Trump Won the Internet. Democrats Are Scrambling to Take It Back.
In the era of big data, memes and disinformation, the Democrats are trying to regain their digital edge as the president and his loyalists dictate the terms of debate.
A Biden rally in Cleveland was canceled this month over coronavirus concerns.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
By Jim Rutenberg and Matthew Rosenberg
The deceptively edited video that purported to show Joseph R. Biden Jr. endorsing President Trump’s re-election bounced relentlessly around the internet, falsely painting the former vice president as too confused to know what office he was running for or whom he was vying to run against.
The doctored video didn’t originate with one of the extremist sites that trade in left-bashing disinformation. It was posted on Twitter by Mr. Trump’s own social media director. From there, it collected shares, retweets and likes from the social media accounts of the president, his eldest son and the multitudinous conservative influencers and websites that carry his message to voters’ palms hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second.
The video, based on a speech Mr. Biden gave earlier this month, registered five million views in a day before his campaign responded — with statements to the press and cable interviews that largely focused on persuading Facebook to follow the example of Twitter, which had labeled the content “manipulated media.” A direct social media counterattack, aides said later, would have risked spreading the damage.
Yet the Biden camp would have been hard-pressed to mount a proportional response had it tried: Mr. Biden has only 4.6 million Twitter followers to Mr. Trump’s 75 million, 1.7 million Facebook fans to Mr. Trump’s 28 million, and nothing resembling the president’s robust ecosystem of amplifying accounts.
And so the video circulated unimpeded, reaching an audience that would have made it America’s No. 1 television show by the old-fashioned standards of Nielsen.
As Mr. Biden closes in on his party’s nomination, that digital mismatch underscores one of the Democrats’ biggest general-election challenges: They are up against a political figure who has marshaled all the forces of the modern web to refract reality and savage his opponents. Yet they are starting from a deficit, struggling to regain their once-formidable online edge.
Now closing this technological divide has taken on deepening urgency, with public life shut down against the threat of the coronavirus. Already, Mr. Biden’s allies have expressed anxiety about his ability to break into the national conversation around the pandemic as it reverberates from the president’s daily briefings to social media feeds.
If modern politics is increasingly digital politics, today even more so.
In the three years since Hillary Clinton’s humiliating 2016 defeat, the Democrats have been urgently scrambling to reorder the digital equation, an all-hands-on-deck effort that has drawn a range of new donors, progressive activists and operatives together with veterans of the tech-forward Obama campaigns and the old-line contributors and party regulars of the Bill Clinton era.
So far, the Democrats and their allies have produced new apps to organize volunteers and register voters, new media outlets to pump out anti-Trump content and a major new data initiative to drive what the party hopes will be the biggest voter-mobilization effort in its history.
But while Mr. Trump and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, have brought conservatives together to build a technological juggernaut for 2020, the Democratic effort has been slowed by the party’s deep-rooted rivalries and divisions.
It has been marked by tension between longtime strategists and party officials, who believe the party need not reinvent the wheel, and moneyed Silicon Valley newcomers who speak of “innovation cycles,” “risk capital” and “disruption” and view the old guard as financially invested in a losing model.
There is lingering resentment over who is at fault for the party’s sorry digital state — whether former President Barack Obama left behind an aging and insufficient party infrastructure as his priorities shifted to his own legacy, or Mrs. Clinton failed to continue the party’s trend of innovation. For their part, many of Senator Bernie Sanders’s adherents are loath to play with what they deride as “the establishment.”
Then there is the raging debate about whether to fight Mr. Trump and his digital forces meme for meme, falsehood for falsehood, troll attack for troll attack, or to appeal instead to the electorate’s better angels.
In interviews with more than 30 leaders across all the factions, Democrats and progressives were cautiously optimistic that their technological machinery would be in fighting shape for the general election. None, though, said it was yet where it needed to be.
It will almost certainly fall to Mr. Biden to bring it all together.
Of all the major Democratic candidates, he was the least digitally advanced — more “memed” than meme-maker. A party mainstay who rose in politics when the platforms to master were The Wilmington Evening Journal, WPVI-TV and the U.S. Postal Service, he has neither the online army of Mr. Sanders, the selfie-savvy style of Senator Elizabeth Warren nor the prodigious digital content studio of Michael R. Bloomberg.
Mr. Biden’s digital lag was in part due to his financial lag, a situation that has reversed as he has amassed a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead.
He spent the last week ramping up his digital operation as the Covid-19 crisis mounted. And he recently made an important move, hiring a new campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, a veteran of the Obama and Beto O’Rourke campaigns and a key operative behind some of the digital rebuilding after 2016. “We are going to have the most integrated, most effective data and digital operation that we have seen on the progressive side because of the foundation and the work that has been done over the last several years,” she said in an interview.
