Ten Big Trends in Digital Politics, Activism and Advocacy in 2021 [Part One]

The following is an excerpt from the new 2021 edition of How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections”. Note that some of these trends are in flux even a couple of weeks after I wrote these words, particularly the question of whether political Facebook ads will come back at all. Read Part Two of this article.

Let’s look at some big trends shaping the digital playground for campaigns, advocates and activists in 2021. For some longer-term thinking, check out my two-part series from 2020 examining the past and future of digital politics and organizing and my recent roundup of articles illuminating the dynamics of politics in the next few years.

1. Social Media and Society

Our relationship with social media? Complicated. The companies see themselves as a force for good: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for one, clearly feels that connecting people in new ways is inherently positive. But as we will see in this book, digital tools do not care who uses them. In practice, people have found it just as easy to use Zuckerberg’s baby to organize a riot — or a massacre — as a happy hour.

Platforms built to value engagement over truth naturally favor the lurid and the extreme, and conspiracy theories and disinformation naturally thrive without some mechanism to filter content. How many people found QAnon and anti-vaccine videos because Facebook or YouTube recommended them? Millions, and not just in the United States. The platforms WANT to be the center of our digital universes, but they haven’t put in the time and money to tackle the responsibilities that accompany that status.

Russian social-media manipulation set off SOME alarms after 2016, though I doubt their work shifted many votes in the U.S. elections. The real enemy was us all along. Anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and Q are America’s homegrown social-media horrors, the Capitol riot a natural outcome of a digital environment that locks us in our personal information bubbles.

Lies often spread with an assist from some extremely prominent voices, and I was not remotely surprised to find that political misinformation plummeted on Twitter when it finally banned Donald Trump. Rarely do lies require advertising to reach gullible ears, but tech companies’ “solutions” have usually been limited to placing hurdles in the path of political advertisers or banning paid political content entirely. In the process, they’ve made it HARDER for campaigns and activists to respond to smears and falsehoods.

The answers? I don’t have easy ones. For a start, perhaps Facebook and company could put the kind of energy into watching for conspiracy-theory superspreaders that they do into policing copyright violations. I’m as much of a free-speech purist as you’re likely to find, but we don’t generally put up with dangerous lies and incitement in when we encounter them in real life. Why should we allow companies to profit from hate and fear in the virtual space? Crackdowns on “stop the steal” and Q-related content are not ideal, but these lies have now killed people in the physical world. They are far from alone.

2. Social Media: Campaigns, Advocates & Activists

Besides active disinformation campaigns, digital activists have to deal with the fallout from ongoing data-breaches, Russian election-hacking and Cambridge Analytics data-scraping, including those disclosure and verification requirements. More fundamentally, political communicators face the same problem as every other Facebook page owner: most of our followers will never see our content unless we pay for the privilege. In practice, campaigns and advocacy organizations will rely on a mix of engaging content, active supporters and paid promotion to get their messages in front of the right voters. Smart campaigns will also spot opportunities to take advantage of spontaneous social enthusiasm. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign didn’t create those now-legendary selfie lines out of the blue — they capitalized on a practice her passionate supporters started themselves.

Meanwhile, a few campaigns have learned from the Trump campaign’s industrial-scale, data-driven Facebook outreach program, though Facebook will soon limit the number of ads a given page can run at a time [and may ban political ads outright]. Campaigns of all sizes still flock to Twitter, taking advantage of the platform’s prominence in the age of Trump to reach reporters, activists and the public at large. Similarly, social-media livestreaming was de rigueur for 2020 presidential campaigns and Capitol rioters alike, with activists of all kinds broadcasting political activity directly to world for better or worse. What about SnapChat, TikTok, Instagram and Twitch? Look for campaigns and organizations to experiment with just about any digital tool you can think of, but Facebook and Twitter still dominate the average social outreach strategy.

