To folks running progressive campaigns in 2020: social media engagement with your campaign is negatively correlated with broader electoral support. This is a nefarious reality, and difficult to detect, as your personal information environment will seem to scream the message, “literally everyone agrees with us.”
As campaigns continue to attract even more social media support (more retweets, more Likes, more followers is better, right?), the effect is enhanced further. Success on social media is an inherently radicalizing process that warps your information environment in favor of your in-group and away from the broader electorate — most of whom are either not paying attention to you, or are actively disgusted with the political realm of which you are a part.
This radicalization has some positive effects for winning primary contests, in that the most engaged in-group may actually be able to turn out support at levels that overtake less motivated networks. This positive signal may send the message, “do more of what you have been doing; double down on your message and your positions.”
Resist this temptation; no amount of additional radicalization will further increase support from the people who are already inclined to agree with you. To expand support sufficiently to succeed in a general election, it will be necessary to reach adjacent networks besides your established base.
This will require a methodological approach that is centered more on outreach and strategic partnerships between groups than on beating policy drums. It will also require extensive numeric analysis so that resources are allocated where they can do the most good — namely in the handful of swing states that will decide the presidential election — or in other races, in the areas that are not already sold on your candidate.
Failure to heed this warning will result in a drubbing along the lines of 1972 or 1984, along with a lot of handwringing and think-pieces. PLEASE: avoid that fate.
A good way to possibly estimate reality vs. what social media is telling you is to assume your level of support in competitive contests is a fraction (half, or a quarter) of what you might guess it to be. Then figure out how to work 2x or 4x harder in those critical contests to either shore up support, or improve your measurements of support to where you can actually be correct about where you stand. If you can’t work 2x or 4x harder and you need to, figure out how to work smarter by engaging networks to do your work for you.
As someone who was among the first to study social media data at all, I offer this warning: it is warped, it is deceptive, it is full of bad signals, and it makes EVERYONE feel as though they are more central to mainstream opinion than they actually are. This is all an illusion, and if you spend more than a little bit of time in this environment, you cannot help but be affected by it. The only cure is to actively discipline yourself to discount what you think, feel and see that may be shaped by social media and repeat the mantra: “THIS IS NOT REAL.”
I can’t tell you how many times now I have seen candidates gain what seems to be unanimous, ubiquitous support online, only to go on to an election setting and be relegated to 2nd, 3rd, or 4th place — or worse. Always, there is shock and dismay, and the reminder that “objects appear larger on Twitter than they are in real life.” A reminder which is consistently forgotten when the next election comes around.
And this isn’t just a failure I’ve noticed in others; I have fallen victim as well to the idea that social media can meaningfully shape elections, and/or that online sentiment is predictive of electoral outcomes. I have been working in this realm on active, real live campaigns for about 20 years. And in contest after contest, I can tell you: social media lies. While there may be authentic elements of engagement identified on social media that can be important ingredients for building real-world winning campaigns, it is only a part of the puzzle. It’s like building a campaign around only door-knocking, but without doing anything else. It doesn’t work — and there is a reason why winning campaigns employ an array of strategies and tactics.
For many candidates, their fans, and their regional operatives, 2016 and 2020 are their first real rodeos with politics on social. There’s a visceral feeling that more followers equals electoral success. It just isn’t true, and this cycle it’s more important than ever that well-intentioned progressives not be sucked into the trap of thinking that social media will determine the winner. It just won’t, and it’s actively toxic to the kind of thinking required to build winning campaigns. Do not be fooled. Our country’s future depends on it.