Opinion | How to beat Trump online in the 2020 election


While former Vice President Joe Biden spent nearly a year nailing the Democratic presidential nomination, the Trump campaign spent most of the past four years sucking in as much data as possible to better target and influence American voters.

The Trump campaign is using its edge to break fundraising records, test political messages and hanging states with thousands of digital ads. Biden’s campaign continues to recruit digital talent and make critical strategy decisions. For the second consecutive presidential run, Democrats are starting far behind in online presence.

President Trump’s campaign has used his vast data mining operation to generate pockets of influence on the Internet, connected through landing pages and hypertergy subdomains, ensuring that major groups, such as women and veterans, are channeled to groups where they are encourages organizing. This not only keeps supporters engaged, but can also create viral loops that trap a loyal online base within an echo chamber of right-wing talk points and pro-Trump propaganda. Just log in to any of the more than 90 Facebook groups in the Trump ecosystem and you can see this dynamic at work.

Trump’s operation is formidable, but that does not mean that he is invincible.

While the tactics of the Trump campaign will facilitate the participation of people who have spent years cultivating online, the top-down approach is ineffective in reaching new audiences. This may be the greatest opportunity of the Biden campaign. Covid-19 and the resulting social disruption has prepared millions of Americans not only to receive political information, but also to participate in the political process themselves. All Democrats have to do is meet with supporters (and potential supporters) where they are online and facilitate their participation.

In Andrew Yang’s campaign, which took the form of adopting a new style of politics for a new generation of voters: exclusive content behind the scenes, regular contests, hotlines for communication with the candidate and the campaign, and a decentralized structure. That allowed Yang Gang to innovate on his own. Similarly, Buttigieg’s campaign shared its design toolkit, allowing thousands of followers to create their own content, such as banners and parade banners, that greatly increased their reach and capacity.

Both campaigns adopted a multiplatform strategy that put our candidates in front of audiences normally ignored by the political classes. The goal was not to be everywhere, but to be in the right places with the right message. If that meant that Mr. Yang appeared on an Instagram live stream of “The Daily Show” or Mr. Buttigieg appeared on the Snapchat show “Good Luck America”, expanding beyond our existing online bases was a of our top priorities.

But no candidate can be everywhere. That is why the Buttigieg campaign created the first Digital Captains program of its kind, in which users received campaign resources and guidance and were then encouraged to use that material to create their own content and organize and raise money between friends and contacts. At the end of the campaign, being a member of #TeamPete or #YangGang was more than supporting a candidate; it was a sign of a different kind of politics and a different kind of political commitment.

The Biden campaign appears to be building a large number of Facebook groups, but unlike the Trump campaign groups, Biden groups appear to be campaign-driven and state-segmented, not because of cause, interest, or affinity. Facebook groups are a space where people gather to exchange information and ideas. Geography shouldn’t matter; shared passions do.

To engage audiences outside of your core fan base, Mr. Biden’s campaign must show you as a kind, caring and compassionate leader, and compare that to President Trump’s cruelty and rudeness. You should use the many digital platforms available to make this contrast sharp.

The current fingerprint of Biden’s campaign seems too static and packaged. The copy that accompanies social media posts is often too long and sounds more like a dumb speech or ad than an engaging call to action. The public wants to know the candidate, his flaws and everything. Social media content must be conversational and break down the walls between the public and the candidates.

Biden’s campaign should focus less on controlling the message and more on giving the public a platform to share their stories and feelings about the candidate.

Like Team Biden, we have experienced the difficulties of preparing a digital campaign from scratch and we know how difficult it can be to do a lot with little. But it’s not about money, staff size, or high-priced consulting firms. It’s about empowering the public to be part of the story.

Vice President Biden is not going to beat Donald Trump by duplicating top-down structures and the massive data mining operation that the Trump team built in the past four years. Instead, it is time to harness the power of people and build something new.

Patricia Nelson was the creative and social media director for Yang2020. Stefan Smith was the director of online engagement for the Buttigieg campaign. Erick M. Sanchez (@erickmsanchez) was Andrew Yang’s itinerant press secretary.

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