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How Trump won at Facebook to win the presidency

The president might appear be all about Twitter, but it was Facebook where the real campaigning went down, says his social media guru.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

At first glance, Brad Parscale might seem an odd choice to have run President Donald Trump's social media campaign during the 2016 election.

Parscale owned a web development and marketing agency before he joined up with Trump, which he thinks actually worked in his favor.

"This was the first political campaign I ever worked on in my life," Parscale said during a fireside chat at the Web Summit tech conference in Lisbon last week. "When the president hired me he'd never been in politics either, so I think he feels safe with me."

And while Trump may be best known for his extraordinary activity on Twitter, his campaign actually found Facebook to be critical to its victory. Facebook served both as a marketing tool and as a money-making machine, generating the majority of the $250 million raised by the campaign through online fundraising.

The manner in which Trump built his grassroots support and gained enough of a financial footing to compete in a presidential race underscores the impact that social media networks -- particularly a colossus like Facebook -- have on reshaping our political landscape. It's a reminder that even high-profile figures need to be savvy on social media if they want to thrive.

Republican presidential elect Donald Trump meets with

Brad Parscale became a key figure in the Trump campaign with no political experience.

The Washington Post/Getty

Facebook, for instance, gave Trump's campaign a lifeline in the early days. Parscale said that when he first came on board, there was a dearth of money, so he needed to create a grassroots fundraising campaign. "Facebook allowed us to do that in alarming numbers very fast," he said. The people they reached became the engine that generated the cash -- some of which was put straight back into Facebook itself.

Employees of the social media giant, which 2 billion people now visit at least once a month, were key to helping Parscale and his team work out how to use the platform to their advantage, and he was more than happy to sit back and be educated. "Who would know better about Facebook than Facebook?" he said.

Facebook staff weren't employed by the campaign, he added, but they were very much present. When you have hundreds of millions to spend on social media, "a lot of people show up at your offices," Parscale said. "Facebook wanted that money, Twitter wanted that money, Snapchat, Google... they were all wanting to have that money."

The Silicon Valley company denied that it offered any special treatment to the Trump campaign. "We offered identical support to both the Trump and Clinton campaigns, and had teams assigned to both," a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement. "Everyone had access to the same tools, which are the same tools that every campaign is offered."

Facebook added that the campaigns did not get to hand-pick the people from Facebook and that no Facebook employee was assigned full-time to either side.

A second secret weapon

Another key technology for the social media campaign was the automated generation of ads, with up to 150,000 pieces of content being produced on a peak day. The campaign deployed machine learning to quickly put up ads and to pull down spots that underperformed.

It's a tactic that worked, with the ads generating more than a dollar in contributions for every dollar spent on ads.

Parscale also talked about Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that's been subject to intense scrutiny over the role it played in the election and that faced questions from Congress in its Russia investigation.

He dismissed any notion of nefarious activity. "They did a lot of polling, they helped to build some directional arrows to help us place the money and made recommendations to the leadership," he said.

"People think we used trickery," he said. "It was about finding the right audience and where they were. What we found on Facebook was there's a lot of donors, a lot of these voters who hadn't been online now."

For the most part he stayed away from Twitter and didn't play any part in crafting the president's unique brand of personal messaging. "Mr. Trump was in control of his social media," Parscale said. "I think that is pretty obvious by now, and his focus was on Twitter."

Parscale's advice to Trump for a second term? "Keep tweeting," he said. "He talks directly to the people."

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