According to Facebook, during the 2016 election, President Trump’s campaign actually paid higher rates to advertise on the platform overall than Hillary Clinton’s campaign did.

The disclosure by Facebook came Tuesday by way of Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth’s Twitter feed. It follows days of speculation kicked off by a recent WIRED story about how Facebook’s advertising auctions work. That story noted that Facebook’s algorithms prioritize more engaging content, meaning the more Facebook believes its users will click, comment on, or share a given ad, the less an advertiser will have to pay to reach a given audience.

After the story was published, President Trump’s former digital director and newly announced campaign manager, Brad Parscale, said he believed the Trump campaign may indeed have gotten a deep discount on its ads compared to the Clinton campaign, because, Parscale tweeted, Trump was the “perfect candidate for FaceBook.” That single tweet led to calls for the Federal Election Commission to investigate Facebook, which some accused of effectively subsidizing the Trump campaign, and even inspired Hillary Clinton herself to chime in on the need to regulate social media platforms.

But Bosworth’s tweet suggests some of this anger may be overheated.

“Prices depend on factors like size of audience and campaign objective,” Bosworth continued. “These campaigns had different strategies. Given the recent discussion about pricing we're putting this out to clear up any confusion.”

While this chart does show that the Trump campaign paid higher rates overall than the Clinton campaign did—and how competitive the ad market gets as the election approaches—it doesn't tell the full story. Much of the public outcry centered around the idea that Facebook’s system prioritizes more provocative or outrageous political ads. That, in turn, has stoked fears about whether Facebook’s ad algorithms reward mudslinging and fear-mongering. The chart Bosworth shared sheds no light on this question, because it contains no information about the content of the ads on any given day.

It’s also unclear which types of messages and targeting correspond with what pricing. An ad targeted at a custom list of voters will have a higher CPM than one with a national audience, for instance. The chart does not show what the Clinton and Trump campaigns would have paid for an apples-to-apples ad buy. In fact, that may ultimately be impossible to tell, given how many variations are at play in terms of who the campaigns are trying to reach, where they're trying to reach them, and what they're trying to get out of them.

The chart does not show what the Clinton and Trump campaigns would have paid for an apples-to-apples ad buy.

Finally, it doesn’t take into account the organic reach these ads received by way of Facebook users sharing them with their own networks. Campaigns don’t have to pay for that, but it can radically expand the number of people who are seeing an ad depending on how viral it becomes. If the Trump campaign's organic reach was dramatically higher than Clinton's, it stands to reason that it would be more willing to pay a higher rate upfront.

"A CPM price isn't the metric we’re measuring success against," said one Republican digital operative familiar with the Trump campaign.

If there’s one thing former staffers on the Trump and Clinton campaign agree on, it’s that they took markedly different approaches to advertising on Facebook. President Trump’s campaign ran a large fundraising operation on the platform; as Parscale told WIRED shortly after the 2016 election, the campaign raised the bulk of its $250 million in online fundraising there.

That type of ad inherently drives clicks and shares because it contains an explicit request. Facebook’s algorithms like clicks and shares, giving those ads a boost. “The stuff you do for fundraising is fun and engaging. It’s like, ‘win a dinner with Trump!’” said another former digital operative who worked with the Trump campaign.

The majority of the roughly $70 million the Trump campaign spent on Facebook was for so-called “direct response” ads that ask people to take an action like, for instance, donating. According to these sources, that meant team Trump was OK with spending more to reach critical voters, because they were more likely to donate.

'Trump was trying everything you could do on Facebook.'

GOP Digital Operative

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, ran a more balanced operation, splitting its money between fundraising ads, persuasion ads that tried to convince people to vote for Clinton, and get-out-the-vote ads that aimed to get people to the polls. “Our program was broader, with more video persuasion and mobilization ads targeting voters in battleground states in addition to fundraising,” says Jason Rosenbaum, Clinton’s former director of digital advertising.

The key difference is that the Trump campaign experimented with ads on Facebook in a way no campaign had ever done before, running up to 175,000 variations of the same ad in a single day. As one Republican digital operative who worked closely with the campaign put it, “Trump was trying everything you could do on Facebook. He had some ads that were less expensive media and also some that were more expensive media.”

In fact, according to one source, the cheapest ad the Trump campaign placed was one urging voters to text Trump to 88022, hardly an incendiary message, though it's not clear what other factors played into the cost. That one came with a CPM rate of less than 20 cents.

The chart Bosworth shared doesn’t reflect these lows or highs. Without visibility into how the content, targeting, and format of the ads correlates to pricing, it’s impossible to know whether all that Twitter outrage this week was justified.

Facebook has said it will launch an ad transparency tool that will house all of its political ads along with information on who’s paying for them, who they’re targeting, and how much it costs, among other things. But that won’t be ready until spring.

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