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Bloomberg’s debate performance shows that Facebook ads will only get you so far

Bloomberg’s debate performance shows that Facebook ads will only get you so far


Learning the limits of a massive digital ad buy

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Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is shown on a screen during a debate watch party at the candidate’s field office on Wednesday in the Brooklyn borough of New York City
Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is shown on a screen during a debate watch party at the candidate’s field office on Wednesday in the Brooklyn borough of New York City
Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

As of Tuesday, Michael Bloomberg had spent $233 million on digital and television ads. This spending purchased him, according to an impressive visualization from the Washington Post, 30,000 digital ads a minute. The billionaire candidate for the Democratic nomination has spent more on advertising than every other Democratic candidate combined. Bloomberg has also spent much more than President Trump, who has invested a relatively paltry $19 million in digital and TV ads.

One view of the 2016 election is that it was won by the candidate who had the superior mastery of Facebook — Trump, whose campaign did a now-legendary job of creating and iterating on direct-response ads that built up his email list and donor rolls while also continuously serving up red meat to his fan base. If you hold that view, you might look at Bloomberg’s campaign and wonder if this cycle’s Facebook power user and assume he was about to walk away with the nomination.

Bloomberg’s spending raised concerns among more progressive Democrats, who worried that a general election in which two extremely wealthy men competed against one another largely on the basis of their spending power represented another step down the road to authoritarian plutocracy. These concerns were amplified by Bloomberg’s shameless use of influencer marketing, which — thanks to Facebook’s rather confused rules on the subject — arguably allows him to skirt transparency and fact-checking requirements.

All of which made Wednesday’s Democratic debate, in which Bloomberg squared off against his rivals for the first time, feel like a critical moment. Would this be the stage on which Bloomberg, flush with cash and dominating social platforms and TV advertising, steamroll his rivals?

It would not be.

Bloomberg hammered,” read the headline in ... Bloomberg. Here are (brave!) reporters Craig Gordon and Gregory Korte:

He spent most of the debate on the defensive, from attacks by Warren but also moderates Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar who all took turns taking swipes at the former mayor. He was too busy defending his record to talk it up much, and there were only flashes of the straight-talking candidate familiar to New Yorkers who made him mayor three times, when he was a Republican who won in the heavily Democratic city.

It was the first time many Americans saw Bloomberg live on a debate stage, and not just in his ubiquitous television ads on which he has spent more than $400 million, a record in a presidential campaign. There was a wide gap between the smooth, confident candidate portrayed in those ads and the less sure-footed and at times irritable candidate on the debate stage.

“Let me finish,” he said several times as the debate intensified. “What am I, chicken liver?” he added when he couldn’t get attention from the moderators.

It was indeed the opinion of the other candidates on stage, and possibly the moderators, and definitely the people I happened to be watching the debate with, that Bloomberg was chicken liver. This opinion was heightened by what BuzzFeed characterized, accurately, as “savage takedowns” from the other Democrats. (The takedowns on Twitter were, as you may have seen, even more savage.)

Of course, it’s all just talk until the next primary, which is set for Saturday in Nevada, and which Sen. Bernie Sanders is favored to win. But the real test will come March 3rd — Super Tuesday — when 14 states hold primaries. National polls suggest that Sanders is in the lead. It seems increasingly plausible that after March 3rd, Sanders will be the presumptive nominee — and the entire story about Bloomberg, platforms, and money will be a footnote in history.

Which isn’t to say that platforms won’t play a big role in the election. Political consultants I’ve spoken with say they are likely to play an outsized role, particularly in how less informed voters — think white working class men in the Midwest — get their news.

But after this week’s events, if Michael Bloomberg is to play a role, it seems increasingly likely that it won’t be as a candidate.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

🔼 Trending up: TikTok rolled out a series of videos where influencers encourage people to get off their phones and go outside. It shows that TikTok is trying to avoid some of the mistakes of certain other highly addictive social apps.

🔽 Trending down: The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has opened an investigation into Google for pregnancy discrimination against an employee. The employee said her supervisor made discriminatory remarks against pregnant women and that the company retaliated against her with poor performance reviews.


Russia is interfering in the 2020 US presidential election, intelligence officials say. And you’ll never guess who they’ve endorsed! Here are Adam Goldman, Julian E. Barnes, Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos in the New York Times:

Intelligence officials warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected, five people familiar with the matter said, in a disclosure that angered Mr. Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.

Twitter is experimenting with adding brightly colored labels directly beneath lies and misinformation posted by politicians and public figures. The move is part of a new policy to target misinformation, which the company plans to roll out on March 5th, reports NBC’s Ben Collins. We’ll see!

In this version, disinformation or misleading information posted by public figures will be corrected directly beneath the tweet by fact-checkers and journalists who are verified on the platform, and possibly other users who will participate in a new “community reports” feature, which the demo claims is “like Wikipedia.” [...]

The demo features bright red and orange badges for tweets that have been deemed “harmfully misleading,” in nearly the same size as the tweet itself and prominently displayed directly below the tweet that contains the harmful misinformation.

