In 2016, when traditional American campaign activities like door-to-door canvassing and celebrity-studded get-out-the-vote concerts were centerpieces of presidential campaigns, a viral post of support from a social media star would have been a nice little bonus for candidates.
Four years later, amid an ongoing pandemic that’s made in-person campaigning a public health hazard, much of the electoral battleground has moved to the internet — and getting a boost from influencers on Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube is an increasingly important campaign tactic, particularly for Democrats.
That’s because Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is at a digital disadvantage compared to the Trump campaign, which is bolstered by networks of influential conservative personalities who stand ready to amplify its messaging — misinformation and all. That’s in addition to the incumbent president’s own massive online audience: Trump has more than 30 million followers on Facebook and 85 million on Twitter, while Biden has just under 3 million on Facebook and just over 9 million on Twitter.
“We are forced to do everything virtual,” Adrienne Elrod, the director of surrogate strategy for Biden’s campaign, told Recode. “We’re forced to do more [Instagram] Lives. We’re forced to do more Twitter conversations. We’re forced to go to Occupy Democrats.”
With limited time until the election, Biden’s campaign and the organizations and PACs that support him are looking to find new audiences anywhere they can. That’s where online influencers come in.
But this isn’t just about trotting out pro-Biden content from A-list celebrity accounts with tens of millions of online followers. Some of the best support, Biden campaign strategists told Recode, might come from influencers who speak to comparatively smaller but targeted audiences, like persuadable voters from a particular community or people living in a specific swing state. So even if Biden is doing an Instagram Live chat with an influencer you’ve personally never heard of, it’s likely that influencer is speaking with an audience that could be uniquely useful to his campaign.
“We’re bringing their fan base into the campaign,” Elrod explained. “And that is really allowing us to be more specific and more targeted in our approach and in our reach.”
Biden, whose team has even hired a firm to assist with influencer outreach, has developed a formula for working with these influencers: He sits at home, often in front of a plant-filled backdrop and a window, while the influencer asks him open-ended questions that allow Biden to talk off the cuff about any given topic. These interviews are often streamed on Instagram Live, but they also pop up on Facebook and YouTube.
While they are not quite advertisements or endorsement videos, they’re not journalism, either. The goal appears to be as simple as engaging with influencers, people who have credibility with particular audiences, and getting those influencers’ audiences thinking about Biden. Prompts like “what your administration plans on doing to support working families in regards to child care” allow Biden to stick to bread-and-butter anecdotes and talking points, as well as connect with audiences on a personal level. Topics of discussion have included Biden’s approach to leadership, and his plans for police reform and combating systematic racism.
For instance, to boost the child care components of his “Build Back Better” campaign, Biden chatted on Facebook Live and YouTube with two parenting influencers who are popular with moms and online parenting communities: Elle Walker, a YouTuber with a 3 million-subscriber-strong channel called WhatsUpMoms, and Dulce Candy, who is a veteran and beauty vlogger with over 2 million subscribers on YouTube (she also spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention). Neither woman was compensated.
“Biden was extremely well-suited to speak to them, not only because of his policy rollout but because he understood what it was like to be a single parent himself,” Christian Tom, the head of digital partnerships for Biden’s campaign, told Recode about these interviews. “Some of these influencers, whom he was speaking to, have encountered this in their own lives. They hear it from their audience on comments on their YouTube channels or responses they get back on their Instagram videos.”
Biden’s granddaughters, Finn, Maisy, Naomi, and Natalie, are helping, too: His campaign told Recode that they will host Instagram livestreams with influencers who are particularly popular with young people over the next few weeks.
Biden’s influencer outreach goes beyond mainstream apps as well. In September, the campaign debuted Biden-Harris campaign signs in Animal Crossing, the popular social video game that became wildly popular at the start of the pandemic. Some celebrities, like Andy Cohen and Dulé Hill, are fundraising for the campaign on Cameo, the video app, which allows them to post fan-requested video messages in exchange for donations.
Of course, linking the campaign to influencers comes with risks. Biden chatted on Instagram with Jerry Harris, from the popular Netflix show Cheer, in June. Then in September, Harris was arrested on a child pornography charge. Some conservative social media accounts have now tried to hint at a connection, including the GOP’s director of rapid response on Twitter and right-wing personality Ben Shapiro. And after Biden did an Instagram Live in June with the vlogger Bethany Mota (who also interviewed President Barack Obama in 2015), a Los Angeles Times opinion piece said it was “insulting” and argued against attempts to impress young people with social media stardom instead of focusing on serious issues.
