How Campaigns Use Digital Tactics for Good and Bad

There’s a dark side to internet politics

Key Takeaways

  • Social media platforms are set to continue their trajectory to dominating the world of political campaigning.
  • While harnessing the power of social networking can be the deciding factor in a campaign’s strategy, its influence is limited.  
  • Digital platforms have come under fire for their failure to address shortcomings and protect user data.
People look on during a voter mobilization drive-in event at UNLV with Democratic U.S. Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)
Ethan Miller / Getty Images 

Social media has become more than a platform for memes and imaginary what-if scenarios, increasingly becoming the battleground for rancorous partisan politics—with winners and losers.

Political theater has gotten a bit more technologically savvy as social media has grown to shape the communication and advertising strategies of entire campaigns. From humble local politicians looking to subvert expectations to the massive, billion-dollar campaigns of presidential hopefuls, social media has the unique ability to inspire (and anger) voters right at their fingertips.

As the citizenry spends more and more time on their smartphones and electronic devices, politicians leverage this tool to speak directly to them in less formal settings.

"There are still nuts and bolts, tried-and-true methods of campaigning needed."

"It already is a huge part of US election campaigns and has been since the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns," said Dr. Andrew Chadwick, director of Online Civic Culture Centre and Professor of Political Communication at Loughborough University, in an email interview. "Advertising on social media platforms grew dramatically in 2016 and the signs so far are that spending on social media and search ads has grown again in the 2020 presidential election."

Biden and Trump Takeover Social Platforms

The landscape for digitized politics has grown much larger and more sophisticated since the Obama campaign used them to land a blowout victory against John McCain in 2008. Former President Obama was able to successfully use social media, still in its infancy, to galvanize an unprecedented proportion of younger voters, while folding previous non-voting minority populations into his winning coalition.

Seen as the dawning of social media-based politics by researchers, the scene has only exploded since.

Early this fall, the Biden campaign announced a record-shattering $280 million ad buy across 15 states, with 20 percent devoted to digital advertising. Comparatively, during the 2016 election year, the Trump campaign led the pack with a $40 million digital ad buy, which accounted for 10 percent of the campaign budget.

The increase in both proportion and gross dollars between the two general election seasons indicates candidates and their advisors are seeing digital campaigning as an important component of the equation for success, going so far as to veer off into uncharted territory.

The Trump campaign has seized the power of Facebook as a media giant that boasts 69 percent of the American population as frequent visitors to its Team Trump live-video show, where former staffers commentate on the news of the day while advocating for the president.

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign has enlisted a more youth-focused strategy using Snapchat in connection with the USPS to advise users to vote early in key swing states. It’s also taking a dip into the gaming sphere with ad campaigns in Animal Crossing, complete with colorful signage and digital avatars players can use to decorate their paradise islands.

"It already is a huge part of US election campaigns and has been since the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns."

The difference in digital strategy by the two teams seems at odds, but Professor of Digital Marketing at the University of Applied Sciences Kufstein, Dr. Andre Haller, says differently. The unique technical infrastructure of social networking platforms allows for users to be segmented into distinct, important categories. 

"In political campaigns, two groups of people are crucial: sympathizers and undecided voters." Dr. Haller said in an email interview with Lifewire. "By using big data, it is possible to segment users into these two categories, more or less. So, politicians try to identify partisan voters and undecideds to target them with messages to mobilize them."

Political science researcher and Social Media and Politics Podcast host, Michael Bossetta, has studied the impact of social and digital media on politics for years, and currently works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media at Lund University. He suggests the Trump campaign’s Facebook strategy is one to watch.

"It’s a very smart use of taking advantage of what the platform is asking for, and therefore will promote, resulting in Trump gaining a lot of visibility for free," he said during a phone call. "In a sense, you’re rewarded for buying into what the platform wants you to do; they want live video [and] the Trump campaign is providing that."

Limits of Digital Politics

There is a limit to the growing power of social media, though. The way digital media shapes politics relates in many ways to the structure of off-line politics. Most researchers seem to suggest that while its influence is growing across the international political landscape, traditional television-based and in-person campaigning still reigns supreme.

Candidates who have attempted to leverage their online persona and build an exclusively online strategy have rarely found success.

Host of popular YouTube show The Young Turks, Cenk Uygur, sought to make his political debut as California’s 25 congressional district’s newest representative. With a digital show that boasts nearly 5 million subscribers, some saw his ability to pull online support as a potential layup. In the end, he garnered less than 7 percent of the vote, placing fourth in the district.

