Most political discussion, though, derives from organic, unpaid conversations: individual posts about politics, groups on Facebook or focus areas on Reddit. Campaigns spend money to get into those conversations, too, but they largely operate outside the sphere of influence from campaigns.
Then, of course, there’s the injection of politics into nonpolitical conversations. We saw a good representation of that this week, with an expansive campaign by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg to pay Instagram users with millions of followers to promote his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.
An aide to Bloomberg’s campaign told the New York Times’s Taylor Lorenz that the campaign was “trying to be innovative with how we’re translating the campaign message on social, trying to do it how the Internet actually works.” Simply tweeting from the main campaign Twitter account was “a very 2008 strategy."
In the abstract, perhaps, but the campaign is clearly aiming for something a bit more current than that. Its tweets have attracted a great deal of attention simply by virtue of how weird they are. One featured a gingerbread man dancing on Trump's shoulder as the president addressed his acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial — a tweet that would not have been the norm in 2008.
Bloomberg’s strategy here is, in part, simply to draw attention to his campaign’s willingness to engage in social media in different ways that hopefully demonstrate unexpected savvy (as well as the candidate’s deep pockets).
A tweet like the gingerbread man one is “not good for individually convincing 100,000 people that Mike Bloomberg should be the president,” New York magazine’s Brian Feldman wrote this month. “However, it is very good at convincing pundits and politicians watching the race closely that Mike Bloomberg is making weird tweets to try and appeal to young voters.” It is, in a sense, a flexing of muscles, an electability play in an electability election.
This isn’t what Trump is doing. His team is also resource-heavy, much more because of robust fundraising than the candidate’s willingness to dip into his bank account. (It’s likely that Bloomberg has more liquid cash than Trump both because Trump’s wealth is heavily invested in real estate and because, well, Bloomberg is far richer.) So far, Trump’s reelection campaign is deploying the strategy that helped him win the White House: saturating Facebook with iterations of different ads aimed heavily at promoting that robust fundraising.
Bloomberg’s message doesn’t need to be concerned about fundraising, allowing his campaign to focus on promoting the candidate. The team has been ramping up spending on Facebook ads, spending up to 10 times what Trump’s campaign is spending in recent days. The effect isn’t only to spread Bloomberg’s message but also to drown out Trump’s message. When someone goes to a page where a Facebook ad will be shown, there’s a behind-the-scenes, automated auction to determine what ad is shown. Facebook balances what an advertiser wants to spend with what a user wants to see to decide what ad is shown. If you are willing to spend more, you can influence what ends up in front of the potential customer/voter.
Bloomberg is “going to be taking eyeballs away from Trump,” a director of a marketing agency told NBC News. “He's making it so that he's pushing him out of the auction."
In 2016, Trump’s campaign was very effective at winning those auctions. This year, Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth described the Trump effort in 2016 as “the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser.” Part of the reason for that was that Trump’s campaign was willing to spend a bit more, because many of the ads were focused on raising money. Part of it, too, was that the content of the ads was aimed at engagement, at ginning up the sort of emotion that social media rewards. Engagement boosts the value of an ad in Facebook’s instant auction, giving Trump an advantage. One former staff member for Hillary Clinton’s campaign acknowledged that Trump’s ads in 2016 were better suited to social engagement.
This touches on a central tension within social media. Content that arouses emotions tends to do better. Bloomberg’s tweets and his Instagram-influencer campaign are focused on humor. Trump’s tweets and Facebook ads often focus on anger, stirring up irritation at Democrats and the media. Bloomberg’s Facebook ads are about anger, too — anger directed at Trump.
Trump may have an advantage here. When a group of teenagers in Macedonia discovered in 2016 that they could share fake news on Facebook to generate activity and earn money from ads, they found that things targeted to Trump supporters did better. They tried creating sites to generate income by boosting left-leaning issues, but "People in America prefer to read news about Trump,” one told BuzzFeed News.
This gets into another area that Bloomberg’s money may have more difficulty penetrating: organic social media content.
The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins recently wrote about the ongoing universe of misinformation that often centers on Trump. Much of it is generated by Trump supporters themselves. But as Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale told the Palm Beach Post last year, the campaign would deploy “swarms of surrogates” to influence local conversations. Conservative groups have also created phony local news sites aimed at muddying the conversation about national political issues.
Those formal efforts may not have much reach. It’s not clear, though, how to counter thousands of actual Trump supporters sharing or amplifying false information or misleading information that is successful at triggering the social media emotion-generating reward system. It doesn’t matter for die-hard Trump supporters, but should Bloomberg be the nominee, he’ll need to figure out how to keep potential swing voters from being blanketed with false claims.
Right now, that’s not what his campaign is trying to do. Both his and Trump’s campaigns are trying to use social media to generate a resource that the campaign needs. For Trump, it’s money. For Bloomberg, it’s attention — and a sort of primary voter shock and awe at his inevitable resource dominance.