This past week, I read an article that was in my news feed (I’ll explain why in a moment) that talked about former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s campaign for United States Senate being “trolled” by a group of liberals that were swarming his page and interacting with all of his posts and comments using the “pride” rainbow button that Facebook has made available to people for Pride Month. I immediately burst out laughing. The people behind this tactic could not have chosen a less effective strategy. In fact, they might as well have donated a dollar to Roy Moore’s campaign every time they hit that button. Allow me to explain why. This will be a long post, but an educational one, so I encourage you to bear with me.
First, let me clarify: This is not an endorsement. This is not a political statement. This is a critique of a strategic tactic, which is my job as a social media and strategy consultant that works for political campaigns.
Now, to resume: Have you ever wondered why you see the posts in your news feed that you do? Why do you see some posts that were published two days ago before posts that were published half an hour ago? The explanation is very complicated, but most of it can be simplified.
Facebook uses an algorithm to determine the order in which you see all of the potential posts in your news feed. This algorithm assigns a numerical score to every piece of content on Facebook relative to you, and then displays the content in that order. The algorithm contains three primary components: Age, Affinity, and Interactions. Age is the amount of time that has passed since your post was published, although it is also somewhat impacted by the time since the post’s most recent interaction. This is why you can have an old post pop back up in your news feed when someone interacts with it. Affinity is how close the person that published the post is to you. Obviously, friends are closest, followed by friends of friends. But, beyond that, Facebook also mines an incredible amount of data in order to determine how close you are with each of your friends. If you don’t ever interact with the content that a particular friend publishes, you’ll eventually stop seeing any of their posts. Now, neither of these two things can easily and repetitively be manipulated by you to make your content go viral. However, the last factor stands out in that respect. Your post’s Interactions score is simply a tally of the number of likes, shares, and comments on the post. And, yes, this includes rainbow flags.
Let’s simplify this down even further, using completely fictional numbers to illustrate how this algorithm works. Let’s say that someone publishes a piece of content. A photo, video, status, etc. We’ll assign this post a base score of one hundred points for you. Now, for every minute that passes, this post loses a point. However, for every like, angry face, rainbow, share, comment, etc, this post gains a point. These two numbers are constant for everyone. Now, we’ll add a point for every time you’ve interacted with the other posts of the person that published it over the past 60 days. This score is unique to you. Your news feed is simply all of these posts displayed in descending order, updating dynamically. That’s why when you refresh your news feed, some of the same posts appear – their score has changed since you last loaded the page.
Let’s take three examples. Example one is a post that has been live for 15 minutes, has 5 interactions, three comments, two shares, and was published by your best friend, that you have engaged with 100 times in the past 60 days. This post’s Age score is 100-15, so 85. The Affinity score is 100, and the Interactions score is 10. Add these together, and the post’s score, relative to you, is 195.
Example two is a post that has been live for two days, but has two thousand interactions, five hundred comments, and 10,000 shares. However, it is from someone that you are not connected to. The post’s Age score would be 100 minus 1,440 minutes, so negative 1,340. The Affinity score is zero, and the interactions score is 12,500. Add these together, and the post’s score, relative to you, is 11,160.
Example three is a post that has been live for an hour. It has ten likes, 5 comments, and zero shares. It is by someone that you’ve only interacted with 5 times in the past 60 days. Subtract 60 from 100 for the Age score, add ten and five for the Interactions score, and add only five for the Affinity score to get a post score, relative to you, of only 60.
In this scenario, when you loaded your news feed for the first time, you would see post Two first, followed by post One, then post Three.
Now, obviously, these are not the actual numbers that are used. Different actions are weighted differently, and a large number of factors come into play that nobody besides the engineers know about. But this exercise should help you understand the basic concepts behind Facebook’s algorithm. If you’d like to learn more, or see a visual description of how all this works, check out this 10-minute video produced by Facebook that explains all of this in more depth.
Now, let’s apply what we just learned to this “trolling” incident involving Roy Moore. The actions of this group were designed to hurt Moore’s campaign and bring awareness to some of his more controversial views. Well, everybody that will be voting in the election already know his views on the issue of gay marriage, so that second strategy is already irrelevant. But the first strategy not only failed completely, these attempted troublemakers actually benefited Moore’s campaign greatly. Their plan backfired. If you apply the principles we just learned, what happened when this occurred? Using the math we used earlier, the algorithm scores of Roy Moore’s posts were increased by several hundred points each. And the primary score being affected is the Interactions score, so this impact is felt across the political spectrum, since these points are not relative to individual users. Now, I don’t have admin access to Roy Moore’s Facebook Page, but I can tell you exactly what happened. The reach of Roy Moore’s posts increased – exponentially! Not just to liberals, but to conservatives and independents, and without costing the campaign a dime. In order to achieve this without the “trolling,” Roy Moore would have had to purchase thousands of dollars worth of ads on Facebook. This is why I said earlier that every interaction this group made on the page was basically the same as donating a dollar.
What happened here is that these actions by this outside group caused Facebook’s algorithm to recognize this content as both high-quality and viral, since a large number of people were interacting with it. In turn, Facebook pushed this content out to a much wider audience, because Facebook wants to put the most relevant content in front of its users in order to keep them coming back. It drew a massive amount of attention to Roy Moore on Facebook. And not negative attention – just attention. Attention that every other candidate is having to pay for, but which this liberal group has happily donated to Roy Moore free of charge. If you go back and look through his posts, you’ll see that the number of positive interactions and comments has also spiked significantly since this tactic was employed – bringing new supporters into the folds of his campaign, while costing him zero votes. Remember, this was all done over an issue that literally every voter in this state already knows where Roy Moore stands on.
(Side note: political strategists actually use this concept as a tactic in campaigns at all levels. They’ll put together “Rapid Response Teams” consisting of volunteers that go out and make positive comments on their candidate’s posts every time content is published. Some less principled consultants and activists also organize these groups to launch negative attacks on opposing campaigns, but as explained here, that almost always backfires.)
Regardless of your position on this Senate race, or on gay marriage, this tactic was a total, colossal failure on the part of the liberal group that initiated it. This happened because the group did not fundamentally understand how Facebook works, and that the algorithms behind the social network would recognize their actions as positively reinforcing Roy Moore’s message, and his campaign. This liberal group has granted Roy More most likely tens of thousands of dollars worth of free press, new votes, free boosts on Facebook, grassroots donations, and volunteer signups. In fact, Roy Moore’s social media team is clearly well educated on these facts, as they have begun spending money to promote the negatively-slanted articles about Roy Moore and the trolling done by this liberal group. What might seem counter-intuitive suddenly makes sense when seen through the eyes of someone that understands how the back-end of Facebook works. Since this content is already seen as viral, and contains an extremely high base algorithm score, Facebook will charge Moore’s campaign far less per reach and per click to promote the article than it would other content from his page. This, along with the fact that these ads will be targeted to conservatives and will portray Moore as the victim of the scary, evil Left, will make the acquisition of page likes and volunteer sign-ups exponentially cheaper.
I applaud Roy Moore’s campaign staff for recognizing the strategic impact of this scenario, and taking proper advantage of it. I also applaud the liberal activists who spent an entire afternoon basically campaigning for one of the most far-right Republican elected officials in the entire country. If someone will pass along their contact info, I will be happy to direct them to all of my clients’ pages, so they can repeat their efforts.
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