Welcome to FWIW, ACRONYM’s weekly newsletter breaking down digital strategy + investment in our elections. Each week, we look at how campaigns are – or aren’t – leveraging smart digital strategies to drive narratives and reach voters. For what it’s worth, some of it might surprise you.
As the Election dust continues to settle and President-Elect Biden continues to move full speed ahead with his transition, we’re beginning to get a fuller picture of what exactly happened last week. We’ll continue to break down our thoughts on how digital tactics and other online factors impacted the election – and this week we start with boosted news, Facebook, and how the polls got it so wrong again. Let’s dive in:
WHAT IS A POLITICAL AD, ANYWAY?
When most of us think of political advertising, we typically imagine high production value, polished television spots with a slick voiceover talking about healthcare, the economy, or attacking an opponent. That’s historically how campaigns have spent hundreds of millions of dollars each cycle – and still do to some extent, particularly for persuasion. However, the 2020 election in some ways redefined what is a political ad.
This year – more than ever before – voters’ social media feeds were filled with memes, #SponCon, testimonials, raw videos, gifs, and other types of content that helped campaigns fundraise, mobilize, or persuade their target audiences. But one core type of content that was leveraged at scale for the first time this cycle has been pretty much overlooked: online news articles.
Campaigns and political groups – from the Biden campaign to ACRONYM’s own programs – spent millions of dollars to place thousands of mainstream news articles in voters’ Facebook feeds in 2020. Reporters who were over-eager to write stories on “five figure ad buys” 🙄 of slick narrated video ads clearly made for Twitter largely missed what we see as a groundbreaking innovation in political communications.
We have evidence to suggest that not only did campaigns (particularly on the Left) spend heavily on this type of content, but that overall, this type of information was more persuasive to some groups of voters than conventional political ads. The majority of Americans get their news and information from social media platforms like Facebook, and we have been making the case that campaigns should use some form of this tactic to reach key voters for a few years now. Our own in-field experimentation at ACRONYM and PACRONYM found that particularly among voters who are not knowledgeable about politics, or “low-information voters” boosted news was particularly effective in persuading them against the President.
It wasn’t just us – in the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary, campaigns of Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and others smartly used boosted news to target certain voters with positive local press stories about their candidate. The Biden campaign, which was not a major digital advertiser at the time, even promoted a news story to Mississippi voters jabbing at Bernie Sanders.
In the final weeks of this campaign, our team distributed a private newsletter called The Weekly Forecast highlighting boosted news articles our research found to be more persuasive than others. We found that several articles about taxing the wealthy, respecting science, and protecting the Affordable Care Act had significant persuasive effects on swing-state voters in Biden’s favor. You can dig into the archive and see which articles were most effective here.
As platforms and voters’ media ecosystems continue to rapidly evolve, reporters and others are going to have to re-think how they cover political advertising – and look beyond the flashy press releases and budget figures put out by campaigns and TV consultants. Sometimes the most expensive media channels or viral ads aren’t the most effective ones, and the most effective ads and tactics may slip under the radar.
Additionally, the persuasive impact of news on Facebook among low-political knowledge voters presents more evidence as to why we continue to sound the alarm on right-wing media’s spread and influence on the platform. More on that below.
FACEBOOK IN CRISIS
Months ago, we publicly advocated against Facebook’s decision to ban advertising in the final week of the Election, precisely because we thought that Right-wing digital media properties would have the upper hand in spreading information about the election results. Well folks… this is what happened.
In the days following the election, Morning Consult found that 7 in 10 Republicans did not consider the Presidential election to be “free and fair.” The vast majority of Republicans in Congress have refused to recognize the results, bolstered by rampant disinformation alleging fraud in key battleground states that is being seeded by the President’s Twitter feed and amplified to the Facebook newsfeeds of millions of Americans. After celebrations of victory taking place across the country on Saturday, many Democrats woke up Monday morning to feelings of panic over a drip of news that painted a narrative of what some have described as a coup-in-progress.
Meanwhile, advertisers’ hands are tied. As sites like Federalist, Daily Wire, Daily Caller, and others continue to spread conspiracy theories about voter fraud, advertisers from good government groups to non-partisan voter education programs are still not allowed to place ads on the most powerful platform online to share facts with voters.
This has more implications down-ballot too. The Georgia Senate runoff elections are in just two months, and campaigns are unable to buy ads to register voters, share deadlines, or even raise money from small dollar donors. Our own Sr. Director of Campaigns Tatenda Musapatike broke down what that means in Georgia and beyond here.
BUT, THE POLLS
And finally, as the fog of war is cleared by the hottest of hot takes, we thought we’d share this thread + blog post from our Chief Scientist Sol Messing on what the polls got wrong and why for our beloved data nerds out there.
That’s it for FWIW this week, but we’ll be back in your inboxes next Friday. We’d so appreciate if you would forward this email to a friend + follow us on the socials below in the meantime, and hang onto the hope of better days ahead!