It’s a time of drought, when the brush blows dry in the wind, and where wildfire is just a spark away. We all feel it. Somehow everything is different now.
So many of us put our trust in the old experts. Yet the pundits and political consultants and party leaders and pollsters got everything wrong, every step of the way, when it counted the most. Their models and theories and assumptions are broken now. They failed us, and if we continue to let them lead us we will fail millions of people who have everything at stake.
But why were they so wrong? And what or who should we put our faith in now?
It’s clear now that we have entered an altered political state. We have to stop denying it and start diagnosing it. If we pretend nothing is different and act in the same way we always have, we will be crushed by those who understand the new rules of the game.
Our grandchildren will probably be taught in school that there were several factors that contributed to the political upheaval of the 2010’s, including:
- Prolonged economic hardship after the financial crash
- Rapidly-changing social norms regarding race and gender
- The explosion of social media allowing political ideas to spread virally
We’ve finally started to grapple with the effect of years and years of chronic economic suffering interacting in a toxic combination with the backlash against a major push forward of racial and gender progress. Human history shows us that in times of economic crisis, people choose between one of two basic responses—redistribution or exclusion. Once we recognize our system is failing, we either reshape it to make it work for more people, or demagogues stir up hatred and resentment towards scapegoats.
What I don’t think we fully understand yet is how much social media has fundamentally altered the political landscape of the world, accelerating the rise of these movements.
In our lifetimes, we’ve seen far more dramatic changes in communications technology than in sectors like transportation and energy where we’re still largely using Industrial Revolution era technology like the personal automobile and fossil fuels. Think about communication in a mid-2010’s society where a majority of the population owns a mobile smartphone connected to billions across the world, compared with communication in the 1990’s before social media, compared with the 1980’s before mass internet access. We haven’t fully processed how much political change this has already created, let alone understood its potential to fundamentally reshape society as we know it. These are changes in communications technology at least on the level of the radio, which fueled the rapid global spread of both communism and fascism in the aftermath of economic crisis in the early-mid 20th century. Social media tears down the old gatekeepers of publishing companies, radio, and TV stations and allows essentially any random person to put forward ideas that, if compelling enough to others, can spread across the globe like an epidemic. From radio to the printing press, revolutionary change in communication technology has never failed to create revolutionary political change around the world. Our lives are no exception.
The rapid change in communication technology has hardened our politics of group affinity, as we are easily able to connect with networks and communities of likeminded people, from our own cultural groups and fans of our favorite TV shows to conspiracy theorists and white supremacists. Social media has warped and stretched our sense of reality, as information spreads faster than fact-checking, and it becomes harder and harder to discern the real world from our filtered feeds and echo chambers. It has fueled the fires of our outrage, as we can watch live video of infuriating injustices happening in communities thousands of miles away and engage in heated debate about it with our entire network of social connections in real-time.
The 2016 election wasn’t won by a flood of advertisements paid for by campaign cash, by endorsements from respected and trusted figures, or even by a better-organized campaign on the ground. Every single traditional measure of a winning campaign pointed towards a Hillary Clinton victory. Donald Trump won the election on social media (or at least that’s where Hillary Clinton lost it).
We live in the viral era, where the things people hear, see, and believe are driven by what their social networks share with them. Top-down forms of communication like advertising, no matter how well-crafted, are reaching a fraction of the voters that organic people-to-people conversations online are reaching. The direct communications from candidates on TV, print, and radio pales in comparison to the amount of time people spend reading what their friends share on social media about an election. And more and more, the stories that get airtime on the mainstream news are driven by what is already trending online or what media companies anticipate will be shared online.
But more important than sheer volume, people-to-people communication is also far more trusted than top-down communication, especially in an age of rapidly collapsing trust in institutions, from political leaders to economic experts to mainstream media. What else can explain why so many people believe fake news posted on Facebook by their uncle more than real news read to them by a CNN anchor? In a cynical world, people believe everyone has an agenda, but they are more likely to trust the agenda of their friends and family.
The corporate sector is already realizing this, and using it in how they promote their brands. They know consumer’s shopping decisions are now driven much more by peer-reviews and crowdsourced recommendations than by direct advertisements. They are desperately trying to figure out how to get people to organically promote their products to their friends on social media. They are largely doing it unsuccessfully (with a few noteworthy exceptions like Dove’s infamous “Real Beauty” campaign). It’s extremely difficult to pull off in a way that feels authentic– people can spot a corporate advertisement disguised as a meme from a mile away and will ridicule it into the dust. But they’re getting smarter and smarter.
