There is no denying that President Donald Trump knows how to use social media to reach an audience. No political candidate has embraced Twitter like the President, and his use of targeted social media in the 2016 election was among the key factors that helped him win the election.
This election cycle however it was President-Elect Joe Biden who truly worked social media.
“Biden certainly has been working a ‘strong’ online social outreach campaign this election year, but what’s really captured my attention has been the power of the ‘Party,'” said technology industry analyst Josh Crandall of Netpop Research.
“I’m not sure how it happened, but my telephone number and email address seems to be known by almost every senior party official, and I’ve received texts and emails from all of them,” said Crandall. “The crossover has been extraordinary, powerful and attention grabbing. The themes they share have spread the word, reinforced their positions, and built momentum for additional fundraising.”
Reaching The Masses
Social media has become an ever-important tool in reaching an audience today. This is especially true with the advent of streaming media and many people tuning out of traditional TV. Because fewer people are watching commercial TV, social media has filled that void.
“Social media is critical in reaching an audience today, no matter what the industry,” said Seth Flaxman, CEO of Democracy Works, a nonprofit corporation that promotes the use of technology to increase voter participation.
“Even in our efforts to get out the vote, social media platforms were fundamental in our efforts to reach millions of voters,” Flaxman added. “Because modern technology is so woven into people’s daily experiences, it’s important to leverage these platforms to meet people where they are. Partnering with social media platforms allowed us to connect with potential voters across the Internet and guide them towards the most accurate information available.”
Social media has served as a pathway to share the most trusted and accurate election information, but it also was the conduit by which misinformation also spread.
“As we’ve seen in the last few months, misinformation can spread widely and quickly,” added Flaxman. “Because Democracy Works partners with election officials across the country, we understood firsthand how important it was to get our government-issued, accurate information on where and how to vote recognized by as many voters as possible, especially in this moment of misinformation.”
Democracy Works provided the latest information to its partners including Facebook, which sent real-time reminders to voters, a critical resource in the midst of many last-minute election changes across the country due to the pandemic.
“We also partnered with Google so that when voters turned to their search engine to find answers to common voting questions, our accurate and reliable voting information populated the top of results,” said Flaxman.
The Role Of Influencers
One unique approach taken by the Biden Campaign was to use influencers, which helped get the generation Z voter turnout, and to help “humanize” Biden through the use of his personal one-on-one conversations. According to Village Marketing, which ran the influencer campaign, influencers were able to act much like small scale press conferences to youth voters – those not traditionally glued to CNN or other news channels.
Those efforts and others proved important this year, given that the Covid-19 pandemic upset the traditional “ground game” that the candidates were able to undertake.
“As election day bore down, the groundswell continued with countless texts from volunteers who contributed time and resources to the outreach. The messages hit multiple times a day,” explained Crandall.
“The connection that’s enabled through text and emails is more one-to-one than the Twitter bullhorn,” he added. “The personalization that’s possible creates the perception of intimacy and connection. In today’s complex world, people are looking for human interaction more than ever. Biden’s Party capitalized on their online outreach from the top tier to the groundswell of volunteer contributions so that Joe didn’t have to pick up the Twitter bullhorn and blow back at Trump on his own. This election was all about bringing together the online resources of the entire Democratic Party, and they succeeded.”
Social Media Address Biden’s Shortcomings
While President Trump’s base accepts, and even embraces, his off-the-cuff style of commentary on social media, Joe Biden has often been called out for his “foot-in-mouth” mistakes. Even the President-Elect has admitted, “I am a gaffe machine,” while suggesting at least he tries to tell the truth.
So popular are Biden’s gaffes, that there are now plenty of YouTube channels devoted to his verbal faux pas, including “Joe Biden’s Most Awkward Gaffes of All Time.”
However, social media is a perfect platform to make sure Biden stays on message and avoids gaffes.
“It sure is convenient when social media will protect a candidate from himself,” said Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. “Gaffes are when someone inadvertently tells an awkward truth or allows glimpses of inconvenient realities, and in the past voters could consider those observations in when deciding between candidates. Today Silicon Valley largely ensures that only select messages get out – the ones corporate leaders select. No gaffes allowed. Industry thus manufactures a caricature of that candidate.”
In the case of Biden, social media allowed him to be the sort of everyman who can look at the camera and call the American people “folks,” while still being articulate and polished.
“The technology for this is as impressive as it is scary,” added Purtilo. “There are only a few major venues for social media, so most people will see only what’s created for their consumption. Thoughtful comments people post might have the illusion of going public, but if they’re ‘shadow banned’ then almost nobody else will see the content since algorithmic controls ensure traffic is contained. People who too often stray from approved group-think will find themselves removed from a forum under Draconian terms of service, which almost nobody has resources to contest. And social media firms know how to train and improve the algorithms because of the might of their profiling tools.”
The future of social media could be one where it is hard to know when a candidate is authentic because the message can be so tailored for the audience. President Trump used this successfully in 2016, and Biden used it this year. In the future one candidate could truly become the “everyman” because a platform could morph the message to suit each user.
“It should be no surprise,” warned Purtilo. “The analytics that made corporate America so effective in selling iPhones, luxury autos and big screen TVs can be used to sell political candidates too, and Silicon Valley has become pretty open about the fact that they’re marketing Democrats. Joe Biden has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of this technology of all time.”