3. The Public is Fired Up

Riots and conspiracies show the dark side digital activism, but hope still abounds. As the massive voter turnout in the 2021 U.S. elections showed, millions of people are fed up with the way things are and fired up to change it for the better. Racial-justice protests filled American streets in 2020, sparked by cellphone videos and mobilized by digital tools, but they’re firmly embedded in a new tradition of self-organizing. As I wrote late in 2018,

Think of the Parkland students crossing the country to work for gun control, or the thousands of Indivisible chapters that have sprung up spontaneously in all fifty states, or the Democratic women organizing in secret in deep Red America. The Right gets in on the action sometimes, as in that border-wall crowdfunding campaign, but the real passion has been on the Democrats’ side since Trump went to the White House. If I were running for president, one of my priorities would be to create a system to harness it.

Not just in the United States, either, since protesters have challenged political authority from Hong Kong to Sudan in the past few years. The trick for campaigns and activists is to understand this enthusiasm and channel it toward positive ends. Crucially, this kind of people-powered politics treats supporters as an active part of the process and a major outreach channel in themselves. Voters are people with whom we have a conversation — they’re not just passive receptacles for our advertising.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders’s volunteers famously helped his campaign with everything from technology to field organizing, donating millions along the way and bringing him closer to the Democratic nomination than almost anyone expected. Meanwhile, Trump supporters did their best to retweet the future president to the White House (with a little help from Moscow), and their grassroots donations basically paid for the last two months of his victorious campaign. After Trump’s inauguration, Left-leaning activists in the “Resistance” self-organized to a remarkable degree. In 2020, they went all-in on persuading their friends, family and neighbors to vote against Trump’s agenda, helped by host of Democratic and progressive organizations. Their chief rivals? The members of Trump’s “base”, whose passions he stoked daily via tweet…until he no longer could. The grassroots conflict between their competing visions will likely power American politics for the next decade at least.

4. Data-Driven Voter Targeting

Despite the intensity of a new wave of activists, many voters are still hiding from political campaigns. Traditional American political advertising practices can’t always handle a world in which voters abandon broadcast media in favor of Netflix, Hulu, Spotify and YouTube. The death of land lines and the ubiquity of cell phones complicate phone-banking, robocalling and polling. As far back as 2012, the Obama campaign could only find phone numbers for about half of the voters aged 18-30 on its target list, and many had moved so often that their physical addresses were dead as well. No matter how good your data model is, it won’t help if you can’t actually reach the people you need. Fortunately for those of us trying to influence and mobilize the public, digital options can begin to fill the gap.

Campaigns can now employ a wide array of digital targeting techniques to contact defined groups of voters via “addressable” communications channels. Digital ads, for example, can be targeted via a voter file to reach specific households with messages designed just for them. Powerful, assuming that your voter model is correct in the first place. This level of precision is beginning to enter the TV world as well.

Similarly, a Facebook Custom Audience can help you reach individual people with messages optimized to move them. As Trump found in 2016, Facebook’s ability to “retarget” people who interact with specific content or who visit your website also provide ways to convert someone’s passing interest into a durable connection. Your own email list constitutes a target in waiting, since you can break it into specific segments based on supporters’ giving history, past participation in online actions, location or social media activity.

Key to all of these applications is data, of course. Also key? Money. The more, the better: online ads aren’t free. Democrats, take heed! Republicans routine outspend you on digital advertising. Pro tip: stop letting them do that.

Money, People or Both?

The fact that you CAN buy targeted ads in bulk means that they become a button you can push: insert the check and the ads pop out. Will they also encourage a manipulative mindset, a return to the attitudes of the era when broadcast TV advertising dominated politics? The ease of targeted digital ads could encourage political professionals to treat the voters like clay to be shaped — as bystanders, not actors themselves.

My guess: we’ll see a mix of the two strategies, often in the same campaign. Done right, online ads and field organizing work together, reaching voters with consistent messaging across many points of contact. Voters not reachable digitally may be easier to find in person — or vice versa. But I also suspect that we’ll continue to see a tension between ad-targeters and those with a grassroots mindsets…particularly when it comes time to allocate campaign budgets. Note that Bernie Sanders may have been famous for his people-powered campaigns, but his team also spent heavily on digital ads in both of his attempts to win the White House.

Read Part Two of this article. Be sure to check out How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections” for details about how campaigns, advocates and activists can take advantage of these trends — or work around them.

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