Facebook didn’t make Trump a phenomenon – its users did

It is Facebook’s vast population, not its algorithm or its curators, that has made Trump a social media force.

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If the increasingly-not-that-unthinkable happens, if TV screens around the world next January show a sea of red baseball caps swarming in triumph in front of the Capitol, one group of intelligent young liberals will be quieter and more aghast than all the rest. At 1 Hacker Way, in California’s Menlo Park, Facebook employees will sit dumbstruck in front of their monitors and think: what the hell did we do?

Mark Zuckerberg and his team are finding it increasingly hard not to take sides. Facebook’s political stance is carefully bipartisan, focusing only on the legislation that will help further the growth of its business. It has a PAC that donates almost equal (and for Facebook, trifling) amounts of money to both major parties, and Zuckerberg leads FWD.us, a lobbying group aimed at helping highly skilled workers achieve US citizenship. Increasingly, however, the Trump campaign is causing Facebook staff to express partisan opinions. At an internal Q&A on 4 March, one of the most popular questions submitted was: “What responsibility does Facebook have to prevent President Trump in 2017?”; in April, in his opening speech at Facebook’s F8 developer conference, Zuckerberg said he could “hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others”. Then, this month, a former journalist who had worked at Facebook as a “news curator” described the routine removal of right-wing news sources and topics from the site’s “Trending” news section.

The rise of Trump is a deeply uncomfortable issue for Facebook, because Facebook itself has been instrumental in his success. Trump is the first candidate in US electoral history not to depend upon mainstream media support, and he has this freedom because he has Facebook. According to the USA Today/Facebook Candidate Barometer, the Trump campaign generates 40 million Facebook interactions – likes, shares and comments – per week. This number is around three times the combined circulation of all 25 top-selling newspapers in America.

Trump’s success on Facebook is partly down to what, and how, he posts. On the podium, he is repetitious – he says everything three times – and he keeps to this pattern on social media. While other candidates post photos, videos and links, Trump favours status updates: blunt messages, delivered repeatedly and without qualification. The Trump Facebook page has posted more than ten times as many status updates as the Clinton page. By April, according to the Brookings Institution, the Trump page had posted nearly 800 status updates; in total, the posts by Trump’s Facebook page had received over 86 million likes. This number is 1.3 times the total votes cast for Obama in 2012.  

The message and the approach go some way to explaining Trump’s dizzying Facebook numbers, but the other half of the equation sits on the other side of the screen, in Facebook’s vast community of users. From July 2014 to January 2015 – prompted, perhaps, by the worry that their platform was amplifying populist voices – researchers at Facebook analysed how a set of over 10 million American users interacted with socially shared news. Their findings were both absolving and concerning: the “echo chamber” of social media does exist, but Facebook’s algorithm is not to blame. It is the users themselves, selecting views with which they agree and screening those they don’t – that’s you, clicking “hide post” when your aunt shares a Jan Moir column – who diminish “cross-cutting content”. Facebook is built to show us what we want to see. Once a user has affiliated with Trump, they will use it to reaffirm that stance, and the repeated messages of his campaign will aid them in a highly efficient way.

For the many Facebook workers who voted to ask their boss about their company’s “responsibility” to prevent Trump becoming president, this research would only have compounded the worry. Because while it must be tempting for a “news curator” to point the firehose of attention that a place in the Trending feed creates at a subject they feel deserves an extra push, it won’t, in the long run, make much difference. Whether or not Trending is edited, Facebook cannot engineer its users to unlike Donald Trump.

Will Trump’s success on Facebook translate into electoral victory? In 2008, Obama had about three times as many Facebook followers as John McCain; in 2012, he had around three times as many followers as Mitt Romney. Donald Trump currently has 2.2 times as many followers as Hillary Clinton. 

It is hard to say how seriously to take this, because social media is still growing too quickly to be a stable predictor. In 2012, Pew Research found that 55 per cent of Americans used social media – about equal to the voter turnout (54.9 per cent) that year. In 2016, 78 per cent of Americans use social media: this will be the first US election in which there are significantly more Facebook users than voters.

It will also be the first election in which over $1bn will be spent on social media. After the message and the medium, there is a third reason that Facebook is powerless to stop its own Trumpification: the money. Facebook, like Google, is an advertising company. Unlike the Guardian or Fox News, which people pay for on the understanding that they will edit their news feeds, Facebook is used for free, on the understanding that it won’t. Facebook’s aim is to be the channel through which the world accesses the internet, and a balanced, non-partisan position is crucial to this goal; you can’t be universal and take sides. That’s why Mark Zuckerberg is already inviting “leading conservatives and people from across the political spectrum” to visit him and be reassured, and it’s why Facebook will sponsor both the Democratic and Republican conventions in July  – effectively making a financial donation to the Trump campaign. Whatever the political views of its workers, if Facebook’s users support Trump then it will have no choice but to support them, because its users are all Facebook has to sell.