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The Trump 2020 campaign is going after older people with immigration ads on Facebook

Trump’s campaign is spending 44 percent of its Facebook advertising budget to target users age 65 and up.

A man stands with a Trump 2020 sign near the president’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in July 2018.
A man stands with a Trump 2020 sign near the president’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in July 2018.
Katharine Lotze/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is probably scaring your grandma about immigrants on Facebook.

Trump’s campaign is spending 44 percent of its Facebook advertising budget to target users who are 65 and older, according to a report from Axios based on data from the political communications agency Bully Pulpit Interactive. That’s significantly more than the top 12 Democratic 2020 candidates, who are spending an average of 27 percent of their Facebook ad budgets on the over-65 crowd.

And the message Trump is using to appeal to Facebook users is a familiar one: immigration. According to Axios, he uses “nativist language around immigrants” in 54 percent of his ads. Democrats, on the other hand, are talking about fundraising and other policy issues, but not immigration. Bully Pulpit analyzed ad data from March 23 to April 5.

It’s not only the focus of Trump’s messaging that’s notable, but also its size. Trump is outspending his potential Democratic rivals on Facebook and Google ads in a big way, according to separate Bully Pulpit data released to Axios in March. For the first two and a half months of the year, Trump spent $4.5 million on Facebook and Google ads, seven and a half times more than the top-spending Democrat, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), spent on Facebook and Google ads.

The Trump campaign has made no secret of its Facebook-heavy focus. Brad Parscale, who was the digital director for Trump’s 2016 bid and is now his 2020 campaign manager, said in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes in October 2017 that Facebook “was the method” for the former reality television star’s surprise political rise.

“Facebook now lets you get to places — and places possibly that you would never go with TV ads,” he said. “Now I can find, you know, 15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for.”

In an interview with PBS’s Frontline in November 2018, Parscale again indicated that Facebook ads would be a major plank of Trump’s reelection bid. He added that changes Facebook made to make political advertising on the platform were “a gift,” because its political ads archive that lets anyone search and view ads means people “see all my ads for free.”

He also talked about the type of microtargeting the reelection campaign is likely doing in serving older people ads about immigration on Facebook right now:

“When you decide you’re going to run for president of the United States, now you have hard-matched data with consumer data, matched with voter history, matched with very comprehensive polling data from all over the country,” Parscale said.

By the time all those pieces are put together, then you can actually pull out an audience. You can say, ‘I want to find everybody in this portion of Ohio that believes that the wall needs to be built, that thinks that possibly trade reform needs to happen,’ and so we want to show them [an ad] on trade and immigration.”

Parscale called another Facebook ad tool, Lookalike Audiences, “one of the most powerful features of Facebook.” He said the tool allowed the campaign to expand its audience and find people they didn’t already know. “Facebook Lookalike Audiences are pretty amazing. I mean, it’s why the platform’s great.”

If you go to Facebook’s ad tools page, you can see the types of ads people are being served — and whom and where they’re going to. Tuesday morning, for example, I looked up one ad the campaign started running on April 14 that warns that “illegal aliens are coming across the Mexican border in record-breaking numbers” and that there were more than 100,000 arrests by Customs and Border Protection last month alone. Thus far, less than $100 has been spent on the ad, and it’s gotten fewer than 1,000 impressions. But 49 percent of the users it’s been shown to are 65 and over.

To be sure, the over-65 group isn’t the only one the Trump campaign is targeting, or even the biggest. According to Bully Pulpit, 51 percent of Trump’s political ad spent was targeted to people ages 36 to 64. Fifty-four percent of Democrats’ budgets went to that age group.

Both the Trump campaign and Democrats are spending the least amount of their Facebook ad budgets targeting people ages 18 to 35. Just 4 percent of the Trump Facebook ad spend is going there, and 19 percent among Democrats. But there’s also a lot of variation among candidates: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is spending 49 percent of his Facebook ad budget on young people, compared to just 8 percent for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Older people are also more susceptible to fake news on Facebook

Facebook is getting more popular among older people, as younger groups move to other apps, such as Instagram (which Facebook also owns). Older people are also likelier to spread fake news on Facebook, research shows.

A study from Princeton and New York University researchers published in Science Advances in January found that conservatives and people over 65 were disproportionately likely to share articles from fake news domains during the 2016 presidential election. Researchers also found that regardless of ideology, Facebook users over 65 shared almost seven times as many fake news articles as younger users.

Researchers didn’t identify why, specifically, older users were more susceptible to fake news, but they suggested it could be an issue with media literacy.

While the Trump campaign isn’t spreading fake news with its campaign ads on immigration, it may be pulling at a similar thread in targeting older people who could be more likely to take what they see on Facebook at face value. The strategy could be working.

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