The gathering in Beverly Hills in early April had all the elements of a Hollywood pitch meeting: influential celebrities, powerful agents, marketing moguls and social media strategists.
The only hint of difference was the presence of a lone government official: Paulette Aniskoff, head of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Aniskoff had journeyed from Washington to the offices of the entertainment company Live Nation for a strategy session on how YouTube and Vine stars could use their digital celebrity to promote some of the Obama administration’s key policies.
The meeting, which ran twice as long as the hour allotted, in many ways exemplifies how central digital media and audience engagement have become to the functioning of the Obama White House.
The online stars in attendance — mostly young, video-sharing entrepreneurs with large niche audiences and powerful personal connections to their millions of subscribers — are part of a robust online and social media culture at the White House that is likely to forever change the way American presidents relate to the public.
Barack Obama rose to prominence as a politician who could deliver broad, sweeping speeches with universal themes, and he has leveraged the opportunities of the digital age to maximum political advantage. But often, this now means speaking narrowly to his base voters or to groups disconnected from the mainstream political process.
The new strategy offers benefits as well as risks. The White House can reach more people without the filter of the traditional media, target its audience with precision and receive almost immediate feedback. But the approach raises the prospect of fostering further political polarization if the president opts to communicate mostly with parts of the electorate that identify with him ideologically or can be helpful politically.
Critics worry that governance by social media will cheapen the power of the presidency by substituting hashtag activism for serious policymaking. And in these exceptionally partisan times, some see the president’s prodigious use of social media as just another example of the cozy political relationship between the political left and Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
However history judges Obama’s role in transforming the office, this first American president of the social media age has already established a standard for how politicians connect with a digitally savvy electorate. Other chief executives did network TV; Obama is the streaming-video, Netflix president.
“Presidents have always wanted to talk to all Americans at once, have them pay attention, and have them believe what they are saying,” said Nate Persily, a Stanford University law professor who studies political communication. “With the new platforms, not only can President Obama speak directly to ‘the people,’ but he can also target particular messages to audiences that ordinarily would not be paying attention.”
The current 14-member staff of the White House Office of Digital Strategy is slightly larger than the entire press secretary’s office of George W. Bush in 2005 (12) or Obama’s in June 2009 (13), said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political science professor.
These changes are simply part of the new reality of having come to power during the digital and social-media revolution, White House officials say. The Pew Research Center has found, for example, that more than half of Web-using adults regularly get their political news through Facebook.
“Our consideration is these platforms just reach so many people, we can’t not play in that space,” said Amy Brundage, deputy communications director at the White House.
After the disastrous rollout of his health insurance program, the president appeared on the Funny or Die online comedy series “Between Two Ferns.” More recently, Obama spoofed himself in a video on BuzzFeed headlined, “Things Everybody Does But Doesn’t Talk About, Featuring President Obama.” So far, the BuzzFeed video has been viewed nearly 53 million times.
In the shift from old to new media, the White House has essentially become its own media production company, one that can sometimes look like a state-run news distribution service. This year alone, White House officials have posted more than 400 videos to YouTube, which have been viewed for a total of more than 174,497,605 minutes. They have produced nearly 275 infographics for WhiteHouse.gov and for social media outlets. They have also created and programmed multiple channels on Web sites ranging from BuzzFeed to Instagram and Pinterest.
Perhaps the most vivid example of the White House’s new-media ambitions was the president’s latest State of the Union address: Leading up to the speech, the White House posted 18 of its own videos — including one of Obama sitting on his desk aboard Air Force One. He used the moment to announce a plan to make community college tuition free for a large swath of working-class and poor Americans. That video alone attracted 8.4 million views.
On the night of the speech itself, the administration upended tradition by creating what it dubbed “a river of content” that it released directly for public consumption. There was a live stream of the speech supplemented by 127 slides. The White House released the president’s remarks online the moment he started speaking, bypassing the enormous private media apparatus dedicated to White House news coverage.
