The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What this year’s election campaign will look like online

Joe Biden speaks during the 11th Democratic debate, held in CNN's Washington studios without an audience because of the coronavirus pandemic, on March 15. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

AMERICAN POLITICS has long run on door-knocking, rally-throwing, baby-kissing and all manner of other activities that have suddenly become unsafe in the age of the novel coronavirus. Candidates depend more than ever on a realm that was created for mass connection: the Internet.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is confined to his basement, where he produces podcasts and glitchy town halls via video-conference tool Zoom. But it’s not easy to compete with the freewheeling show his rival’s reelection team churns out daily, replete with right-wing Web-winning heroes such as sister act Diamond & Silk. That’s not to mention President Trump’s ready-made platform in the White House briefings, which guarantees him a national audience.

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Local candidates with tighter budgets that are tightening further still need the Web even more: Compared with digital advertising, television is expensive and less useful in building the small-dollar donor lists key to funding a campaign.

These challenges for hopefuls are challenges, too, for platforms. A greater amount of digital advertising raises the stakes for treating those ads thoughtfully and transparently, but no rules mandate the robust disclosures essential to an informed public. Congress hasn’t passed the Honest Ads Act, and the Federal Election Commission is squabbling over the extent of its authority online. That means it’s up to social media sites themselves to catch the so-called stealth ads partisan groups have been posting without revealing their identities, and to beef up their disclosure and disclaimer systems more generally.

It may be up to sites, too, to facilitate communication between candidates and their would-be constituents. Google was right to reverse an ill-considered policy that allowed governmental messaging but prohibited paid political content mentioning the coronavirus — in effect privileging incumbents’ communications over challengers’. Any algorithmic changes platforms may make to boost trusted content could have a similar effect. Former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler suggests that platforms offer free time to the major candidates for broadcast-to-all messages; minor candidates could probably use the help reaching their constituencies as well.

The worries don’t end there. The “infodemic” of which the World Health Organization warns threatens our democracy as well as our health, inviting the thorny question of what to do about a politician who spreads a lie about the virus: Where’s the line between politics and public health amid a pandemic, and when is newsworthy misinformation still too harmful to let stand? Cybersecurity, too, looks tenuous. Imagine the 2016 hack of the Hillary Clinton campaign but with even more internal communications online and even more vectors for penetration. Zoom has already proved alarmingly easy to breach.

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These issues were difficult before the coronavirus struck, and now they’re both more formidable and more pressing. The way the country rethinks its politics amid today’s tumult could change how it conducts them in a calmer tomorrow — even when baby-kissing is back on the agenda.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Americans deserve to know who pays for political ads. But is that enough?

Jennifer Rubin: What Joe Biden got right in his virtual press conference

Nina Jankowicz: Which Democratic candidate has the best policies on social media?