One big thing is true about the campaigns that won in 2020: they connected with their communities, block by block, person to person, even during the pandemic.
The future isn’t better optimized Facebook campaigns. The present is organizing the communities we have online to mirror real life. The future is taking that power and deploying it on whatever platform makes sense at the moment, in a nimble fashion and investing in our communities as a long-term asset like our opponents have. The past is trying to rebuild the Republican media machine in a liberal form.
We’ve spent a lot of effort in trying to build campaign tools and tactics that worked the last two cycles, only to be disappointed in the results the following year. We’re about to do it again. Tools and money alone don’t substitute for actual support. Further, the best-targeted ad campaign won’t matter if the message doesn’t resonate with the people we need to convince. Most voters block out anything that resembles political rhetoric to preserve their sanity, and it’s increasingly hard to buy their attention as they subscribe to paid services or use messaging apps.
We’ve invested significantly in tools and ad spending on Facebook and Google, often beating the Republicans. At the same time, we’re not prepared for the whims of these platforms and the statutory uncertainties to come. We also have a heavier reliance on the media to carry our water for us as they have been laying off reporters. We’ll increasingly be in a weaker position for introducing new candidates to the world, let alone any in-depth reporting on relevant issues.
This past month communities online have taken over the stock market (#stonks) and organized an insurrection on our Capitol. Not a single Facebook ad was purchased to make these events happen.
Meanwhile, Apple is about to heavily restrict access to data for platforms like Facebook. Do you have a plan?
If you compare Biden-Harris and the work in Georgia’s senate races, to South Carolina, Maine and Montana, the winners were community-driven on the ground with diverse messaging. The losing campaigns nationalized the election and spent good money after bad on ad campaigns that satisfied donors’ messaging preferences, but lost winnable races or wasted money on impossible trophy ones.
You can criticize conservatives all you want, but the reason they continue to beat progressives online is that they have a concerted creative and network advantage they’ve built over time. They don’t copy us, they’re keenly aware of what moves their base into the future and they build in that direction.
Our ability to get our messages out to our communities at all is presently at risk if we do not make drastic changes in the way we think about campaigning. We need to stop seeing these platforms as gatekeepers and instead view our communities, their creativity, and their ideas, as something platforms need from us. We have power we can take to any platform, as they come and go into the future. Otherwise, as we’ve noticed, our communities will out-organize us by necessity.
Dr. Daniel P. Beckmann has worked in civic tech for over 12 years, starting with the New Media team on Obama’s 2008 campaign. Before that he was a Peabody and Emmy award-winning journalist at ABC News and Current TV. He is the Founder of Soapboxx.video, a video collaboration and distribution platform, and IB5k.com a civically-minded digital agency.