Facebook fans of Republican figures targeted in state agency mar - WSMV Channel 4

Facebook fans of Republican figures targeted in state agency marketing campaign

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More than half of the money a state agency has spent on Facebook ads targets supporters of Tennessee’s top Republican politicians, with none spent on Democrats.

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development is to attract businesses to the Volunteer State, as well as to let the community know what’s going on.

One of several marketing strategies involves paying for ads on Facebook.

What pops up in a user’s newsfeed may seem random, but Facebook can target users based on interests.

And if you “like” certain officeholders, there’s a good chance you’ll see updates from the TDECD Facebook page.

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development is a nonpartisan state agency, except they’ve paid more than $18,000 to target people who “like” Gov. Bill Haslam, Sen. Bob Corker or Sen. Lamar Alexander. Not a dime was spent on targeting fans of Democrats.

That fact troubles Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

“I think the real question is more so, who’s not getting the information who deserves to get the information?” Oppenheimer said.

The Channel 4 I-Team checked with various state agencies including the Tennessee Departments of Commerce and Insurance, Transportation, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Correction, Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Safety, Health, and Children’s Services.

None of the agencies paid for Facebook ads or sought fans of political figures.

The Department of Tourist Development pays for Facebook ads that target people who live outside Tennessee, according to assistant commissioner Brian Wagner.

Spokesman Adam Ghassemi said the Secretary of State’s Office once paid $400 to promote a smartphone app that encourages voting.

Another department that pays for Facebook content is the Department of Agriculture. But the agency keeps its targets to agriculture-related topics, including “barbecue grills,” “poultry” and “beef,” according to a list provided by spokeswoman Corinne Gould.

So why would an agency that’s interested in developing businesses and creating jobs not cast a wide net to garner fans of all political parties?

The I-Team sat down with TDECD Commissioner Randy Boyd.

“Should politics be involved in a department that’s supposed to be apolitical?” asked reporter Alanna Autler.

“Politics is a pretty broad word,” Boyd said. “We have to work with the legislature and the legislature is always creating new legislation affecting things we do, and they are political. So in that sense, the politics of new laws and legislation do affect what our development and any department does.”

After filing an open records request, the I-Team reviewed ads dating back three years, when the practice started.

The department utilizes various targets, including job titles, education level, age range, and geographic location and interests.

The targeted interest that appeared most was “Bill Haslam,” followed by “Bob Corker, economic development, Bill Haslam or Lamar Alexander,” and “Bob Corker or Bill Haslam.”

Many of the ads pushed for more Facebook likes. Others were more specific, such as a post around Valentine’s Day 2014 that targeted users who like “Bill Haslam or chocolate.”

But of all the metrics the department used, none mentioned Democrats.

“I think the blatancy of this may be a little different. Probably the thought is, no one is really going to find out about this sort of targeting,” Oppenheimer said.

The professor said the strategy also resembles microtargeting, a tactic used during political campaigns to reach voters.

“It looks like something a campaign or somebody who’s thinking of running for office [would do],” Oppenheimer said. “It’s an attempt to get your message out and manage what you’re doing and who you are.”

Political watchers say there’s talk in Republican spheres about Commissioner Boyd running for governor.

George Korda, a political commentator based in East Tennessee, said no one would be too surprised if Boyd made a campaign announcement.

“He’s in a perfect position,” Korda said. “Because everyone is talking about him, he’s not talking about himself.”

“Do you plan on running for higher office?” Autler asked Commissioner Boyd.

“I don’t have any plans right now. I’m not closing any doors, but right now there’s not a plan,” Boyd replied. “The day I decide to do something else is the day I have to quit this job. I don’t believe you should be doing one job while campaigning for another job.”

“Is there any way whatsoever that this strategy is a way to get the name of the commissioner to Republican voters in advance of some sort of campaign?” Autler said, referring to Commissioner Boyd and his predecessor, Bill Hagerty, who over saw the department until December 2014.

“To my knowledge, Commissioner Hagerty never shared that with me, nobody in my department’s ever shared that with me,” Boyd said. “I think the logic they had is that they wanted to reach all 95 counties and this was an easy way to do it.”

Boyd also emphasized the Facebook strategy of targeting statewide officeholders started in 2013, two years before he took over the department from Hagerty.

In fact, more than half of the ads with targets relating to political figures appeared before 2015.

Boyd said Haslam, Corker and Lamar touch all 95 counties, which makes for a huge following.

Tennessee is a Republican state, so the green follows the red.

“The strategy would not be Republican versus Democrat. We wouldn’t think of it that way,” Boyd said. “It’s how do we reach more entrepreneurs, more community leaders, how do we reach more business leaders?”

Compared to departments of its kind, TDECD boasts one of the most popular Facebook pages in the country – second only to its counterpart in Arizona.

The agency has also won numerous awards for its ad campaigns and video production, including three TELLY Awards it won this year alone, which honor local TV commercials and programs.

In a phone interview, former commissioner Bill Hagerty said the premise anyone was trying to get their name out before Republican voters is wrong and inaccurate.

Hagerty emphasized that microtargeting is also used in business marketing, not just politics.

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