October 18, 2021

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Trump’s deluge of Facebook ads have a curious absence: coronavirus

As the reality of the coronavirus crisis took hold in the US, Donald Trump’s Facebook campaign remained focused on a different “crisis” – the supposed threat of immigrants entering the US through the southern border.

Related: Facebook to remove misleading Trump ‘census’ ads

Trump’s re-election campaign has made no mention of the coronavirus pandemic in its Facebook ads to date, even as the outbreak has killed hundreds of Americans, infected tens of thousands and placed more than a third of the country’s population under “stay-at-home” orders. Trump’s campaign has spent about $1.34m on 18,982 ads that were shown to Facebook users at least 58m times since 1 March, a Guardian analysis of the Facebook political ad archive found.

The Trump campaign’s silence on coronavirus on Facebook stands in contrast to Trump’s real-life behavior. The president has been tweeting non-stop about the topic for weeks, and has recently taken to holding daily, marathon press briefings to discuss the pandemic and the administration’s response.

<span class="element-image__caption">A Trump campaign ad from March 2020.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Facebook</span>
A Trump campaign ad from March 2020. Photograph: Facebook

Building a wall on the US-Mexico border was the most common political issue mentioned in those ads, followed by attacks on Democratic party leaders and presidential candidates, as well as the news media.

“They want open borders; they want crime,” Trump says of Democrats in a video clip accompanying a typical immigration-themed ad. On 13 March – the same day that the global death toll passed 5,000 and Trump declared a national emergency – the campaign launched a tranche of advertisements declaring “The Do-Nothing Democrats’ open border’s agency is morally reprehensible” and stating, “I must put the safety of Americans above everything else”.

However, the majority ( 75%) of the 58m ad impressions received by Trump campaign ads since 1 March went to ads that made no mention of any political issue, beyond support for Trump. These include include an offer for a “2020 Trump Gold Card Membership” for a $35 campaign donation; contests to win a signed hat or meal with Melania Trump; and various Trump campaign products, such as “Official Space Force” merchandise, the “OFFICIAL Trump Pence Keep America Great Dog Collar”, St Patrick’s Day-themed merchandise and plastic straws.

<span class="element-image__caption">Trump campaign ads featuring ‘Black Voices for Trump’.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Facebook</span>
Trump campaign ads featuring ‘Black Voices for Trump’. Photograph: Facebook

The campaign also ran ads designed to appeal to two constituency groups: African Americans and Indian Americans.

A series of “Black Voices for Trump” campaign ads began running on 11 March. The ads feature Diante Johnson, the founder and president of the Black Conservative Federation, David J Harris Jr, a black conservative author and podcaster, and Cecelia S Johnson delivering a generic fundraising pitch for Trump. The ads also encourage supporters to sign up for campaign text messages by texting ‘WOKE’ to the Trump campaign SMS number.

The ads appealing to Indian Americans began running in late February to coincide with Trump’s visit to India. They feature photographs of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, with messages such as:

  • “Thank you for all your contributions to our culture and traditions that have made to the United States [sic]. Americans are eager to strengthen the ties between our two people. Our economy has never been better, and the United States is eager to build a strong partnership with India.”

  • “Indian Americans are titans of business, masters of the arts, and innovate technology like few others. Your contributions have strengthened our culture and economy. I will always fight for YOU!”

These advertisements do not ask for donations, but instead link to a dedicated page on Trump’s campaign website entitled Namaste Trump. The campaign investment in both sets of constituency ads was relatively small, and they received less than 1% of the total impressions for all of Trump’s campaign ads in March.

<span class="element-image__caption">A Trump campaign ad offering a Trump Gold Card</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Facebook</span>
A Trump campaign ad offering a Trump Gold Card Photograph: Facebook

Though Trump has ignored the coronavirus outbreak in his Facebook campaigning, the Trump campaign did send one SMS message about the pandemic to its supporters on 12 March. The text message included a link to a “Coronavirus update from Team Trump” which read in part: “The safety, security, and health of the American People is President Trump’s top priority right now. With the help of the White House Task Force, the Trump Administration is leading an aggressive and comprehensive effort to stop the spread of the Coronavirus.”

The message also encouraged recipients to visit the website coronavirus.gov, though the hyperlink was broken.

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