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.