Facebook recently announced a grassroots murder. The culprit? A change in the way Facebook apps interact with the company’s vast amount of data on individual users.
The victim? For the past couple of years, as we’ve described before in TechBytes, Facebook has allowed companies to develop apps that access the friend lists of users. For political targeters, this feature has been a handy way to connect Facebook to a voter file and automate the process of peer-to-peer voter contact.
Friend-access has been built into tools from NGP VAN and other vendors, and it worked like this: If a candidate’s supporters clicked a button to allow it, the technology would compare their lists of friends to the campaign’s priority list of outreach contacts—often voters who were hard to reach in other ways.
If the software detected a match, it would ask the supporter to confirm that they were indeed friends with the person in question (false positives were inevitable, making verification vital). The supporter would then be asked to contact the targeted voter on behalf of the campaign, often with a message designed to match the recipient’s demographic profile.
In 2012, the Obama campaign developed its own version of the tool, and staff I’ve spoken with have described it as particularly useful in reaching younger voters. Since many people in their 20s move frequently and rarely have land lines, social connections were one of the only ways to track this elusive quarry.
But no more: Facebook’s API change blocks new apps from accessing friend lists, and existing ones are grandfathered in for just a year. After the 2014 election cycle, vendors will have to find new ways to mine the social web for voter contacts. Smart ones will have already done so.
USING THE WEB TO CONNECT THE UNCOORDINATED
If it weren’t for Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” most of us would never have heard of a clever way to use the web to circumvent campaign coordination rules. Earlier this year, his writers came across high-quality online video of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell staring intently at the camera in various settings. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes with his wife. Sometimes he was in a suit at his desk, other times in shirtsleeves on the couch. The “Daily Show” team had great fun putting the clips to music, a hobby Stewart dubbed #McConnelling, and that his viewers took up with vigor.
But what was the point? Advertising, of course. The video clips were clearly designed for use by outside “uncoordinated” groups in their own TV and online ads. A campaign would naturally deny any such intention, but it’s hardly the only way political groups have used the Internet to bypass restrictions on political activity.
As Stu Rothenberg pointed out in a February Roll Call column, politicos have posted everything from hi-res versions of print pieces to complete opposition research packages behind hard-to-find links on their websites. Sharing is caring, after all.
A LINKEDIN FOR CANDIDATES? PLUS, FREE STUFF
Poli-tech start up Democracy.com has an ambitious goal. Among other things, it wants to become a LinkedIn for political campaigns. To jumpstart the process, the company offers free websites to anyone running for office, along with the ability to take donations—a privilege for which it charges close to 4 percent per transaction. Besides donation fees, they’re also hoping to convince candidates to upgrade their free sites to feature-rich paid versions and to pay for other services from the company.
The larger goal, though, is to create an online space that campaigns of all levels feel compelled to join, just as professionals in many fields feel they must be on LinkedIn. To build their list, Democracy.com has developed technology to “scrape” public information to create a national database. Once candidates are featured in automatically generated profile pages, the company hopes that they’ll feel the need to replace Democracy.com’s information with their own.
Like any social network, Democracy.com faces the question of critical mass. Can they get enough people using the site that campaigns can’t ignore it? To help build a user base, they offer voters a simple zip codebase lookup system, which directs them to elections and the profiles of candidates in their area. Will it work?
Election and political portals have been a tough business in the past, but let’s see if Democracy.com can pull it off.
45 DAYS TO CREATE A TWEET?
Back in May, the online communications world buzzed about a Business Insider article examining the tortuous path a tweet from an official corporate account can take from conception to posting. Some tweets might need 45 days to see daylight, enduring round upon round of edits and approvals along the way. Not exactly rapid response.
Since you’re not likely to win the spin war riding a glacier, try to keep your tweets in real time. To do so in a dangerous political environment, though, you’ll need two things: preparation and trust.
The preparation part? Clear content guidelines—no cussing on the campaign account. You’ll also need clear communications about campaign goals, messages, and—as much as possible—pre-stocking the shelves with text and images that social media managers can reach for in a pinch.
The trust part? You have to trust your staff to make good decisions based on the information they have. You don’t want the candidate to have to approve every single tweet. But you also don’t want a social media oops to land you on the front page of the local paper. Trust and prepare. And, it never hurts anyone communicating in our microphone-filled environment to have a damage control plan close at hand.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com and a 15-year veteran of online politics.