Facebook is still reeling from the revelation that it hired an opposition research firm with close ties to the Republican party, but its relationship with Definers Public Affairs isn’t the company’s only recent contract work with deeply GOP-linked strategy firms.
According to sources familiar with the project, Facebook also contracted with Targeted Victory, described as “the GOP’s go-to technology consultant firm.” Targeted Victory worked with Facebook on the company’s Community Boost roadshow, a tour of U.S. cities meant to stimulate small business interest in Facebook as a business and ad platform. The ongoing Community Boost initiative, announced in late 2017, kicked off earlier this year with stops in cities like and Topeka, Kansas and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Facebook also worked with Targeted Victory on the company’s ad transparency efforts. Over the last year, Facebook has attempted to ward off regulation from Congress over ad disclosure, even putting forth some self-regulatory efforts to appease legislators. Specifically, it has dedicated considerable lobbying resources to slow any progress from the Honest Ads Act, a piece of legislature that would force the company to make retain copies of election ads, disclose spending and more. Targeted Victory, a digital strategy and marketing firm, is not a registered lobbyist for Facebook on any work relating to ad transparency.
On his company biography page, Targeted Victory founder and CEO Zac Moffatt describes his experience helping companies “enhance their brand and get their message out in the current political and media environment,” mentioning Facebook, FedEx and Gillette as corporate clients. The bio page appears to be one of the only public mentions of his work with Facebook and the company was not mentioned alongside Gillette and FedEx on his Linkedin page.
TechCrunch reached out to Facebook to ask if it also contracted with equivalent left-leaning groups or other political firms it was willing to disclose. The company declined to comment on its political contract work and on the nature of its work with Targeted Victory.
In July and September of this year, Facebook hosted members of Targeted Victory for panels on election integrity and ad transparency, as well as best practices for election season. It’s unclear if Facebook disclosed its financial relationship to the company at the time.
In March of 2017, a blog post by Targeted Victory mentioned that a new investment would “strengthen [Targeted Victory’s] already unmatched relationships with top teams at Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snapchat” indicating that the company had an established rapport with Facebook and other major tech companies at the time. TechCrunch contacted Targeted Victory about the nature of its work for this story but did not receive a reply.
Like Definers, Targeted Victory was founded by digital team members from Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign who formed their own companies in the election’s aftermath. As TechCrunch previously reported, Facebook’s communications team has a number of ties to Romney’s campaign and the company’s contract work with Definers arose out of those connections. Though the depth of Facebook’s work with Targeted Victory is not yet known, TechCrunch will continue to report what it learns.
Prior to Targeted Victory, Moffatt served as the digital director on the Romney campaign, founding his company after the campaign dissolved. Before working on the campaign, Moffatt worked for the Republican National Committee.
While the extent of Targeted Victory’s work with Facebook is not clear, Moffatt’s firm provides a range of potentially relevant services. On its website, Targeted Victory advertises “public affairs, advertising, media planning, fundraising and reputation management.” The company also offers services in online political advertising and voter targeting as dual areas of expertise.
Moffatt’s opposition of regulation efforts targeting online political advertising is well known. In an interview with Axios last year, Moffatt criticized congressional interest in regulating political ads. “No government regulator, and very few members of the media, understand how these mediums are being leveraged by campaigns,” Moffatt said, dismissing potential regulation for tech platforms as “a knee-jerk reaction.”
Late last year, Moffatt suggested that Facebook’s efforts to self regulate could boost the social giant’s profits. Specifically, that Facebook’s decision to ask political groups to publish the ads they buy could generate even more interest in ad buys as firms see what their rivals are up to and ratchet up their spending.
Facebook’s visible political money
The world’s largest social network might be regarded as a just another liberal Silicon Valley stronghold by critics on the right, but Facebook’s financial disclosures and contract work tell a fairly different story. Facebook’s lobbying and federal political contributions in recent years depict a company with financial heft doled out to both the left and the right. Facebook’s federal lobbyists and political donations are registered in searchable public databases, but, as with any company, that data only reveals the surface layer of political relationships.
Over the last three years, Facebook’s registered lobbying expenditures were mostly spent on large, uncontroversial bipartisan firms, a few smaller groups with specific partisan ties and a smattering of other issue-specific specialists. For example, Facebook brought on a Democratic former Senate chief of staff for lobbying related to “data security, online privacy, and elections integrity” and a firm called Capitol Tax Partners to lobby around tax reform.
Historically, Facebook’s donations to Democratic candidates outweigh those to Republicans, though the numbers approached parity in the 2012 and 2014 election cycles. On the other hand, Facebook’s PAC, established in 2011, favored Republican candidates in three of the last four national election cycles, tipping Democratic by a margin of 1% in 2018. In 2016 Facebook’s PAC gave 44% of contributions to Democrats and 55% to Republican candidates.
At Facebook, Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan “oversees all corporate political activity, including lobbying activities and political contributions.” A prominent Republican, Kaplan also oversees Facebook’s state level contributions, collected here, with the help of members of the company’s Public Policy, Legal and Communications departments. Kaplan made headlines in September when he sat in support of Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual violence and later confirmed. Following the confirmation, Kaplan and his wife hosted a party for Kavanaugh.
Making amends with conservatives
It’s not clear when Facebook’s relationship with Targeted Victory began and whether Facebook has ramped up relationships with conservative consultants in recent years or held them steady.
In May 2016, Moffatt attended a high profile meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and 15 other prominent conservatives. Facebook ostensibly organized the meeting to mend fences with Republicans who were criticizing the social giant for a perceived bias against conservatives.
