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

Seeing clearly

The following is an excerpt from the new 2021 edition of How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections”, available for download on Epolitics.com and in the Amazon store as a Kindle ebook. You can read Part One of this article here.

5. Grassroots Tech

Donald Trump inspired another big development in the world of digital politics, though inadvertently. The movement to oppose his political agenda encouraged a wave of activists and entrepreneurs to create new mobilizing tools. As I put it a couple of years ago:

Finally, let's not forget the 2018 tech that we can’t predict because it hasn't been invented yet. Perhaps Trump's most striking "achievement" has been his inspiration of a mass movement against him and his agenda, which has already borne fruit in upset Democratic victories in special elections from Alabama to Oklahoma.

Also ripening on the vine? Tech innovations large and small, enabling grassroots political organizing across the country. Technology doesn't have to be new to be newly useful in politics, either: the explosion of Indivisible groups in communities large and small proves the power of Google Doc activism. At the higher end, companies like the ones championed by Higher Ground Labs hope to revolutionize the way campaigns do the work of reaching out to voters.

Democrats have no monopoly on innovation, of course, and Republicans are building new small-dollar online donor networks, online donation hubs and field programs to try to hold on to governorships and congressional seats in November. But the energy seems to be on the Left this time around, and it's not limited to party-driven initiatives.

Some will see the lack of central leadership in the Resistance as a fatal flaw, but with no big trees to block the light, a thousand green sprigs are thriving. Most local activists started with little more than determination, but they're learning fast about the tools, technologies and tactics that facilitate change. Who knows what they'll be teaching the professional political class a year from now?

Many voter-contact technologies sparked by a desire to beat Trump have already become part of the standard Democratic campaign toolkit. In particular, check out the Field Organizing chapter for more about cutting-edge relational organizing tools.

6. Online Advertising for the Masses

Any online communicator can buy Facebook ads or Google search ads, an example of how online advertising has democratized over the past two decades. Self-serve advertising portals let small businesses, tiny nonprofits and local candidates set up a basic advertising campaign in a few minutes. Big campaigns may still work through a Facebook rep or an ad agency to place ads in large numbers, but the masses are now in on the game. [Note: assuming that political Facebook ads are ever turned back on in the U.S., which is far from a sure bet.]

Around 2012, the self-serve model began to move into the world of digital video ads and banner ads, and several political ad vendors now offer platforms for campaigns to buy their own voter-file-targeted online ads in bulk. These self-serve ad portals let small campaigns reach voters with the same targeting tools as the big boys, with minimum buys in the hundreds rather than tens of thousands of dollars.

The result? A flurry of online advertising in state and local races. As we’ll see in this book, targeted advertising can be a great fit for many campaigns, with important benefits for those in convoluted districts or crowded media markets. It’s a great example of a longer-running trend: the the down-ballot evolution of technologies originally designed for national-level campaigns.

7. Bots, Trolls, Hacks and Fakes

If we had any illusions about Bad Hombres in U.S. politics, the last few years should have broken them. In 2016, Russian hackers and bot-nets did their best to heighten the discord in our politics, dancing on the raw nerves in our culture to pit group against group, sometimes literally. After this experience, campaign cybersecurity cannot be an afterthought! Every campaign, activist organization and individual advocate needs to think about basic measures like secure passwords, two-factor authentication and virtual private networking apps. Also take a look at third-party tools designed specifically for campaigns, journalists and interest groups.

Likewise, any candidate can be on the receiving end of lies spread online, amplified by a bot-net or your crazy uncle, and campaigns should plan for rapid response against a digital smear. Pro tip: mobilize your supporters to speak on your behalf, and be sure not to repeat the lies as you fight them. Looking ahead, if you thought fake news and Facebook data breaches were bad, wait until fake video becomes commonplace.

8. Outside Actors

Of course, plenty of “legitimate” outside groups also try to influence elections, including SuperPACs and 501(c)4s. Most Independent Expenditure groups have poured the bulk of their money into TV in the past, but look for outside groups to invest heavily in digital advertising in 2021 and beyond, in part to pick off the shakiest parts of their opponents’ coalitions. For inspiration, note the integrated online/offline campaign waged by a SuperPAC that helped beat David Vitter and put a Democrat in the Louisiana governor’s mansion late in 2015. Or, look at the targeted digital ads flying during the the Great Obamacare Battle of 2017, Congressional special elections in the Trump era and the Georgia Senate double runoff early in 2021. Finally, liberal activist communities like Daily Kos and many thousands of individual small-dollar donors have fueled insurgent Democratic campaigns and organizations, at times raising hundreds of thousands of dollars almost overnight. Unfortunately for them, however, 2020 exposed the limits of using political money to buy electoral love.[Note: let’s add the digitally organized Capitol rioters to the list, too.]

9. If You’re Not Mobile, You’re Not Online

Mobile phones have been the “next big thing” since I started Epolitics.com back in 2006. But they’re “next” no longer — in 2021, mobile devices are a real and significant factor in how we conduct political outreach online, particularly grassroots apps and peer-to-peer texting tools.

They’ve been a player in field organizing for years, but as we’ll see throughout this book, mobile phones and tablets now shape the ways people view our websites, read our emails, encounter our ads, consume our social content and act on our fundraising appeals. Campaigners and activists who don’t take mobile seriously risk missing huge segments of the electorate — it’s that simple.

10. Integrate or Die

In 2021, a campaign can’t just throw things at the wall — the parts need to work together. For example, a single ad campaign might tie data from mobile phones, desktop computers and TV together to reach specific voters regardless of which screen they’re watching at the moment. This kind of data-driven, cross-channel targeting will help campaigns catch the right people with the right content at the right moment, whether they’re watching TV or listening to Pandora.

Another example of data changing the way we buy ads: “audience-based” TV advertising, which the Obama 2012 campaign pioneered in the political world. Rather than buying space on a particular channel or show, this tactic matches data models of targeted voters with TV cable set-top box data and demographic information to reach exact segments of the electorate at the most cost-effective times.

Bonus takeaway: voter contact is becoming less about targeting channels and more about targeting people.

Data integration isn’t sexy — that is, unless you really, really get into mingling ones and zeroes. But it’s a secret hero of digital politics: the tools have powerful potential, but all the data in the world won’t help you if you can’t organize it, connect it and put it to work.

Think of all the data sources campaigns can access: fundraising lists, voter files, grassroots contacts, commercial information, demographic data and much more. Making all those pieces talk to each other is a major task, one that even seriously data-focused campaigns can’t solve perfectly. The most effective data-driven campaigns will be ones that 1) understand the data they have or can have, 2) connect different data “silos” to create integrated systems, and 3) use that data to make better decisions about how, what and when to communicate with voters. Ideally, the system will also incorporate feedback loops, so that information gathered via one source can affect the rest. If someone signs up on the email list from a given neighborhood, the local field organizer should know about it!

Everything You Just Read is Wrong

Well, maybe it’s not ALL wrong, but plenty will happen in 2021 and beyond that we can’t predict. Some trends that look significant now may not play out that way in the end, and strategies that work well one month can yield eyeball-melting failure the next. That’s what keeps this business fun! We’ll revisit these trends on Epolitics.com regularly in the months to come.

Read Part One of this article. Download the 2021 edition of How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections

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Colin Delany
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