I worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign as a field organizer in Michigan. Before the election, I was asked by more than a few Michigan voters about an ad running on their Facebook timelines: a South Park-like animation citing Clinton’s now infamous “super-predator” line from the 90s. Brad Parscale, Trump’s social media director, showed Bloomberg this ad in the days before November 8, adding that it was part of a broader effort of dark ads aimed at African American voters in Michigan and beyond. Our team wasn’t sure what to say ‒ we didn’t have a commensurate response to counteract these efforts online.
This was the “major voter suppression operations” a senior official for the Trump campaign described before the election, and it was part of the reason Trump won by just 12,000 votes in Michigan. The Trump campaign was releasing a flood of fake news, ads, and twitter bots online, but the Democrats failed to build a robust digital counterweight.
I would not have wanted Hillary’s team to confront bots and fake news with their own, and this is not the answer for the Democrats moving forward. Republicans have always focused their campaigns on advertisements over the airwaves, so it made sense for the new frontier of Republican campaigning to be attack ads online. For decades, Democrats have won elections by harnessing the power of their volunteers through door-to-door canvassing and grassroots movements. The time has come for Democrats to bring their strengths online.
Along with my team in Michigan, I built and managed a volunteer organization that was 1,000% larger than the campaign’s stated goals. I witnessed firsthand the potential of real people and real movements to build something bigger and more powerful than the sum of their parts. Democrats have always excelled in volunteer organizing ‒ not just with rallies, but also with volunteers talking directly to voters every day. These volunteer programs are called ‘field’ programs and have always advantaged Democratic campaigns. With the 2018 midterm elections on the horizon, the Democrats must work to bring field campaigns online.
Hillary won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million ballots, but it wasn’t enough. Pro-Trump messaging and targeted voter suppression efforts dominated key networks in the digital landscape. The loudest and most persistent networks online were pro-Trump. And while many people in this network were real and fervent Trump supporters, Trump was also propelled by unprecedented levels of fake accounts, bot armies, and foreign actors posing as die-hard supporters online. Automated accounts also constituted 1 in 5 election-related tweets during the 2016 election, with some researchers reporting that up to 15% of Twitter’s total users are fake.
The practice of ‘astroturfing’ ‒ fabricating the illusion of grassroots support through paid volunteers or fake social media accounts ‒ has become a major Republican strategy in the digital age of politics. Fake content is used to create a facade of consensus about particular issues or candidates, inundating voters with the appearance of support. This strategy was shockingly effective in 2016. Not only did networks of fake accounts garner as many retweets during the 2016 primary as verified human accounts, but the organic reach of content posted by Russian government-linked troll accounts was more than 10 times higher than their purchased ads ‒ reaching more than half of the total U.S. voting population.
Democrats need a digital strategy to confront Republicans online because efforts to manipulate public opinion through armies of bots and fake social media accounts aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The same bot networks that spread Russian-linked propaganda in 2016 flooded Twitter with right-wing messages after the violent events in Charlottesville. More than 1,000 fake accounts originating from Russia followed and tweeted about Judge Roy Moore before the special election in Alabama this fall. And before the November elections in Virginia, waves of bot-made tweets were unleashed against Democratic candidates like Ralph Northam.
“They did it in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. They are still doing it now,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) during the tech firm hearings this fall.
The historic victories in Virginia this fall illustrate how building digital grassroots movements can counteract bots and barrages of paid advertisements on the right. Danica Roem, for one, is a model for how Democrats can coordinate powerful digital field programs. Despite floods of ugly ads and hateful flyers from her Republican opponent, Roem outraised him by a three-to-one margin through an organic digital movement of organized, inspired volunteers online. Danica Roem’s campaign illustrates the power of digital advocacy ‒ she coordinated real volunteers who shared real stories on real accounts, and became the first openly transgender candidate elected to the VA state house.
“I thought it was really funny that the same party that killed 27 of his 30 bills this year is now trying to bail him out during the last month of the campaign,” Roem told The Washington Post before the election in November, speaking of her opponent. “But it’s far too late.”
She was right ‒ Roem built a powerful field program, both on the ground and online, that was poised to push voters to the polls, withstand airwaves of ads, and ensure her message wasn’t drowned out by fake voices. Today, she has more than 64k followers on Twitter, and counting.
The Democrats don’t need to fabricate community consensus; they need to share their real and powerful messages online in a coordinated way. Field programs work, and incorporating digital advocacy into a program offers the chance to fight fake bots with coalitions of real volunteers, especially as they provide bastions of credibility and trust in the digital age.
“I hear ‘demographics is destiny’ and it’s nails on a chalkboard to me,” the DNC chairman, Tom Perez, said before November’s elections. “Demographics is not destiny. Organizing is destiny.” And digital organizing is the future.