Federal regulation or not, digital marketing will be just as integral to the 2018 midterm elections as it was in 2016.
In case you threw your phone, computer, and tablet down a well and weren’t aware, here’s a news flash: Special Counsel Robert Mueller has spent the better part of the past year investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. While the investigation is ongoing, it has led to a number of indictments, including those of thirteen Russian nationals and three companies that have been linked to alleged fraudulent political activity.
Whatever the outcome of Mueller’s investigation, it’s clear that a number of political actors — whether American or international — took advantage of vulnerabilities in our media landscape to skew the democratic process in their favor. And while American citizens and political analysts are still trying to fathom just how influential our news feeds must be to tip the scales in favor of certain candidates on a national level, the next spate of federal, state, and local elections are ramping up.
For digital marketers around the country, especially those involved in midterm campaigns, the example of 2016 looms large. Getting 2018 elections right calls for an awareness of what happened, what’s changing, and what that means for campaigns on the ground.
What Happened in 2016
Judging from the Special Counsel’s investigation, it’s going to takes years to fully contend with what happened during the 2016 presidential election campaign. At the moment, however, it’s clear that Russian-linked companies used social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to sow discord, amplify the current hyper-partisan atmosphere, and inspire widespread distrust in the American electoral process.
One such firm, a Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, has been accused of stealing the identities of American citizens, creating fraudulent social media accounts, and carrying out organized political activity without registering as foreign agents (among other allegations). Because of loopholes in social media verification and weak enforcement of federal election laws, it was possible for the indicted parties to reach broad swaths of the American electorate with content funded by unregulated foreign sources.
What Will Change in 2018
While initially dismissive of claims that Russian-linked individuals and companies orchestrated an unprecedented disinformation campaign in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, social media heavyweights have since conceded in the face of corroborating evidence. Indeed, Facebook and Twitter have taken steps that they claim will make it more difficult for foreign agents to repeat their 2016 strategies.
For example, Facebook recently announced an update to their News Feed algorithm that will boost posts from friends and family at the expense of those created by Facebook pages, especially ones related to political campaigns and organizations. While this change is part of a larger update aiming to improve users’ overall Facebook experience, many hope it will mitigate the platform’s tendency to create echo chambers of partisanship in which users are served politically backed content from increasingly extreme sources.
Additionally, Facebook plans to add “paid for” tags at the top of political ads served in the US. Users will then have the option of seeing how much the ad costs and who it’s being served to, which Facebook hopes will help users judge whether the content is trustworthy.
Twitter, in addition to a similar labeling policy, will now require advertisers pushing political content to identify themselves and prove that they actually operate in the US. Political candidates, committees, and organizations will likewise have to show FEC certification, while those who aren’t registered with the FEC will need to produce notarized documentation. Further, Twitter will no longer allow foreign agents to serve political content to Americans.
What These Changes Mean for Political Campaigners
For campaigns building their own digital marketing operations, some of these policy changes will have a greater impact than others.
Facebook’s News Feed update, for example, will make it more difficult for campaigns to get content published by third party pages in front of users. Instead, they may need to rely on politically involved individuals who are willing to promote campaigns on their personal profiles, or get involved in peer-to-peer groups.
Other changes, such as Twitter and Facebook’s proposed labeling practices, are more focused on users than on the campaigns and candidates themselves. Twitter will now prominently display candidates’ approval of tweets announcing that they’re running for election; a move that’s meant to help users understand how the content they’re seeing is being generated and what partisan influence may be at play.
For digital marketers operating in the political sector, social media platforms will still be the bread and butter of tech-driven outreach. The race is on for midterm campaigns to leverage digital tools to get out the vote — and to do so as transparently as new social media regulations allow.