The referendum in 2016 was an occasion when the role of social media was seen to play a key part in influencing voters. Traditional campaigning methods, such as street stalls, door to door canvassing and leafleting, continued for supporters. Television debates between the candidates were held and parties vied to get coverage in national newspapers and media. What was added was the use of social media, which seemed to reach many people who were undecided or hadn’t previously voted.
Having observed the two United States presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the Leave Campaign was aware of this potential, where the efficacy of social media in a political campaign was increasing. Campaigners categorised individuals from information gathered (bought?) and then sent targeted messages, often on Facebook and Twitter, that would appeal to that group of persons. The messages were short, typically a maximum of 17 words; there was no detail but often graphics or a video were used to ‘hit home’ the message. People were then encouraged to forward these messages to their friends and family, in the belief that they would be of a like mind and interest.
The Leave campaign and the Trump presidential campaign had in their favour that they could potentially frighten people, a powerful factor when trying to get people’s support. By contrast, the Remain campaign had great difficulty in responding by trying to emphasise the benefits that continuing membership of the European Union would bring - and is still bringing to remaining members. Following on from eight years of a Democrat president, Hillary Clinton had a similar problem when canvassing for election. The forceful and frightening seems to be what succeeds on social media.
When in the future we have made the right political moves to have the next referendum on rejoining the EU, the tables will be turned. We will have experienced many economically damaging years and this time it will be for Brexit supporters to defend the status quo. This will be difficult after all the unfulfilled promises on increased sovereignty, extensive trade deals, sustaining workers rights and environmental standards. They can yet again make outlandish promises of a ‘better tomorrow’ by staying out of the EU, but people will be wiser now. So Brexiters will probably revert to past practices - exaggerated messages of fear over the impact of rejoining. This worked before, so why not again?
But in the recent US presidential election, the Trump Make America Great Again (MAGA) social media machine that spread fear and anger came up against a different approach from Joe Biden. Whereas in 2016, Remain did not respond well to the tactics employed by the Leave campaign, similar to those used by the Republicans, in 2020 the US the Democrats adopted a different approach that contributed to their electoral success.
Initially, Biden set up his own digital media empire, posting videos on YouTube, holding virtual forums and a podcast hosted by the candidate entitled ‘Here’s the Deal’. These efforts got a lukewarm reception that never came close to matching the reach of Trump’s social media machine.
So the campaign adopted the much more successful strategy of working with social media influencers and ‘validators’ - people who were trusted by the kinds of voters the campaign hoped to reach. In the New York Times article ‘How Joe Biden’s Digital Team Tamed the MAGA Internet’, Andrew Bleeker, president of a Democratic strategy firm working for the Biden campaign, said: “We were not the biggest megaphone compared to Trump, so we had to help arm any who were.”
They used individuals who were well known in certain groups. For example, Brene Brown is a research professor and popular American author who speaks and writes about courage and vulnerability; she has her own podcast in the states and has a strong following amongst suburban women. Joe Biden was a guest and talked about his own stories of grief and empathy. This was a viral success.
High on the list was Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, famous for his action and adventure films particularly popular with young people, who politically skews male centre-right. His endorsement of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris created a so-called ‘permission structure’ for his followers – giving, as it were, his followers permission to also support the two, even though some had previously voted for Trump.
Other lesser-known influencers like YouTuber Liza Koshy worked with the campaign team. A partnership with creating team ‘TikTok for Biden’ was able to produce content for the teen-dominated video app TikTok.
The Biden team avoided the much-criticised Hillary Clinton approach used in 2016 of being too focused on the elite who gather their information on Twitter. Instead, they paid much more attention to the much larger group of voters who get their news and information from Facebook. For example, ‘Facebook Moms’ – women who share cute and uplifting content could be persuaded to vote for Biden given positive messages about his character.
On a lighter note, the campaign had Biden for President signs put on the lawns of the children’s hit Nintendo game Animal Crossing. In Fortnite, the popular ‘battle royale’ game, a custom ‘Build Back Better’ map was set up. Taking the campaign message to where people were, even young children (remembering that they would play these games with their parents) and not expecting them to come to you.
Another campaign strategy was to promote content that increased ‘social trust’, whereby individuals formed themselves into virtual groups with common interests to discuss politics and relational organising – moving away from the energising divisive fare that Trump had used to great effect in the past.
However, Biden’s team did use the popular political left-wing Facebook pages, bringing these groups together and allowing them to ‘go for the jugular’ in their attacks on Trump. They collaborated by jointly using presentations that performed well and tapped into favourable items that went viral, like Trump’s comments on Medicare and Social Security.
This strategy enabled Jo Biden to keep most of his messaging positive, while still tapping into the anger and outrage many Democrats felt.
The Biden team found that political ads that were professionally produced were far less effective compared to those that were more realistic, more grainy and cheaper to produce.
One of the biggest obstacles, as in the 2016 referendum campaign here in the UK, was misinformation amplified by the Trump campaign and its media allies. Rather than responding head on to false claims, a policy which had not succeeded in the past, the campaign team ascertained what impact the claims were having. They tried to identify the root of a problem. When videos were posted of Joe Biden stammering over his words and appearing forgetful, the campaign team through surveys found that the real concern of voters was not any speech impediment but whether he would be easily manipulated by the left wing in his party. A video showing Biden speaking lucidly at debates and public events was sent to those who were identified as most probably having seen the original.
The social media campaign’s focus on empathy required listening to voters to understand their concerns - not to think that misinformation would be swallowed by individuals, but to understand their worries and concerns before fighting back with a positive response.
As Rob Flaherty, the campaign digital director said, the strategy was about trying to reach a kinder and gentler version of the internet that he still believed exists.
We can learn from the Biden-Harris campaign about the way we can successfully use the internet and social media - without reducing our standards by responding to any underhand, divisive and misleading approaches. To tackle any negativity that is thrown at us, we do not need to reduce our level of our inherent common decency!
Chair of London4Europe