Big Trends in Digital Politics and Advocacy in 2023

Big trends in digital politics and advocacy

This article is adapted from Chapter 17 of the 2023 edition of the ebook “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections”. Other chapters cover particular technologies and campaign tasks in detail, while this chapter steps back and takes a long view. To talk more about any of the developments below or to discuss digital project consulting, please contact Colin Delany.

1. Artificial Intelligence

With the release of chatbots like ChatGPT, artificial intelligence became a realistic tool for campaigns and advocates at the start of 2023. More chatbots and other AI platforms have since followed, accompanied by a great deal of hype. ChatGPT and its friends can seem almost magical when people first interact with them, but the current generation has limitations that should protect most us from a robot job takeover…for now.

A chatbot ultimately reflects our own language back to us, based on the correlations its machine-learning algorithms find among the billions of words of human writing it’s been fed. It’s not going to come up with an idea because it understands something in a new way, but because it’s put words together in a sequence that humans interpret as meaningful. But that’s okay! If a chatbot comes up with language that helps campaign staff or consultants do their jobs better, it’s a useful tool.

For instance, chatbots might help field organizers to “cut turf,” breaking down a voter file into lists of doors for volunteers to knock or phone numbers to call. Similarly, a data analyst could ask a bot to create a stack of spreadsheets from a big mass of advertising data, or look for patterns in polling crosstabs. Other communicators will use them to create ad variants or ideas for content, often after “training” the AI by exposing it to samples. Behind the scenes, AI tools may help our us reach the right voters cost-effectively, since they’ll be baked into platforms from social media to advertising to email deliverability.

Of course, some companies that take a standard tech product, sprinkle a little AI on it and turn on the marketing machine. Already, my inbox regularly features pitches from AI-driven content marketing companies, donor-lead generation platforms and the like, some of which may not be as legitimate as others. Buyer beware!

Another pitfall? Chatbots look at patterns in the ways humans use words, not at how those words relate to the world itself. AI can lie! Today’s chatbots routinely make up “facts” when they’re asked to create content, and one suspects they have little instinct for politics. AI can turn out content, but any campaigner who feeds those words or pictures unedited into the world is asking for trouble. And those words can be pretty terrible, since a basic request to “write me a fundraising email” without context or detail can turn out some wretched results.

Similarly, an AI’s analysis of your marketing data will functionally come out of a “black box” — you’ll see the results, but you won’t have any real idea about why the AI arrived at the conclusions it did. AI does not give us easy ways to check its work! So be sure to build in checkpoints that allow you compare an AI’s output with information you know is correct. You don’t want to make decisions based on bad data any more than a comms person wants to put out a press release apparently from an alternate universe.

Actually, bad actors may WANT to spread tales from alternate universes! AI can churn out disinformation as easily as it can create any other writing or imagery, and as we have seen repeatedly in recent years, lies can spread extremely quickly online. AI neither knows nor cares how you’ll use its work product, and it could turn out to be the most powerful digital trickery tool of all times.

Despite these downsides, campaigns and other political communicators will sure put AI to use for a bewildering array of tasks this year. Armed with the right queries, and after a little experimentation, campaigns and advocacy organizations can and will use AI tools to get more done in less time in 2023. Watch this space — AI will almost certainly evolve more rapidly than any other slice of campaign technology in the next few months.

2. 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’ve seen 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, and the Capitol riot was a natural outcome of a digital environment that locks us in our personal information bubbles.

Lies spread fast with an assist from prominent voices, and I was not remotely surprised to find that political misinformation plummeted on Twitter when it first 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 legitimate 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 slowing down 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 incitement to violence when we encounter it in real life. Why should we allow companies to profit from hate and fear in the virtual space? Restrictions on the spread of “stop the steal” and Q-related content are not ideal, but these lies also killed people in the physical world. They are far from alone.

3. Social Media: Campaigns, Advocates & Activists

With all that in mind, you might not be surprised that political social media somewhat up in the air in 2023. Besides incitement and active disinformation campaigns, digital activists have to deal with the lingering 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 compelling 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 will be intrigued by the Trump campaign’s industrial-scale, data-driven Facebook outreach program, impossible to replicate now as it may be. Campaigns of all sizes still flock to Twitter, though the platform may be a tantrum away from dissolution at any moment, taking advantage of the platform’s lingering audience leftover prominence from 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 the world for better or worse. What about SnapChat, TikTok, Instagram and Twitch? See the big-picture social media chapter for more, but look for campaigns and organizations to experiment with just about any digital tool you can think of, particularly when they can motivate supporters to be active on their behalf. Still, Facebook and Twitter will dominate the average social outreach strategy.

4. The Public is (Still) Fired Up

Riots and conspiracies show the dark side of digital activism, but that’s of course not the whole story. As the massive voter turnout in recent U.S. elections have shown, millions of people are fed up with the way things are and are fired up to change it. 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, bringing a new energy to progressive causes. Their chief rivals? The members of Trump’s “base”, whose passions he stoked through furious and fuming missives posted online. From racial justice to immigration policy to abortion, the conflict between their competing visions will power American politics for years to come.

5. Data-Driven Voter Targeting

Despite the intensity of this new wave of political activism, 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 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 has now entered 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.

Despite its usefulness, though, microtargeting is far from a panacea. Precisely targeting TOO much content can be a problem, and not just because your data model might not include the right voters. A microtargeting mindset can miss the need for broad messages that touch voters at an emotional level, including people your data miners might have missed. Put simply, candidates need to stand for something, not a million things depending on whom they’re talking to. As always, it’s a question of balance — microtarget to deliver a precise message to a few, but complement it with outreach to the many.

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.

6. 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 then:

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?

That grassroots enthusiasm has waxed and waned and waxed again in the years since I wrote those words, but 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.

7. 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 too.

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’ve seen repeatedly in this book, targeted digital 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.

8. 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, it’s obvious that any candidate can be on the receiving end of lies spread online, whether it’s amplified by a bot-net or your crazy uncle. In this environment, every campaign should plan for rapid response against a digital smear. Pro Tips: 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 AI-created fake video becomes commonplace.

Likewise, 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.

9. 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 these days, in part to pick off the shakiest parts of their opponents’ coalitions. For inspiration, note the
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 Dems, however, 2020 exposed the limits of using political money to buy electoral love.

Of course, if you’re a local candidate, you might not have big outside groups intervening in your election. You might have upset local residents intervening instead! Either way, your own supporters are likely to be your best allies. Encourage them to be your ambassadors in their own social circles.

10. Integrate or Die

In 2023, 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 cable, streaming a movie or listening to a podcast.

“Audience-based” TV advertising, which the Obama 2012 campaign pioneered in the political world, may be part of the mix. 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. Combine this approach with in-app TV advertising and mobile ads, and you’re approaching our future multi-screen nirvana.

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

Data integration isn’t all that sexy — 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 2023 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 regularly in the months to come.

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Colin Delany
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