s ads on Facebook eviscerated his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, with misleading and inaccurate claims about COVID-19 and immigration. Facebook quickly removed the 216 ads that claimed “despite the health risks [of] COVID-19 Joe Biden will increase refugees” from Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Donald J. Trump for President Inc. paid $10,000 to $15,000 for the 15-second video messages that started to run Sept. 30, according to the Facebook ad library for the Donald J. Trump Facebook page, which lists ads purchased by the Trump campaign.
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“We rejected these ads because we don’t allow claims that people’s physical safety, health, or survival is threatened by people on the basis of their national origin or immigration status,” a Facebook spokesman told MarketWatch.
At the same time, Trump’s campaign also published dozens of ads on Facebook and Instagram featuring doctored images showing Biden wearing earbuds with a bar of text asking, “Who’s in Joe’s ear?” Those ads, too, were removed by Facebook, which also owns Instagram.
Social media is part of the blueprint for Trump’s re-election push, after the platforms helped him win election in 2016. The president has used his massive followings on Twitter (87.2 million) and Facebook (31.9 million) to amplify his views and fire up his base, but the platforms have removed or censored some of his posts they deemed misleading or inaccurate.
“The campaigns operate on social media just as you would think,” PJ Howland, vice president of industry insights at digital marketing agency 97th Floor, told MarketWatch. He looked at both, and in the “2020 Election Marketing Report,” concluded “Trump is grandiose while Biden is tactical and focused on the issues.”
While Biden favors togetherness and issues, Trump is about branding the Trump name and raising funds through merchandising, according to Howland, who said Trump outspent Biden on Google /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL -0.37% /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG -0.18% ads from June through August by $42.1 million to $27.8 million. Biden is pursuing state markets, while Trump has opted for a national push – which seems to counter conventional thinking and the approach that helped Trump win in 2016.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced most campaign events to go virtual this year, but social media was always going to be a large part of the election approach.
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“The left likes to think it owns the internet, but conservatives are much stronger on social media,” sociologist Jen Schradie, author of “The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives,” told MarketWatch.
Right-wing organizations have shown a particular adeptness at synchronizing with statewide conservative media to quickly create “organic ecosystems” that “manufacture” story lines well on social media, Schradie said.
“Remember, the Tea Party had already started a movement online, and Trump captured it and took advantage of it,” says Schradie, who points to Sister Toldjah, a conservative activist in North Carolina, as a strong media voice. She has 38,800 Twitter followers.