Opinion | How to Beat Trump Online in the 2020 Election

While former Vice President Joe Biden spent nearly a year nailing down the Democratic presidential nomination, the Trump campaign devoted the better part of the past four years vacuuming up as much data as possible to better target and influence American voters.

The Trump campaign is using its head start to break fund-raising records, test political messages and blanket swing states with thousands of digital ads. The Biden campaign is still hiring digital talent and making critical decisions about strategy. For the second presidential cycle in a row, the Democrats are starting far behind in online presence.

President Trump’s campaign has used its vast data-mining operation to build pockets of influence throughout the internet — connected through hypertargeted landing pages and subdomains — ensuring that important constituencies, such as women and veterans, are funneled to groups where they are encouraged to organize. Not only does this keep supporters engaged, but it also can create viral loops that trap a loyal online base within an echo chamber of right-wing talking points and pro-Trump propaganda. Just jump into any one of the 90-plus Facebook groups in the Trump ecosystem and you can see this dynamic at work.

Mr. Trump’s operation is formidable, but that does not mean that it’s invincible.

While the Trump campaign’s tactics will make it easier to engage individuals it has spent years cultivating online, the top-down approach is inefficient for reaching new audiences. This may be the Biden campaign’s biggest opportunity. Covid-19 and the resulting societal disruption has primed millions of Americans not only to receive political information, but also to participate in the political process themselves. All Democrats have to do is meet supporters (and potential supporters) where they are online and make it easy for them to get involved.

On Andrew Yang’s campaign, that took the form of embracing a new style of politics for a new generation of voters — exclusive behind-the-scenes content, regular contests, direct lines of communication with both the candidate and the campaign, and a decentralized structure that empowered the Yang Gang to innovate on their own. Similarly, the Buttigieg campaign shared its design tool kit, allowing thousands of supporters to create their own content, such as parade banners and pamphlets, that tremendously increased its reach and capacity.

Both of our campaigns embraced a multiplatform strategy that put our candidates in front of audiences normally ignored by the political classes. The goal was not to be everywhere, but to be in the right places with the right message. Whether that meant Mr. Yang appearing on an Instagram Live stream of “The Daily Show” or Mr. Buttigieg appearing on the Snapchat show “Good Luck America,” expanding beyond our existing online bases was one of our top priorities.

But no candidate can be everywhere. It’s why the Buttigieg campaign created a first-of-its-kind Digital Captains program where users were supplied with resources and direction from the campaign and then encouraged to use that material to create their own content and organize and raise money among friends and contacts. By the end of the campaign, being a member of #TeamPete or #YangGang was about more than supporting one candidate; it was a signal of a different type of politics and a different type of political engagement.

The Biden campaign appears to be building a large number of Facebook groups, but unlike the Trump campaign’s groups, the Biden groups appear to be driven by the campaign and segmented by state, not by cause, interest or affinity. Facebook groups are a space where people congregate to exchange information and ideas. Geography shouldn’t matter; shared passions do.

To engage audiences outside their core fan base, Mr. Biden’s campaign needs to show him as a kind, caring and compassionate leader, and compare that with President Trump’s cruelty and coarseness. It should use the many digital platforms available to it to make this contrast crystal clear.

The Biden campaign’s current digital footprint seems too static and packaged. The copy that accompanies social posts is often too long, sounding more like a stump speech or ad than an engaging call to action. Audiences want to get to know the candidate, flaws and all. Social media content should be conversational and break down the walls between audiences and candidates.

The Biden campaign should focus less on controlling the message and more on giving audiences a platform to share their stories and feelings about the candidate.

Like Team Biden, we’ve experienced the struggles of gearing up a digital campaign from nothing and we know how challenging it can be to have to do a lot with a little. But it’s not about money, staff size or high-priced consulting firms. It’s about empowering audiences to be a part of the story.

Vice President Biden is not going to beat Donald Trump by duplicating the top-down structures and the huge data-mining operation that the Trump team built over the past four years. Instead, it’s time to harness the power of the people and build something new.

Patricia Nelson was the creative and social media director for Yang2020. Stefan Smith was the online engagement director for the Buttigieg campaign. Erick M. Sanchez (@erickmsanchez) was Andrew Yang’s traveling press secretary.

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