One thing Twitter says it would label as manipulated media: this Bloomberg tweet based on footage from last night’s debate. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)

Bernie Sanders suggested that Russian bots could be behind some of the vicious tweets from his Twitter fan base. Disinformation experts say that charge lacks evidence, and is irresponsible. (Sam Stein / Daily Beast)

Nevada Democrats say they’re worried about Saturday’s caucus. The group had originally planned to use the app at the heart of the Iowa caucus debacle. They say not to expect results immediately. (William Turton and Gregory Korte / Bloomberg)

The Trump administration is siding with Oracle in a pivotal Supreme Court battle with Google over whether the search giant flouted copyright law when it copied 11,500 lines of Oracle’s code more than 10 years ago. Oracle founder CEO just threw a big fundraiser for the president. Politics — sometimes it’s that easy! (Emily Birnbaum / The Hill)

Some Oracle employees walked off the job over that fundraiser, in the latest sign that employee activism is spreading throughout the industry. (Nico Grant / Bloomberg)

Five takeaways from the Department of Justice’s Section 230 hearing this week. Facebook and Google are getting lots of attention; Amazon and Airbnb, not so much. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)

A man filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against YouTube after trolls repeatedly uploaded the video of his daughter’s murder. “The complaint alleges that YouTube misrepresents how much violent content is on the site, and fails to tell users that the responsibility to get videos of victims’ deaths taken down is on them — and most often, on the families of the victims themselves.” (Samantha Cole / Vice)

Google used to encourage employees to “act like owners.” Now the company appears to be clamping down on many forms of employee activism. Here’s a long magazine piece about what happened to some of the employees who spoke out. (Noam Scheiber and Kate Conger / New York Times Magazine)

Political ads are flooding streaming services like Hulu and Roku, revealing loopholes in federal election laws. Today, nothing requires these digital providers to disclose whom the ads target, unlike with traditional broadcasters. (Tony Romm / The Washington Post)

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform sent Amazon a letter demanding answers about Ring’s partnerships with governments and police departments. They also asked for information about Ring’s data collection policies. (Alfred Ng / CNET)

How conservatives made inroads at Facebook. This story largely rehearses things we already know, but it contains this good quote: “Facebook does not speak Republican. ... This is what they know about Republicans: Tell them ‘yes’ or they will hurt us.” (Craig Timberg / Washington Post)

Facebook’s manager of global affairs and governance spoke about the questions and tradeoffs surrounding the Oversight Board. (Berkman Klein Center / Medium)

Florida Republicans’ Facebook page had a manager who was apparently based in Turkmenistan. At least until these reporters started making inquiries. (Eric Levai and Scott Stedman / Forensic News)

The Chinese government instructed tech companies Alibaba and Tencent to develop a color-coded system to classify people based on their health conditions and travel history. The move is part of China’s attempts to control the coronavirus outbreak as people begin to return to work. (Liza Lin / The Wall Street Journal)


The most popular YouTube videos about the coronavirus are being made in India. Many contain a mixture of hoaxes and half-truths, making them difficult to fact-check. Ryan Broderick and Pranav Dixit from BuzzFeed report:

“Most Indians coming online for the first time start by streaming YouTube videos because it’s free,” Rebelo said. She said that most fact-checking efforts in India are only being done in English and Hindi, so things are even more complicated for videos being created in regional languages. It’s also hard to fact-check videos that mix truth and hoax freely together.

“It’s difficult to debunk a video with half-truths. A lot of it is harmless advice, but none of the videos actually tell you to go to a doctor, which is what you should do,” she said.

This mixture of false and true is exactly what characterizes the seven-minute Hindi-language coronavirus explainer by Wonderful Secrets of the World. Halfway into it, the narrator makes the false claim that “Chinese people have a huge appetite for dog meat, cat meat, snake meat, bird’s nest soup, and bat soup. Scientists say this virus has spread through bats.”

Twitter launched a new feature that makes it easier to thread multiple tweets together. Now users can now link tweets while composing them. (Chance Miller / 9To5Mac)

On-demand therapy apps like Better Help are making mental health care more accessible. But they’re also largely unregulated. That’s allowing them to share potentially sensitive user data with third-party services like Facebook, Google, and Snapchat. (Molly Osberg and Dhruv Mehrotra / Jezebel)

Quinn Norton talks about what it’s actually like to get canceled. Despite conventional wisdom that no one truly loses their career over tweets, Norton describes a story that still has no happy ending. (Quinn Norton / Empty Wheel)

Facebook pulled out of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco over coronavirus concerns. (Salvador Rodriguez / CNBC)

Facebook security prevented a former employee of Cambridge Analytica from entering its New York headquarters for a happy hour last week. The move raised questions about the scope of the social media giant’s security blacklist and its policy toward people associated with the infamous data firm. (Joseph Bernstein / BuzzFeed)

Women in Cambodia are using Facebook Messenger to contact family planning organizations to get advice on abortions and sexual health. (Gina Rushton / BuzzFeed)

Julie Zhuo, a 14-year Facebook veteran who served as vice president of product design, left to start a new firm with another Facebooker.

Plant influencers are rising in popularity on Instagram. So are pricey rare plant scams like the one described here (Arielle Pardes / Wired)

This website creates karaoke songs out of any YouTube video. Youka, short for “YouTube to karaoke,” isolates vocals from tracks and pulls lyrics from sites online. (Dami Lee / The Verge)

And finally...

Just when I was starting to think email was the last good platform, here comes Christopher Miller with this story in BuzzFeed:

Protests and clashes with riot police have broken out in several places after a mass email claiming to be from Ukraine’s health ministry spread false information that there were five cases of coronavirus in the country, on the same day a plane carrying evacuees from China arrived. Protesters have smashed the windows of buses carrying evacuees and set fire to makeshift barricades.

But the email, sent to the Ministry of Health’s entire contact list, had actually originated from outside Ukraine, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said in a statement. Only two Ukrainians have been infected with the coronavirus and they are aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan, and they’ve already recovered.

I trust that the Department of Justice will be announcing hearings about email safety momentarily.

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