Ballotpedia list showing some of California’s 25th congressional district’s candidates

26-year-old socialist trucker, Joshua Collins, garnered social media fame from his TikTok and Twitter presence, amassing over $249,000 in individual contributions in a matter of months, according to Federal Election Committee data. What was seen as a serious contender for Washington’s tenth district also went out in a fizzle as the young politico inspired less than 2 percent of voters in his district to cast their ballot for his cause. Social media is a powerful tool, but not a replacement.   

"There are still nuts and bolts, tried-and-true methods of campaigning needed. Politicians can leverage social media to gain earned mainstream media... but using social media in innovative ways does not, necessarily, translate into electoral success," Bossetta said.

Vulnerable Communities At-Risk

One of the most pernicious components of social media campaigning is the ability to micro-target populations. This allows campaigns to trace a person’s digital footprints and create an in-depth demographic picture of their habits, preferences, and personality. 

Collecting data from consumer databases, including credit card information, magazine subscriptions, and voter files, firms like Cambridge Analytica have been able to create a composite sketch of would-be voters. This has been used by campaigns to isolate both persuadable and unreachable voters, and in 2016 allowed for the Trump campaign to target vulnerable communities in an attempt to dissuade them from voting.

"In political campaigns, two groups of people are crucial: sympathizers and undecided voters."

Recent investigative reporting by Channel 4 News uncovered a concerted effort by the Trump campaign to discourage some 3.5 million Black Americans from participating in the General Election.

Using micro-targeting from duplicitous research firm Cambridge Analytica, which came under fire in 2018 for the way it used Facebook users’ data without consent, the Trump campaign branded these potential Black voters under the category "Deterrence" in an explicit attempt to keep certain segments of the population home to ensure a Trump victory.

"Campaigns have long tried to focus on getting their supporters to vote, while ignoring social groups who the campaign thinks will either not vote or vote for their opponents," Dr. Chadwick said. "The problem in 2016 was that there was a concerted, micro-targeted advertising campaign aimed at Black citizens, to deter them from voting. 

"Due to the electoral college system for presidential elections, in states where the margins of victory are razor thin... the likelihood increases that microtargeting will make a difference to the overall outcome."

Historically, Black Americans have been subject to voter suppression tactics dating back to initial suffrage. The limits persist today through voter ID laws that have been struck down by federal courts for targeting Black voters with "almost surgical precision."

Social media has revolutionized campaigning and allowed politicians to reach voters in innovative ways, but that sword comes with a double edge and allows for the perpetuation of old struggles in more sophisticated ways.

The Pushback

With its more nefarious aspects being exploited, the outsized impact of digital campaigning has come under intense scrutiny as its influence continues to loom over the country.

Lawmakers have introduced bills seeking to ban the very micro-targeting techniques employed by the Trump campaign to deter Black voters from participating in the electoral process, which has mass support among voters across the aisle. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has appeared before Congress for allowing user data to slip through the cracks and has announced plans to address its user leak.

The company has also moved to allow users to opt out of seeing political ads while also banning advertisements the week before the general election on November 3 after previously suggesting it would allow blatantly false ads.

Facebook explains the ways they're preparing for the 2020 election.
Facebook explains its ongoing efforts leading up to election day. Facebook 

Twitter has gone to the extreme, outright banning political adverts last year, and has begun to brand misleading content shared on its platform this summer. This caused its own controversy after labeling a group of President Trump’s tweets with a misinformation label and providing real-time fact checking

Despite these attempts to fix things, however, the damage has already been done.

"So, politicians try to identify partisan voters and undecideds to target them with messages to mobilize them."

Data compiled by public relations firm Edelman has shown a sharp decrease in user trust of social media platforms, indicating an erosion in credibility. Approximately 60 percent of respondents suggest platforms are not proactive enough in regulating their platforms. While the digital sphere is far from perfect, its influence on political campaigning is likely here to stay as digital natives Millennials and Gen Z are quickly pacing to become the dominant voting demographics in the country. 

"The oldest instrument in political communication—direct and face-to-face communication with voters—is transformed by the use of data and can lead to higher turnout," said Dr. Haller. "Of course, I see the critique on internet-based campaigns, but if politicians are successful to create a real dialogue in social media, I think the relationship between citizens and politics can enter a new level of interaction."