Unlike in primaries past, when campaigns relegated digital staffers to their own departments, candidates are now staffing digitally experienced operatives across operations, including fundraising and organizing.
Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke have all tapped operatives with digital or start-up experience for key nondigital roles. Now that the 2020 primary is fully underway, even the most long shot campaigns are bringing on a new wave of digital staffers across their teams.
The problem? There simply aren’t enough staffers to go around.
“The demand for people who are digital-first thinking is through the roof,” says Betsy Hoover, co-founder of Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for liberal startups. But “even with staffs of hundreds of people over the last three presidential cycles, on the progressive side that doesn't go very far when you're talking about 24 campaigns.”
Tara McGowan, founder and CEO at Acronym, a digital start-up focused on advertising and organizing programs for progressive campaigns, has noticed a similar scramble for talent.
“I think that we have a huge gap in the left in terms of trainings and capacity for campaign staffers to really leverage the Internet to meet their goals,” says McGowan, who has seen some of her own staffers poached by 2020 candidates.
Part of the reason for the digital talent race is that technology needs are no longer just about social media know-how and email lists. Now, campaigns are using the most up-to-the-minute technology on everything from canvassing to even precision polling.
Take for instance the digital manpower behind the Bernie Sanders campaign, which has mobilized an email list, app, Slack group and even its own Twitch stream to get voters out and donating.
“Our hope is to broaden the audience to bring more people into the political process while reaching them where they are,” Sanders's digital communications director Joshua Miller-Lewis tells me. And that requires reaching potential voters on as many platforms as possible.
On the first night of the Democratic debate last week, the campaign launched a Twitch livestream and will soon go live with a stand-alone website exclusively for campaign livestreams. The campaign is hoping to give supporters a more interactive experience – and by teaming up with StreamLabs, a software to help streamers collect donations, more ways to donate.
For campaigns without as many resources, that’s where Higher Ground Labs comes in. Hoover and her co-founder, Shomik Dutta, were inspired by their own experience as Democratic campaign staffers who found themselves repeatedly facing the same problem: Their campaigns would build out technology, but it would be lost once the campaign ended. Staffers for the next cycle would have to start at the drawing board and the innovations were lost.
Higher Ground seeks to solve that problem by giving companies building political tech tools space and resources outside of the campaign cycle. It works much like a traditional incubator, but with a bent toward projects servicing progressives.
And for the over two-dozen campaigns who might not have the cash or know-how to build out proprietary technology, it’s become a potential equalizer. For example, one of its projects, Mobilize America, an events platform, helps campaigns quickly organize everything from viewing parties to phone banking and allows voters to find them all in one spot. At least 20 campaigns use the Higher Ground Labs-funded app, says Hoover.
Other Higher Ground projects like OpenField and OutVote allow canvassers to digitize their networks and employ messengers voters trust: their friends. It’s similar to what the Sanders’ “BERN app” does but with no in-house engineering required.
Of course, none of these tools can fully replace human staff. But they can make their work easier.
“This allows those digital professionals to have the tools that are ready for prime time right away,” says Hoover, “And for them to focus on the things that they are uniquely suited to do -- reach voters with a particular message from their candidate, organize communities, communicate with their supporters. Things that a tool cannot do but people with a strong toolset can really take to the next level.”
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: President Trump said he would allow some U.S. companies to resume sales to Huawei following renewed trade talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday, my colleagues David J. Lynch and Damian Paletta report. President Trump also agreed to put off an additional $300 billion in taxes on Chinese exports while the countries iron out a deal.
The news is a boon to tech companies that had been struggling with the Commerce Department policy that required them to seek out permission to sell to the Chinese tech giant. The Huawei ban has hit American chip producers who have lost 100 of millions in profit this quarter, especially hard according to The New York Times.
Jason Oxman, CEO of Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), which represents tech companies including Intel and IBM, praised the announcement:
But not everyone in Washington was pleased. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the decision a "catastrophic mistake"
American tech companies aren't out of the woods yet. The White House has yet to start any formal negotiations and the president didn't announce a deadline for a new deal, Damian and David report.
NIBBLES: Facebook announced it will create a Civil Rights Task Force as a part of its ongoing civil rights audit yesterday. The audit has faced heavy scrutiny since it was announced in May 2018 and yesterday's report offers the first major look at the company's attempts to address issues raised by civil-rights advocates.
Facebook will also introduce a new moderator pilot program to prevent the censorship of users reporting hate speech — a common issue for activists, as my colleague Elizabeth Dwoskin reported in 2017.
In addition to shoring up defenses against 2020 election interference, Facebook announced it will be introducing new policies to prevent interference with the 2020 census. Similar to the initiatives the company introduced to reduce voter suppression in 2018, the company will use a combination of human moderators, AI, and help from outside organizations to explicitly prohibit content meant to mislead and discourage users from participating in the census.
“We are treating the online census like we would any tier one election,” Neil Potts, Facebook's public policy director, tells me.
But the audit also raises a number of issues the company has yet to address. For instance, auditors are recommending that Facebook expand its recent policy against white nationalism to include implicit mentions, such as symbology and other coded language. Potts says that all direct recommendations from the audit will go through a working group.
“I think it's meatier. I think it also reflects Facebook's understanding that it needs to put a structure in place,” Laura Murphy, the civil rights advocate who was hired to lead and write the audit, tells me.
BYTES: And civil-rights advocates greeted the report more warmly than a December Facebook release. But not everyone is impressed -- activists are torn over whether the new changes represent a good-faith effort from the company.
“The updated audit is an important step forward, but the broader impact for our 1.5 million members and all Black Facebook users will depend on the company’s commitment to enforcement and transparency of policies developed by this promised civil rights infrastructure to protect all Facebook users from harm,” Rashad Robinson, president of the group Color of Change, said in a statement.
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also applauded the audit, especially its commitment to the 2020 census.
“This long overdue civil rights audit shows that Facebook is making important progress to addressing its significant civil rights challenges,” said Gupta. “But this is not, and must not, be the end. As the world’s largest social media platform, it is crucial that Facebook integrate anti-discrimination work into the DNA of the company and their products.”
Muslim Advocates, a group also involved with the audit, criticized the company and renewed its calls for Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg (who headd the Civil Rights Task Force) to be removed from the Facebook board.
"If Facebook has the capability to proactively remove content that violates its policies such as child pornography or ISIS-inspired speech and rhetoric, then it has the capability to remove anti-Muslim and white nationalist content just as aggressively," the organization said in a statement. It also criticized Facebook on Twitter:
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