Without social media, would Donald Trump be President? He doesn’t think he would, and uncharacteristically for him, he’s probably right.
The power of digital politics has developed in a big way over the past 16 years – since the Democrat nominee, Howard Dean, was credited with creating the first ever digitally influenced campaign in 2004. The possibilities of online campaigning have snowballed since that youthful, innocent time of the internets infancy, and we now enter the latest election race with it being as important as ever, especially thanks to the current coronavirus crisis keeping voters and politicians apart, and putting campaigns on hold.
More people will be online than ever before – more than the 55% of the US adult population who went online to receive news and information about the 2008 election. More than the 55% of registered voters who watched videos online on the election in 2012. More than even the 62% of adults got their news from social media in the 2016 race.
The Digital Democrats
The Democratic Primary process demonstrated how much candidates value digital platforms, with billionaire Michael Bloomberg budgeting $100 million for digital attack ads against Trump in swing states alone, and at one point spent $825,000 in one day on targeted Facebook ads. Bloomberg even paid influencers to post support for him on their social media channels and paid popular Instagram accounts to post Bloomberg themed memes.
Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign was really the social star though, and shone through in both his 2016 and 2020 campaigns as an innovative campaigner via digital platforms. He came out of nowhere in 2016 against the household name of Hillary Clinton to build a powerful, enduring brand and platform to showcase his ideas, bringing in an especially young and energised base of supporters.
Consistently live streaming his speeches across all platforms, building an app to help transform digital supporters into real world volunteers, breaking down his policy positions on easy to understand websites, seeing a subreddit become the largest Reddit community for a Presidential campaign (500,000+)… the list goes on and on as to what the grassroots campaign achieved and the movement it has inspired going forward.
Biden vs Trump
However, It was eventually Joe Biden who came out on top in the Democratic race, the old pal of the first internet President himself, Barack Obama.
Biden’s digital director, Rob Flaherty, has pushed the idea that while of course, attacking Trump will be a large part of the campaign (and something the social media algorithms would reward), they will also be seeking in large part to highlight the goodness of Biden in comparison.
In this vain, the Biden campaign has begun a new digital campaign in which the former Vice President digitally responds to personal letters written to him about the publics concerns. The series, called “Sincerely Joe” explains that “Americans are longing for empathetic leadership and a president who listens to and understands their problems… “Sincerely, Joe” is a conversation with the American people about the challenges they face, the values we share, and the progress we can make if we stand united.”
The stark contrasts between this description and Trump’s way of working are clear and exactly what Biden’s campaign will seek to highlight, with the Sincerely Joe idea potentially being rolled out in video or phone-call format in the future.
However, turning Biden – a man who served several decades as a politician before the internet even became a thing – into a viral sensation, will be a tough task. Especially up against the formidable, media savvy, Twitter-addicted Trump, and his powerful digital spending and strategy, directed by the man who helped win his 2016 campaign, Brad Parscale.
Trump has the advantage of the Presidential platform and a base of supporters currently seeing their support and evangelisation of their leader gamified into a dopamine boosting app that rewards their loyalty and social sharing activity. This app will help nurture the echo chamber into an echo dungeon with no escape – a place where Trump supporters can get all their news directly from the campaign, with no reliance on the critical mainstream media. A superb idea indeed for Trump, and one we will explore more on here in the coming months.
It does seem ironic that in 2020, a year in which social media and technology will be so central to the campaigns of both candidates, those two candidates will be two white men in their late 70s – not a demographic famed for their adeptness in technology.