AMERICANS ACROSS the country are filling Facebook feeds and smartphone screens with exhortations to back Mike Bloomberg in his effort to become the Democratic nominee. The catch? Many of them are getting paid to do it — whether their audience knows it or not.
In between these two extremes falls a gambit to pay influential Instagram users to upload memes and photographs promoting the candidate to a collective 60 million-plus followers. These uploads include disclosures, though those who saw them reported some confusion. More confusion arises from parent-company Facebook’s decision not to consider the sponsorships political advertisements eligible for inclusion in its much-vaunted library, because the money is being paid to individuals rather than to the platform. After announcing this position, Facebook later announced that it would place political sponsored content in a dedicated column visible through its public CrowdTangle tracking tool.
The “deputy digital organizer” ploy exploits a separate loophole, to even more concerning effect: Because these people are technically employed by the campaign, their posts may not require disclosures or ad labels. The Bloomberg team says it is instructing its mercenaries to add the affiliation to their profiles, but that’s hardly a substitute for transparency on a piece of content itself. Platforms are still figuring out how to respond; Twitter suspended 70 pro-Bloomberg accounts on Feb. 22 for violating its manipulation and spam rules by disseminating a bevy of prefabricated tweets, such as “The Fight for Equal Rights Has Been One of the Great Fights of Mike’s Life,” near-simultaneously.
The aim is to create the appearance of organic support without actually earning any, and the means to achieve it is a boatload of cash. Campaigns often pay organizers to text, but by leveraging donor lists and voter files instead of their personal networks. Plenty of other candidates also encourage volunteers to download apps that scan their contact lists and generate texts. But there’s a difference between volunteers who sincerely believe they’re helping the best person for the job and people getting paid at scale to pretend.
That it’s so easy to push the boundaries of platforms’ rules should prompt the platforms and regulators alike to consider whether those rules are adequate. But Mr. Bloomberg also has a responsibility to respect the process he hopes to win, and to consider when “innovative” really means exploitative.