“I know many conservatives don’t trust that our platform surfaces content without a political bias,” Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post following the meeting. “I wanted to hear their concerns personally and have an open conversation about how we can build trust.”
After the meeting, Moffatt remarked that anyone who didn’t see Facebook’s bias against conservative voices, part of a broader perceived trend in left-leaning Silicon Valley, “is completely missing the larger picture.”
In spite of the Facebook’s apparent financial ties to some of the GOP’s most closely held strategic groups, its Republican-helmed D.C. office and its contributions to candidates on both the left and right, criticisms that Facebook operates with a left-leaning bias remain a familiar chorus.
For his part, Moffatt was cautiously optimistic following the 2016 meeting with Sandberg and Zuckerberg, noting that “he would actually commend Facebook for being the only one of the major tech groups in Silicon Valley that’s willing to have conversations like this.”
One of the inventors of the newly granted patent I am writing about was behind one of the most visited Google patents I’ve written about, from Ross Koningstein, which I posted about under the title, The Google Rank-Modifying Spammers Patent It described a social engineering approach to stop site owners from using spammy tactics to raise the ranking of pages.
This new patent is about targeted advertising at Google in paid search, which I haven’t written too much about here. I did write one post about paid search, which I called, Google’s Second Most Important Algorithm? Before Google’s Panda, there was Phil I started that post with a quote from Steven Levy, the author of the book In the Plex, which goes like this:
They named the project Phil because it sounded friendly. (For those who required an acronym, they had one handy: Probabilistic Hierarchical Inferential Learner.) That was bad news for a Google Engineer named Phil who kept getting emails about the system. He begged Harik to change the name, but Phil it was.
What this showed us was that Google did not use the AdSense algorithm from the company they acquired in 2003 named Applied Semantics to build paid search. But, it’s been interesting seeing Google achieve so much based on a business model that relies upon advertising because they seemed so dead set against advertising when then first started out the search engine. For instance, there is a passage in an early paper about the search engine they developed that has an appendix about advertising.
If you read through The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, you learn a lot about how the search engine was intended to work. But the section about advertising is really interesting. There, they tell us:
Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine, one of the top results for cellular phone is “The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention”, a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web [Page, 98]. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.
So, when Google was granted a patent on December 26, 2017, that provides more depth on how targeted advertising might work at Google, it made interesting reading. This is a continuation patent, which means the description ideally should be approximately the same as the original patent, but the claims should be updated to reflect how the search engine might be using the processes described in a newer manner. The older version of the patent was filed on December 30, 2004, but it wasn’t granted under the earlier claims. It may be possble to dig up those earlier claims, but it is interesting looking at the description that accompanies the newest version of the patent to get a sense of how it works. Here is a link to the newest version of the patent with claims that were updated in 2015:
Associating features with entities, such as categories of web page documents, and/or weighting such features
Inventors: Ross Koningstein, Stephen Lawrence, and Valentin Spitkovsky
Assignee: Google Inc.
US Patent: 9,852,225
Granted: December 26, 2017
Filed: April 23, 2015
Features that may be used to represent relevance information (e.g., properties, characteristics, etc.) of an entity, such as a document or concept for example, may be associated with the document by accepting an identifier that identifies a document; obtaining search query information (and/or other serving parameter information) related to the document using the document identifier, determining features using the obtained query information (and/or other serving parameter information), and associating the features determined with the document. Weights of such features may be similarly determined. The weights may be determined using scores. The scores may be a function of one or more of whether the document was selected, a user dwell time on a selected document, whether or not a conversion occurred with respect to the document, etc. The document may be a Web page. The features may be n-grams. The relevance information of the document may be used to target the serving of advertisements with the document.
I will continue with details about how this patent describes how they might target advertising at Google in a part 2 of this post.
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Hackers have reportedly targeted US energy utilities, and may be laying the groundwork for blackouts. But they may yet be a long way from that goal.
Social media and Super Bowl go together like Budweiser and Doritos. In the lead up to the big game, there are millions of mentions on Facebook. People talk about the commercials, recipes for Super Bowl parties, and some even talk about the teams participating in this year’s game.
Facebook recently set up a special digital detector that will locate all of these mentions, then add the mentioners to a growing list of potential Super Bowl targets. And it’s all happening in real time so savvy marketers can take advantage of any sudden trends like a response to a Super Bowl power outage or a particularly scandalous Carls Jr. commercial.
TV might have more, highly engaged eyeballs but only social media has the ability to change direction on the fly and that’s important when you’re dealing with a live event.
What’s really intriguing about Facebook’s plan is that it delivers not only football fans, but more importantly, those one-Sunday a year fans who wouldn’t normally be paying attention. And since it’s already an option for Facebook advertisers, there’s still plenty of time to persuade those Super Bowl widows to read your book or go dress shopping while hubby watches the game.
Of course, all of this highly targeted advertising doesn’t come cheap. I doubt it will come in anywhere close to the cost of producing and airing a Super Bowl ad but it will likely be out of reach for your average, small business.
At least Facebook advertisers will be able to see (or not see) a direct uptick in business after buying an ad. You can’t say that for most Super Bowl ads. There have been at least eight companies who have folded since buying their Super Bowl ads. And for many more, the fame is fleeting. The even bigger question is this: have you ever bought anything as a direct result of a Super Bowl ad?
Whether or not the cost of a Super Bowl ad is worth it is highly debatable, so let’s go this way instead: instead of sinking all of your cash into a 30-second ad, you could have used that same budget to make a full-length movie. Doritos 8: Revenge of the Potato Chip.
What would you do with $ 4.5 million dollars?