After Joe Biden nailed down the Democratic presidential nomination almost a year ago, many worried that Donald Trump’s online disinformation machine would make short work of him. As the election season built toward the fall and Trump’s social-media numbers consistently blew Biden’s away, the Democrat often looked as though he was being outgunned in real time. Biden’s eventual victory showed that predictions of digital doom were overblown, but how did his team approach the obvious mismatch strategically?
Reporter Kevin Roose gave us an early glimpse into their content-focused thinking in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago, bypassing the sweeping claims that often mar digital campaign coverage to focus on the practical ways Biden’s team reached voters online. In Campaigns & Elections, Sean Miller has covered the campaign’s partnership strategy, influencer outreach, email aquisition and disinformation response in two pieces from November. Who knew that Biden’s “second most viewed video platform was TikTok”, even without a campaign account on the platform? Let’s pull a few lessons out to bookmark for the future.
Ignore the Twitter Frenzy
Cable news often obsesses over a relative handful of high-profile Left-leaning tweeters, many of don’t look or sound much like actual Democratic voters. Yes, Twitter’s good if you’re trying to influence elite political discussion, but it’s not likely to help a political campaign connect with many of the people whose personal voting decisions will matter. Biden’s team decided not to put too much stock in the Twitter froth, choosing to go where voters actually live online.
Meet People Where They Are
For example, Biden’s team posted content in popular online games such as Animal Crossing and Fortnite (including a “malarkey”-shouting avatar on an island), which perhaps didn’t influence many votes but at least showed that they knew where people spend their digital lives. Considering that the campaign had a fat bank account and little time to spend the money, they could also toss a few dollars at channels like these to see if any of it worked (note that Obama’s team advertised in video games all the way back in 2008). As we’ve seen, Biden also reached into corners of the internet like TikTok that campaigns rarely try to leverage.
Of course, Biden’s team emphasized Facebook outreach, including paying “extra attention to ‘Facebook moms’ — women who spend a lot of time sharing cute and uplifting content, and who the campaign believed could be persuaded to vote for Mr. Biden with positive messages about his character.” With so many campaign ads designed to raise viewers’ blood pressure, “nice” may well have helped cut through the digital clutter.
Give the Activists What They Want
Plenty of Democrats don’t want to play nice online, however, so Biden’s staff also served up red meat for the activists. But how to connect with one group without alienating the other? Besides data-targeting, which the articles don’t discuss in detail but that the campaign surely employed at all levels, they were smart enough to outsource the distribution.
Play Well With Partners
Too many campaigns and organizations on the Left absolutely suck at working together to propel a political message. Someone else created that content? Sorry, we’re not interested. I’ve found this habit maddening in my own advocacy work over the years, with supposed allies ignoring powerful videos, images or stories because they didn’t have their own names on them. With exceptions like Bernie’s two presidential runs, Democratic campaigns rarely engage with activist networks, whether out of a fear of losing control over the message or because they think they know more than the rest of us.
Biden’s team did not fall into that trap. Realizing that Trump’s digital reach far exceeded theirs, they worked directly with activist Facebook pages such as Occupy Democrats that happily riled up the faithful. In some cases, the campaign paid the people who ran those pages for the privilege of connecting with their audiences. The Biden campaign also accepted and shared content from individual online creators, who I’m sure were thrilled to see their work amplified far and wide. That’s how Biden was able to reach so many people through a channel like TikTok without being there themselves.
This level of coordination takes time, of course, and smaller campaigns often won’t have the resources to put someone in charge of content partnerships. But the idea of letting outsiders in on the game should apply up and down the ballot — it’s an extension of the self-organizing ideas some of us have been talking about for years.
Be Real, Not Slick
One advantage of partnering with real people? Real content, not some slick professional product. In a year when Americans have seen each other’s bad hair days on Zoom, videos with the same low production values we’ve embraced in our own lives resonated with the public. Campaign consultants often tell their clients that they need to come across as somehow “authentic” (if you can fake that, you’ve got it made!), but actual voters are usually a hell of a lot more authentic than a coached candidate. Parnering with activists outside the political and media professions let the campaign highlight videos and stories from people who looked like the audiences Biden was trying to reach and who spoke their ways.
Counter the Smears, But Carefully
The Right’s active disinformation campaigns presented a special problem, since responding to a smear campaign often amplifies it unintentionally. One Biden campaign trick? When possible, let sleeping dogs lie — they tried to reply directly to below-the-belt attacks only when they seemed to resonate. For instance, the various Hunter Biden stories didn’t seem to be changing voters’ minds, so they didn’t spend much time answering them head on, with the obvious exception of when the candidate stood up for his son during his debates with Donald Trump.
But if an attack looked like it might actually work, they tried to find ways to answer it indirectly. As Republicans ramped up their insinuations that Biden was going senile, for example, staff ran video ads highlighting the candidate speaking directly and cogently to the camera. That tactic allowed them to counter a dangerous message obliquely and without inviting the thought that he doth protest too much.
Most of these approaches entailed listening. Data-analysis surely underpinned staff assessments of what was working and what was not, which is in itself a form of learning from people’s behavior. But the team also tried to take seriously the concerns of people who might fall for disinformation, trying to understand the fears that it appealed to. And as we’ve seen, they also listened to the grassroots activists and content-creators who might find better ways to connect with voters than the campaign could come up with on its own.
Revolutionary? No. But competent, steady, diligent and applied? Yes — and those characteristics win more campaigns than cleverness alone. Perhaps, that was Joe Biden’s lesson for political professionals from the very beginning.