30 Oct 2020

Donald Trump’s ‘Project Alamo’: an insider speaks out

Leo Reyes had just graduated college in 2016 when he landed a plum job at one of San Antonio’s top digital marketing companies.

The company was called Giles Parscale. And the job was to make creative content for Donald Trump’s campaign for president.

For around seven months, he worked for Trump’s digital campaign director Brad Parscale, at the nondescript office building that was dubbed “Project Alamo”.

He says he produced hundreds of the messages the campaign posted on social media to encourage supporters to vote for Trump and deter those thinking of voting for Hillary Clinton.

“We didn’t go into details saying we need to be super villains with this thing. What we were being told is that we have to do our best to win. And if we have to deter your vote, then that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.

He claimed the messages the campaign created were often distortions of the truth.

He said they were “not necessarily lying, but like a stretch to reality and almost like I’m taking what you said, and moving it to fit my agenda”.

Trump’s 2016 digital strategy is widely credited with winning him the White House. The campaign pushed out millions of messages on social media, many of which were so-called “dark posts” which later vanished.

Mr Reyes told Channel 4 News he wasn’t involved in the targeting of messages. But he believes many were aimed at Black voters to dissuade them from voting for Hillary Clinton.

“The way I saw it, is that anti Hillary ads are going more to Black voters to get you to stop from voting, or not wanting to vote for her,” he said.

“At one point, I remember I went to a meeting and they were talking about how they’ve tried hard to win over the Black vote and win over most millennials and they couldn’t.

“So the only thing that they could do was shift their way of thinking, shift their focus. So, if you’re not voting for Hillary either you’re not voting, or you’re voting Libertarian or the Green Party at the time. And the way we thought about it is a vote for those two was a vote for us. As long as Hillary wasn’t getting the vote.

“So that’s kind of the idea behind that.”

Mr Reyes says about four in five of the ads he created were negative anti-Hillary messages.

“You find the weakness and you exploit it. So if the weakness is your opponent losing – instead of you winning – then you still win. That’s the idea. If you can’t win on merit, then, you’ve got to find a way for the people to beat your opponent.”

Mr Reyes, who supported the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, says he was deeply conflicted about some of the messages he created for Trump.

“One of the videos that I created was when Bernie Sanders switched over and decided to support Hillary. And I made a video that was kind of making him out to look like a hypocrite. and it got played on Hannity. I believe the Washington Post shared it.”

He says he couldn’t believe the impact the video had.

“The next day I go to work. I sit down for a few minutes, didn’t even touch my computer and I go into our break room. I was sitting there in the dark. Just like full of emotion, because I felt like I just completely went against everything that I believe in. For my job.”

Mr Reyes told Channel 4 News that staff from Facebook who were embedded in Project Alamo helped the campaign to maximise engagement with their video messages.

One method used by the campaign was a new feature on Facebook allowing video commercials to be shown full frame on mobile devices.

Mr Reyes told us: “We wanted the videos to be bigger. So we have more space to, for you to see like Trump talking, and then you’d have the subtitles.

“So Facebook came up with this idea of hey what if we filled the entire screen? What if when you’re scrolling, the entire screen gets filled up instead of you just seeing a certain portion of it. And they created that for us.”

Facebook told us: “We were developing vertical video formats in 2015 and rolled them out well before the 2016 election.”

Facebook declined to tell us exactly when the service was rolled out.

Mr Reyes told Channel 4 News he took the job because he needed to support his young son, who was just two years old at the time. He says he justified what he was doing because he didn’t believe Trump would win the election.

“I honestly didn’t think he was going to win. I think that’s partially what I was telling myself in order to get through that doubt in my mind saying that well Trump’s not gonna win anyways. It was like I was fighting myself internally, especially since I was a huge Bernie Sanders supporter.”

Nevertheless, Mr Reyes said he felt a sense of pride in his work when Trump secured victory in the election.

“When Trump won we literally said hey this bunch of kids got this done. Like these kids that just got out of college, made this happen. Whereas like you would have people that are working on Hillary’s campaign that had been doing politics their entire life and they still lost. So we thought that we actually did something. We actually succeeded at our first like endeavour out into the real world.

“Honestly when he won, and they named him the President I cheered. I cheered along with everybody else that was next to me . I thought it was great that I actually did something to almost change the face of the world. And that was a good feeling for me at the time until I really got a chance to think about it.”

Channel 4 News put Mr Reyes’ claims to the Trump campaign but did not receive a response.

Investigations Team: Job Rabkin, Guy Basnett, Ed Howker, Heidi Pett, Janet Eastham
News Production Team: Federico Escher, Millicent Teasdale, James Betteridge, Dan Martland