How has President Trump influenced political campaigns

US election and media: The presidential makers

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The advertising on Facebook is to blame. That was, greatly shortened, what got stuck after the incumbent US President's surprise election victory in 2016. "Donald Trump won because of Facebook," wrote about that New York Magazine the day after the election. "It was a campaign of elaborate digital manipulation," attested the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the US President and his team.

This manipulation - allegedly - worked like this: By analyzing huge amounts of data, including Facebook likes, millions of psychological profiles are created that indicate how open, extroverted or neurotic individual users are. Based on these profiles, they are divided into small groups, which are then shown tailor-made Facebook ads that are likely to convince or mobilize them the most. Up to the color of the video subtitles, clips and advertisements were tailored to the psychological profiles. The name of the company that claimed to have helped Donald Trump to victory in this way has become synonymous with manipulation of the darkest kind: Cambridge Analytica.

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Michal Kosinski, who helped develop the psychological model on which the now insolvent British company built its system, warned against this form of microtargeting and called it a "bomb". * Whistleblower Christopher Wylie called it a "tool of psychological warfare". who in 2018 revealed that the company had illegally collected huge amounts of data from Facebook users. And a Netflix documentary in 2019 told the story of Cambridge Analytica as Trump's secret weapon under the title The great hack.

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In March 2020 wrote The New Yorker on Brad Parscale, who was in charge of the election campaign at the time, he "used social media to influence the 2016 election". And, "He's ready to do it again."

The belief that voters can be influenced by personalized campaigns is widespread. According to a representative survey by the opinion research institute Civey from 2018, 70 percent of Germans also share this view. But is it really true that Donald Trump owed his victory to social media? And what role are they playing this year?

In fact, Cambridge Analytica's influence was already being questioned at the time. "I think Cambridge Analytica is better at marketing than targeting," said Tom Dobber to the magazine The Verge. He is researching this at the Center for Politics and Communication in Amsterdam. The New York Timeseven reported that the company had not used its psychograms for the campaign of the Republican candidate.

And even if: How much personalized advertising can actually influence elections is not clear from a scientific point of view. A research group from Great Britain and Spain sees "significant effects" that microtargeting had on the 2016 election (CESifo Working Paper No. 8235: Liberini et al., 2020). Others, such as researchers from the University of Amsterdam, point out that the data situation is thin and the phenomenon has not been researched enough (Internet Policy Review, 6(4): Bodó et al., 2017). The company Facebook has announced that it will have its effect on the 2020 US election independently investigated.

Curd Knüpfer, junior professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute at the Free University of Berlin, warns against overestimating the importance of microtargeting. Among other things, he researches the media world in the USA and the influence of digital media on political processes. "I'm not saying that it has no effects. But I think that the choice will be made on Facebook is clearly exaggerated," he says.