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It’s Time to Adapt to the Social Media Realities of Politics

2016 marked the biggest change in campaigning since “I Like Ike” TV commercials in 1952. Everyone needs to recognize the new landscape.

October 20, 2017

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

Nearly four years ago in a column for the Bren­nan Center, I warned, “By 2016 or 2020, social media will have replaced tele­vi­sion as the engine that drives polit­ical persua­sion.” In that same 2013 article, I also predicted, “Campaigns waged within the confines of social media will bring with them daunt­ing chal­lenges for the media, campaign reformers, and voters.”

My point in citing this Decem­ber 2013 column is not to indulge in self-congrat­u­la­tion about my pres­ci­ence. Oh, all right, maybe a little self-congrat­u­la­tion.

To be sure, I neither had the imagin­a­tion nor the dysto­pian tempera­ment to have imagined Russia delib­er­ately trying to under­mine demo­cracy on Face­book or put Donald Trump in the White House.

But if I as a low-tech colum­nist with nostal­gia for land-line phone calls could glimpse the worri­some shape of future campaigns, it remains surpris­ing that so few in our polit­ical system grasped the sinis­ter under­pin­nings of the 2016 elec­tion.

Part of this cava­lier atti­tude about social media was rooted in a form of liberal bias.

If tech­no­logy is the province of the young, the hip and socially aware, then presum­ably Demo­crats would have a perman­ent edge in polit­ics. That was certainly the predom­in­ant atti­tude coming out of the 2012 campaign as veter­ans of Barack Obama’s digital team bragged about how they harnessed Face­book while Mitt Romney’s vaunted compu­ter­ized national vote-track­ing system called Project Orca crashed on Elec­tion Day.

As Alexis Madrigal wrote in an astute recent article about Face­book in the Atlantic, “It’s not that no journ­al­ists, inter­net-focused lawyers, or tech­no­lo­gists saw Face­book’s loom­ing elect­oral pres­ence — it was undeni­able — but all the evid­ence poin­ted to the struc­tural change bene­fit­ting Demo­crats.”

Another reason why almost no one soun­ded the alarm bells before Elec­tion Night 2016 has to do with the hide­bound nature of polit­ical journ­al­ism. Since the Kennedy years, campaign cover­age has pivoted around two poles — what candid­ates say at rallies and what commer­cials appear on tele­vi­sion. With the excep­tion of debate strategies, voter target­ing efforts and the fund­ing of shad­owy outside groups, almost every import­ant aspect of a pres­id­en­tial race took place in public.  

As a result, despite all the pyro­tech­nics surround­ing Trump, the 2016 campaign was covered roughly the same way that the 1976 race was chron­icled. Sure, there was a fren­zied—and, ulti­mately, wrong-headed — over-emphasis on the polls, plus the exist­ence of Twit­ter made every media twitch happen at warp speed. But still there was little about the pres­id­en­tial race that would have seemed strange to report­ers carry­ing port­able Oliv­etti type­writers in The Boys on the Bus.

With a few laud­able excep­tions like Sasha Issen­berg, report­ers stayed away from campaign tech­no­logy and social media, view­ing the topics as too marginal to get them on “Morn­ing Joe” or earn them a contrib­ut­or’s contract from CNN. The prime sources for most report­ers are campaign strategists, poll­sters and media consult­ants — and not data geeks analyz­ing Face­book metrics.

In defense of my fellow polit­ical report­ers, noth­ing in our collect­ive exper­i­ence has prepared us to cover a campaign that is conduc­ted on private prop­erty — which is what the innards of Face­book and other media sites are. Tele­vi­sion, of course, is regu­lated by govern­mental entit­ies. As a result, there is no such thing as a stealth TV ad even if it is shown at 4:00 a.m. on a cable chan­nel featur­ing curl­ing matches from Moose Jaw.

As I wrote in 2013, the trans­form­a­tion of polit­ical campaigns from being centered around TV ads to being based on propri­et­ary Face­book algorithms “is akin to all campaign speeches moving from the public square to privately owned shop­ping malls where entry is zeal­ously monitored by secur­ity guards.”

Face­book is now facing intense scru­tiny over the 3,000 polit­ical ads that the company belatedly admits came from Russian sources during the 2016 campaign. Sheryl Sand­berg, the company’s charis­matic chief oper­at­ing officer, spent last week tour­ing Capitol Hill in an intense effort at damage control as Face­book faces what may prove to be the biggest scan­dal in its high-flying history.

Yet it is mislead­ing to exclus­ively focus on the Russia angle.

Even without delib­er­ate foreign inter­fer­ence, it is danger­ous for polit­ics to be conduc­ted in an arena poten­tially free of all public scru­tiny. In theory, it is now possible for polit­ical campaigns to tailor indi­vidu­al­ized messages to every voter in Amer­ica. While the 2016 Trump campaign now brags about its daily 50,000 auto­mated ad combin­a­tions on Face­book, these were mostly small tweaks of exist­ing messages. Campaigns could actu­ally do much more with the exist­ing tech­no­logy of Face­book and other social media plat­forms if only they could produce inter­net ads in suffi­cient volume to cover every possible issue cluster

As my colleague Ciara Torres-Spel­liscy has writ­ten for the Bren­nan Center, the under­ly­ing prob­lem is that “20th century law is being used to regu­late 21st tech­no­logy.” But even proposed Senate legis­la­tion (sponsored by Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner and, signi­fic­antly, John McCain) requir­ing that online campaign commer­cials be subject to the same disclos­ure require­ments as broad­cast ads has its limits. In an era of spuri­ous news sites and delib­er­ate misin­form­a­tion spread on social media, it has become increas­ingly diffi­cult to know what is part of a formal campaign and what is inde­pend­ent polit­ical fear monger­ing.

Polit­ical campaigns changed more in 2016 than they have in any year since the first cartoon­ish “I Like Ike” ad appeared on TV screens in 1952. Every­one from campaign report­ers to govern­ment regu­lat­ors is going to have to quickly adapt to the new social media real­it­ies of polit­ics. Other­wise—even without Russian mischief — we will all be hard-pressed to decipher what is going on beneath the surface in pres­id­en­tial polit­ics.

(Photo: AP)