Still, just days into the job, Ms. O’Malley Dillon acknowledged that, given the pandemic and the unpredictability of the Trump presidency, “We’re walking into terrain we’ve never seen in our lifetimes.”
The Humbling of 2016
The Democrats emerged from 2016 with two distressing realizations: They had no effective answer to Mr. Trump’s overwhelming information war machine, and their big-data systems were suddenly anachronistic.
It was a humbling development for the Democrats, who had practically invented online politics with Howard Dean’s web-centric 2004 primary campaign and Mr. Obama’s 2012 use of algorithmic data analytics
Four years later, Mrs. Clinton’s brain trust discovered that she was inheriting a system held together with “bubble gum and shoelace,” as Nellwyn Thomas, her deputy analytics chief, put it in an interview.
The campaign rushed to shore up the party’s aging hardware and software, she said. Even then, the system could be so slow and prone to outages that aides would circulate an indie rock ballad about it.
“It was unreliable, it broke, it crashed,’’ said Robby Mook, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager.
As for the data itself, Mrs. Clinton later called it “mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong.”
Part of the Democrats’ technological degradation could be attributed to brain drain. Many of Mr. Obama’s 2012 digital operatives found jobs in Silicon Valley or started their own companies.
But in interviews, Democrats also argued that Mr. Obama had not adequately worked to rebuild the party for his successors. After 2012, he started his own competing political operation, Organizing for Action, and Democrats complained he was slow to share his valuable data and email lists.
“Obama effectively left the party alone for eight years,” said Mr. Dean, a former Democratic Party chairman, adding that such neglect was not uncommon among second-term presidents.
Mr. Obama has acknowledged failing “to rebuild the Democratic Party at the ground level,” as he told ABC in 2017, explaining that he had been focused on presidential responsibilities at a time of war and economic recovery.
But there was another reason, come 2016, that Mr. Trump and his party were reigning technologically supreme — their superior navigation of the major change that a series of court decisions brought about during the Obama presidency.
Those rulings had freed corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited sums on elections, as long as they did not coordinate with candidates or political parties, which were bound by strict donation limits to prevent undue influence.
Conservatives moved swiftly to capitalize on that change.
They placed a high priority on obtaining as much data about voters as possible — who they were and what motivated them.
Building cutting-edge big-data systems can be prohibitively expensive for today’s political parties. Not so for billionaire donors like the Koch brothers, who joined with others to back a private data firm called i360. They plied it with cash, along with data from advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity.
The Republican Party set up a competing private company with a similar model, operating outside the regulated campaign-finance environment. Called Data Trust, it proved integral to the Trump campaign’s success.
And they built up their online ecosystem, with the hedge fund investor Robert Mercer backing Breitbart News, a site that became hugely influential in 2016 as it lionized Mr. Trump and eviscerated his critics.
The Democrats’ adaptation to the new campaign-finance world was more diffuse. Two major donors, Mr. Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, built their own miniature political parties, first in the service of their own causes — gun control for Mr. Bloomberg, climate change for Mr. Steyer — and then their own candidacies.
And after the debacle of 2016, a thousand different engine companies responded to the political equivalent of a five-alarm fire.
Silicon Valley money and expertise washed into Democratic politics. New players included the LinkedIn financier Reid Hoffman and Laurene Powell Jobs, inheritor of the Apple fortune of her late husband, Steve Jobs.
The party’s new chairman, Tom Perez, hired as his chief technical officer a senior engineer from Uber and Twitter, Raffi Krikorian.
An early focus was matching the Republicans on data. Mr. Krikorian pursued a Democratic version of the Republicans’ Data Trust, to be called Datum. The plan threatened to rip apart whatever cohesion the party and its allies had left.
At the heart of the dispute was an approach that would have seen the state parties lose control of their individual voter files, which are both a source of income — they sell their data to outsiders — and a hedge against dwindling influence. The state parties saw the plan as evidence that the tech people misunderstood basic party mechanics. The tech people saw the pushback as evidence that too many were wedded to outmoded ways.
Ultimately, a longtime party strategist, Mary Beth Cahill, brokered a compromise, with help from Ms. O’Malley Dillon, now Mr. Biden’s campaign chief. All users — outside groups, parties and candidates — would continue to own their data but would share it with a privately owned repository, the Democratic Data Exchange. Anyone who put data in could take data out.
Mr. Dean, who serves as the exchange’s chairman, said it had raised about half of its $12 million budget from donors he would not name. People familiar with its finances, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said one prominent contributor was Ms. Powell Jobs.
