According to the FEC’s spending database, during the 2020 US presidential election, the Donald J. Trump campaign spent about 65% of their overall finances on companies and services that can be considered to be part of the influence industry – private firms who support the public communications of political campaigns. According to the data, these services were provided by 52 different companies. Most of the money spent is registered against vague line items such as “general consulting” and “digital advertising services”. Almost half of the companies lack sufficient public information online for full transparency and accountability, and most of those are largely unknown to citizens.
In this visual essay, we use the Donald Trump 2020 presidential campaign as a case study to define a basic scope of the influence industry.Find the visual essay here: https://sihangsun.github.io/influence_industry/
Almost no company brands itself as part of the influence industry, which makes identifying the companies difficult. Due to its shifting and dynamic nature, it's also hard to completely tie the industry to a few specific fields. We cannot, therefore, directly investigate all the companies that worked for a political campaign, but we can use a set of proxy terms – described below – to identify noteworthy and relevant firms in one of the few public databases of spending during elections.
We considered companies to be relevant to the influence industry if the spending data from the FEC shows that they provided data-driven influence services to a campaign. We classified spending on such services into three categories: “Data,” “Digital Advertising,” and “Consulting.” We developed a glossary of all the service terms related to the three categories from the data set and used it to screen out all the influence industry companies that worked for Trump's campaign.Click here to learn more about this method in the Data and Methods page of the project: https://sihangsun.github.io/influence_industry/method.html>
Using this method, we were able to identify more than 800 transactions made to 52 different companies by Trump's 2020 campaign. The total amount of these services is $503,477,192, which accounts for about 65% of the overall campaign spending.
Most of Trump's spending on influence companies seems to go through somewhat opaque channels. The most explicit channel – transactions with the keyword "DATA" – only represents 0.15% of all the spending. However, much more money was spent through "Consulting" and "Digital Advertising" channels. Trump spent about $9 million on consulting services that may involve the use of data, but still only accounted for about 1% of all spending. A whopping $493 million was spent on digital advertising by the Trump campaign. The amount represents 64% of all campaign spending.
Notably, rather than working with many companies, there were only four exclusive companies that received money from the Trump 2020 campaign committee for services related to digital advertising.
The four companies are:
In addition to the opaqueness of the spending channels, some of the companies are less transparent and even stay invisible to the public.
For example, one company we identified called American Made Media Consultants LLC, received almost $500 million from the Trump campaign for digital adverting related services. This company has very little public information available online, and most information is only available due to journalistic accounts. In fact, 24 of the 52 influence companies we identified from Trump's 2020 campaign spending do not have official websites. A lack of transparency makes it hard for them to be held accountable.
Use the interactive visualization tool in the last part of the project to learn more about the companies that played a role influencing voters in Trump's 2020 campaign and to further research and investigate the influence industry through those companies.
Find the interactive visualization tool here: https://sihangsun.github.io/influence_industry/
The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.
Sihang Sun is a student at Northeastern University pursuing a master's degree in Information Design and Data Visualization. He is particularly interested in storytelling through data visualization. He is exploring an interdisciplinary method to make sense of enormous amounts of data and better communicate the findings with skills in data analysis, design, communication, and coding. See more of his work at: sihangsun.myportfolio.com.