Twitter further helped the administration dominate online consumption of the speech by including a large-box message for selected users saying: “The State of the Union is Tonight. Get Tweets and exclusive coverage from The White House. Follow @WhiteHouse.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said these close working relationships with new-media outlets and other nontraditional programmers are meant “to supplement our conversations with the White House press corps,” not to bypass them. But the balance between the camps has shifted decisively.
While Obama still holds regular press conferences and traditional media interviews, often with television correspondents, he has done just three interviews in the past year with a national newspaper journalist, according to unofficial White House chronicler Mark Knoller — twice with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, once with the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib.
Mickey Meyer, a co-founder of the digital production company JASH who first broached the idea of connecting YouTube creators with the White House, said shared-video producers can deliver an more reliable audience than traditional celebrities.
“You have an idea of how many people you are going to reach, and who those people are,” he said.
Micro-targeting — the idea of being able to identify exactly the desired audience and aim messages to them directly — has been a critical part of the Obama political operation. More than half of the White House’s digital staff worked on one of Obama’s presidential campaigns, and the campaign mentality helps guide their messaging strategy now that they’re in the federal government.
Nate Lubin, who recently stepped down as the director of the White House Office of Digital Strategy, said it’s much easier to produce an engaging online experience “when you think about a group that’s more detailed than the entire country. It’s impossible to create something that speaks to something that broad.”
So it’s all about those open to listening to the president’s message.
“This is a medium largely meant to motivate the core, rather than a medium to convince those on the other side or in the neutral camp,” said Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Clearly, Obama is not the first president to try new methods of forging connections with citizens. Franklin D. Roosevelt conducted “fireside chats” on the radio, while President Carter hosted a call-in show multiple times from the Oval Office. Bill Clinton played saxophone on the “Arsenio Hall Show” (wearing shades, no less), and found himself in the awkward predicament of having to answer if he wore “boxers or briefs.”
Obama seems well adapted to this new-media landscape. He is a digital native who understands the online tools his staff uses to amplify his social media presence and is at ease with taping casual videos. Not only does he engage on Twitter, Facebook and Medium; when Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Goldberg died this month Obama posted a recollection on the White House’s Facebook page rather than issuing a formal condolence statement.
The success, and the reach, of the White House new-media strategy is due in part to a series of close relationships between the White House and people in the new-media business, many of whom support the president politically. The collaborations have been a boon to the media companies, providing access to both power and content. And the White House gets to use cutting-edge technology to advance the president’s agenda.
“Whenever we come up with new technology, they [White House officials] are quick to figure out how it fits into their events,” said Bridget Coyne, of Twitter’s government and elections team.
It was only last fall when the White House posted its first item on Medium, a blog platform established by new White House digital director Jason Goldman and Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone. Now Medium is often the medium of first resort; it has become a routine destination for White House officials to make staffing announcements, explain policy moves and post original content by White House photographer Pete Souza. LinkedIn, which has a major female audience, became the venue for White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to unveil the administration’s paid leave proposal in January.
Some wonder whether the White House and the Silicon Valley companies are simply doing favors for each other because they share political leanings.
“At the end of the day, I am skeptical that the Googles of the world are going to be as open to a Republican president,” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who served as policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.
Meyer, the JASH co-founder, said he believes that YouTube stars — who have routinely traveled to Washington at their own expense to meet with administration officials — would be willing to collaborate with whoever follows Obama into the Oval Office. “It’s less about carrying partisan issues than an exchange of information about White House and society,” he said.
While most Silicon Valley firms will have a business incentive to work with any administration, it is hard to envision that some celebrities — especially those in Hollywood — would be as interested in aiding a conservative president, or that a politician less attuned to pop culture could pull off the sort of videos Obama has accomplished with ease. “In my time working at the White House, it was clear to me that the president is beloved by the creative community,” said Brad Jenkins, who used to run celebrity engagement for the White House and now heads Funny or Die’s Washington office.