Organizers acknowledge that the exchange is not as robust as i360, Data Trust or what Mr. Krikorian envisioned. Still, Mr. Dean said, it would be “ better than anything anyone invented on the Democratic side before.”
Mr. Krikorian, frustrated with what he viewed as the party’s reluctance to adapt, left last year to join Ms. Powell Jobs’s “social change” firm, the Emerson Collective. Ms. Thomas, the former Clinton aide, took over for him, focused on rebuilding the systems that had bedeviled her team in 2016.
Finding a Way Forward
Last September, as activists were laying plans for a climate strike in New York City, a progressive digital strategist had an idea: capture cellphone location data to collect the phone numbers of protesters in Lower Manhattan.
The technique, known as geofencing, would provide valuable information for 2020. But the donors backing the march vetoed the idea as intrusive and potentially unethical, said the strategist, David Goldstein.
Right-wing allies of the Trump campaign had no such qualms. They organized their own geofencing effort, sucking up the phone numbers of many of the estimated 60,000 protesters, according to a person familiar with the effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The plan, the person said, is to target potential Democratic voters with messages undercutting the party’s candidate.
The Democrats’ debate over the strategy and ethics of building an information war machine to rival Mr. Trump’s had been gathering force, and rancor, since the 2017 special Senate election in Alabama between the far-right candidate Roy S. Moore and the Democrat Doug Jones
Mr. Jones won. But an intense debate broke out a year later when The New York Times reported that progressive groups had experimented with Russian-style trolling tactics to suppress Mr. Moore’s turnout, one using fake accounts.
Many on the left decried the experiments as imitating the worst aspects of forces they were trying to defeat.
“There are people who — the ultimate bad for them is a negative mention in The New York Times,” Mr. Goldstein said. “To me, the ultimate bad is losing.”
Another initiative went more smoothly, at least at first. It was called Acronym; among its backers were the Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin, Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Powell Jobs.
Its founder, Tara McGowan, the 2016 digital director of the main Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, concluded that Democrats had failed to adjust to a new media environment where “everyone is getting their information at all times of day across all sorts of channels.”
So she created a digital news consortium, Courier, with sites in key 2020 states. She started her own PAC, Pacronym, to attack Mr. Trump across the web, and, in a coup, hired the Facebook specialist assigned to Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign.
But Acronym faced an existential challenge after a firm it backed, Shadow, won the rights to tabulate the Iowa caucus results, only to see its app fail to produce a final outcome. While Ms. McGowan’s donors and board stuck with her, a new round of hand-wringing about the party’s technology ensued.
The party’s hopes turned to Mr. Bloomberg and the tech-driven operation he vowed to use against Mr. Trump, win or lose. Earlier this month, he announced he was folding his digital tent along with his campaign.
A Lonely Pledge
A trans-Atlantic group called the Alliance of Democracies last year issued a “Pledge for Election Integrity,” forswearing the use of disinformation, troll networks and deceptively edited content.
The online list has nearly 200 signers from the European Union but only one from the United States — Mr. Biden.
Last week, the loneliness of Mr. Biden’s pledge was apparent as a false document purporting to show he had tested positive for Covid-19 began circulating on Twitter among Trump supporters, on 4Chan and in far-right Telegram groups.
Mr. Biden’s digital director, Rob Flaherty, said the campaign would respond forcefully when a false attack threatened to reach critical mass, and would keep pressing social media platforms to police false content. (Facebook ultimately agreed to label the deceptive Biden video partly false.) But, he said, the campaign would stick to Mr. Biden’s own pledges. “You ask people, what does ‘fight fire with fire’ mean?” he said. “They net out at ‘lie,’ and we’re just not going to do that.”
(That said, the Washington Post “Fact Checker” ruled that a Biden ad attacking Mr. Trump this month used manipulated video.)
Without anything resembling Mr. Trump’s digital echo chamber, Mr. Biden aides will largely rely on his network of supporters to spread their defenses and forward their own counterattacks.
Part of that network is already kicking in.
Ms. McGowan’s PAC has begun a $5 million Facebook ad campaign attacking Mr. Trump’s pandemic response.
The Democratic Data Exchange, which can help Mr. Biden’s team identify those who might be susceptible to false information about the candidate, says it is nearing data-sharing deals with several outside groups.
An app called Outvote is connecting the Biden campaign to potential volunteers and donors — the sort of help it will need if coronavirus measures keep people indoors for months.
For its part, Mr. Biden’s campaign ramped up its digital video production — gaining 16 million views — as he unveiled a new podcast and newsletter.
“I’m still getting used to this virtual world we’re campaigning in,’’ he said in the newsletter. “Our campaign is trying a whole lot of new stuff.”
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