But the Biden campaign says this influencer movement is serious. “We’re not using celebrities just to launch canvass kickoffs or go around from living room to living room in Iowa and have these small, intimate conversations,” Elrod said. “We’re actually using them in a way where we can bring in their audience, and bring their audience into what we’re doing on the campaign.”
“Influencers are not an afterthought,” Tom said. “The idea that influencers are, in some cases, the people who have the most credibility or bring the most bona fides in people’s social feeds is a really powerful one and something that we, as the campaign, want to embrace.”
A host of other groups are also enlisting influencers and meme accounts to boost Democratic turnout in November, and even to beat back against the threat of disinformation.
Some rely on more traditional celebrities: The super PAC Pacronym is running a swing-state-focused effort alongside comedian Ilana Glazer, who has a million Instagram followers to her name. The idea is to do video chat interviews with other celebrities like Eric Andre and Zoë Kravitz and encourage people who may not be so pumped to vote about Biden to vote for him anyway, along with Democratic candidates down the ballot.
Afterward, recordings of the live chats are repackaged into pro-Biden ad material that targets low-turnout voters beyond the reach of Glazer’s existing base on platforms like Snapchat and streaming services like Hulu and Roku. Ultimately, the goal is to reach 7 million people across six states.
NextGen America, a political PAC founded by billionaire Tom Steyer, is looking for all sorts of influencers, including those who focus on beauty, fitness, lifestyle, and even comedy, to reach young people online and urge them to vote.
One of these influencers is self-described “curly lifestyle creator” Chloe Homan, who has more than 50,000 Instagram followers and has posted to her Instagram story about registering for an absentee ballot with NextGen America’s account tagged. The PAC has spread the same message through the travel influencer couple Travel to Blank, who also urged people to vote for someone who doesn’t “only spread hate.” Overall, the PAC hopes to reach 12 million people through similarly targeted outreach. A representative for PAC told Recode most of these influencers are helping NextGen for free, with only about 10 percent asking for compensation.
Meanwhile, the eight-year-old progressive media operation Occupy Democrats — perhaps best known for its memes and seemingly endless supply of political videos and news — is boosting the Biden campaign with its hugely popular Facebook page. In the past three months, Biden’s official campaign page has gotten about 8.5 million interactions (reactions, shares, and comments) on posts mentioning “Trump,” according to data from the Facebook-owned tool CrowdTangle. In comparison, Occupy Democrats has gotten almost 90 million interactions on posts mentioning Trump. Since 2016 — during which the page stumped for Bernie Sanders before eventually transitioning toward pro-Hillary Clinton messaging — the page has emerged as a sort-of answer to the right-wing media ecosystem that regularly pushes pro-Trump content.
Now the page has launched a deluge of pro-Biden content — which often does better than Biden’s official accounts — as well as an affiliated-meme-page, Ridin’ With Biden. Occupy Democrats co-founder Rafael Rivero told Recode he’s “plugged in” with the Biden campaign. But because the operation isn’t officially part of the campaign, “we really go for the jugular,” he said. (A downside: Sometimes the page — like Biden himself — gets dinged by fact-checkers for sharing misinformation.)
And then there are so-called nano-influencers, according to researchers at the University of Texas Austin. These somewhat covert influencers, the researchers tell Recode, are people who might have just a few thousand followers but speak to a very specific community. That might be a religious leader or a popular local mom, talking about particular issues in a particular area.
“What we’re seeing with nano-influencers is sort of a form of digital astroturfing or inorganic political mobilization,” Samuel Woolley, one of the researchers, told Recode. They noted that it’s hard to actually identify these campaigns, since they’re often hiring off-platform.
Joe Biden’s online campaigning, official or not, faces a formidable challenge: a strong network of right-wing influencers and media outlets that are ready to boost Trump’s competing message, and an array of misinformation, across the web. That means that even if pro-Biden influencers don’t try to fight misinformation themselves, they still may end up competing with it.
“What Democrats don’t have is a powerful progressive media infrastructure to amplify the Biden campaign’s messages at every turn,” Pacronym’s Tara McGowan told Recode. “The Trump campaign does have that, so Trump benefits hugely from a robust right-wing media infrastructure.”
That’s in part why one group, the Defeat Disinfo PAC, is using influencers to urge people to stay aware of wrong information online, for both the presidential election and other races across the country.
“The world that we’re railing against is a world in which it takes six or seven people to review a tweet. And in our model and our world, volume and frequency and quality matter,” says Curtis Hougland of Main Street One, the firm that organized that digital campaign. “We’re in this asynchronous information-cultural warfare that requires us to have more digital bread crumbs than we ever have before.”
That inevitably means that influencers matter more than ever. But whether they’ll be part of the operation that brings Biden over the finish line? Only time will tell.
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