For all the excitement and novelty about the president’s digital savvy and his innovative communications shop, this new world carries some risks, both virtual and political.
Consider what the president refused to do when asked: When BuzzFeed proposed making “dancing alone” one of the video’s themes, the White House declined.
“On day one when we launched our White House Twitter account, I would say there were some pretty fundamental questions about what is the voice of the White House on Twitter?” recalled Kori Schulman, the White House’s director of online engagement. “What you think of as the tone of the presidency can seem at contrast with the tone on Twitter and the number of characters at your disposal.”
There was Obama’s Google-arranged interview with YouTube superstar GloZell Green, best known for her bright-green lipstick and effervescent delivery. In the interview, she described Michelle Obama as “your first wife” and made an off-color play on the word “dictatorship” in referring to Cuban President Raúl Castro.
The webcast also produced a stream of racist and offensive remarks aimed at both the president and the interviewer that will live on the Internet for eternity.
“I think we can have a more permissive framework of what it means to draw people into conversation online,” said Goldman, the first-ever White House digital director. “The Internet can be little unpredictable, and the conversation will usually take a different form than it does, say, in the briefing room.”
The question is whether all these efforts have been effective. It has clearly spurred greater public engagement, but on the policymaking front, especially overseas, it is harder to tell.
When Michelle Obama tweeted last year in support of a large group of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram, using the popular hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, she brought enormous attention to the plight of the kidnapped girls, but she also sparked a harsh reaction. Critics of the administration’s use of drone strikes to target suspected terrorists recreated the image as a critique of the policy, which has caused many civilian casualties. “Nothing will bring back the children murdered by my husband’s drone strikes,” one caption read. On a practical level, while the message drew widespread attention, it did little to change the outcome: Boko Haram has yet to return the girls.
Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, wrote in an e-mail that Obama’s focus on these platforms has “paid dividends politically and connected him to a younger generation” but has failed to yield foreign policy results in “a tough world where there are no easy solutions.”
Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from late 2011 to early 2014, said he and others often used social media “to get Obama’s voice into a debate about U.S.-Russian relations.” But he added the Russians “are way more savvy on social media than I think most people understand,” because of their government’s ability to mobilize hundreds of microbloggers and its willingness to distort the facts. As a result, McFaul said, measuring the impact of the administration’s techniques “is nearly impossible.”
There have been some demonstrable results on the domestic front. More than 200,000 people across the country have taken the “It’s On Us” pledge, a White House effort to prevent sexual assault on college campuses that launched last fall with a celebrity-filled video. A five-minute video of Obama speaking about climate change and other issues with his “anger translator” at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner has attracted more than 35.8 million views on Facebook, making it the most-watched Facebook video ever published by a U.S. government or political entity.
Have you met Luther, President Obama’s anger translator? #WHCD #KeyAndPeele
Posted by The White House on Saturday, April 25, 2015
Goldman said officials are open to “a real conversation” with the public: He has solicited advice on how to do his job on Medium, and the “We the People” petitions platform has prompted the administration to weigh in on issues ranging from transgender conversion therapy to net neutrality.
For Obama, the strategy is working. The 61/2-minute “Between Two Ferns” exchange, in which actor Zach Galifianakis asked Obama what it is like to be “the last black president,” drove more than 19,000 referral visits to HealthCare.gov within a matter of hours and boosted the site’s overall image.
The February BuzzFeed video in which Obama posed with a selfie stick met what Brundage called “a strategic goal” because it directed the site’s millennial viewers to enroll on the federal health exchange.
A few weeks after the “Between Two Ferns” interview aired, Jenkins and Jarrett briefed Obama in the Oval Office about how well it had done online — that it was “Ferns’ ” most successful video, and that more than 90 percent of the viewers who then logged onto HealthCare.gov were visiting for the first time.
“This is why we did it,” the president declared.