Meanwhile, political communication has largely failed to even realize this shift and study what political messages work in the viral era. Campaign professionals shy away from a heavy reliance on social media because it’s so hard to quantify its impact. Asking your volunteers to spend time tweeting about the election just doesn’t feel like a very effective way to win a campaign. Yet the problem is not that political campaigns aren’t spending enough of their staff time creating memes. The problem is that they aren’t creating campaigns that are meme-worthy. The whole point in social media is that it’s not top down. Trying to directly fire off posts into the abyss of the internet in the hope that they will go viral doesn’t work, because it doesn’t feel authentic to the people reading them, and nobody feels moved to share something that seems like a canned advertisement or stale promotion. The greatest viral movements of our time like Black Lives Matter, Occupy, and Standing Rock haven’t become social media sensations that swept the country because they distributed really well-written tweets and really beautiful graphics from some centralized social media account. They worked because their ideas and their actions in the real world were powerful and moving to millions of Americans who posted about them constantly on social media. What works is actually doing and saying things in real life that regular people are excited about and inspired by and want to share with the people they care about. The memes will create themselves.
Political campaign veterans who have spent time in grassroots field organizing intuitively understand the new viral era reality far better than those who specialize in top-down glossy mailers and slick TV ads. Field campaign people know that no matter how perfectly crafted and meticulously written your script is, the moment your volunteers actually nervously knock on their first door, the script will immediately vaporize from their mind, and with hands fumbling on their clipboards and eyes darting around for help, they will start telling whatever story they have actually absorbed about the campaign. And yet somehow, if that story is halfway decent, the fact that this is a real person from the voter’s own community speaking sincerely about why they care and others should too, is far more persuasive than any advertisement on TV. When a political movement tells a story that truly resonates with its core of supporters at a deeper level, they can re-tell that story to the people around them who trust them and listen to them. What is happening on social media is the exact same thing that happens in field organizing, but at a bigger and faster scale.
We don’t know everything about what creates virality, but social media has been around long enough and studied enough that we do know some things:
A) Virality thrives off a clear sense of identity. Buzzfeed was the first to realize this, and started writing listicles like “23 things only Asian dentists from Southern California will understand”. The founder of Buzzfeed did his graduate school research on how modern consumer culture caused people to lose their sense of identity, leaving them grasping for new identities that spoke to them. He understood that people share things with others to show the world who they are. Similarly, political communications in the viral age need to answer the question “What does participating in this say about what kind of person I am?”. Who is the “we” I’m part of? This could mean we are the people’s movement of the 99% taking power back from the 1% and corporations. We are the people of color, queer people, etc. fighting back against oppression. Or we are the silent and struggling “real Americans”, standing up for ourselves to make America great again. People are far more driven by declaring a political identity than declaring policy platforms they agree with. That’s always been true, but it’s more true now than ever.
B) Research also shows that the most viral emotion is outrage. Of all the feelings that move us to share information, “Wow this is so cute and heartwarming” has nothing on “I can’t believe this happened, this is so fucked up.” In this altered political state, our messages need to plainly say the status quo is fucked up because it is. Economic inequality is spiraling out of control, our planet is hurtling towards destruction, and race and gender oppression are still deeply rooted in every facet of our society. And we need to not just acknowledge that shit is fucked up, we need to say why it’s fucked up, who benefits from the status quo that harms so many people, who prevents the change that we need. Are things fucked up because the financial elite have accumulated so much political and economic power that they’ve screwed the rest of us to make profits for themselves? Are things fucked up because people with privilege allow white supremacy and patriarchy to continue their centuries-long stranglehold around all of our society’s institutions? Or are things fucked up because America’s dark outsider enemies are taking advantage of our soft multiculturalism that’s made us too politically correct to stand up for our own people?
C) And of course, the most obvious lesson is that bold, unexpected things go viral. The conventional wisdom in politics for a very long time has been that it is strategic to be mild and careful, to avoid controversy or gaffes that come from saying the wrong thing, to be meticulous and scripted and on-message. In the viral era, we need to make bold statements about our core beliefs and policy platforms. Here’s an exercise: Picture in your mind the most frequently talked-about Hillary Clinton platform. I can barely think of any. In fact, the first thing that popped into my mind was the free college for families making under $100k a year and that’s only because she copied Bernie Sanders’ thing and watered it down. All the expensive 30-second TV spots and half-page mailers in the world reach, engage, and persuade a fraction of the people you can reach by simply doing or saying something that millions of regular people start talking about on the internet. Most totally regular people could easily name 3-5 Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders platforms off the top of their heads and it wasn’t because they heard about them from an ad on TV.
Trump: Border Wall, mass deportations, Muslim registry, Ban/extreme vetting of refugees, renegotiate NAFTA and other trade deals, huge infrastructure plan, “drain the swamp” of political corruption
Sanders: Single payer healthcare, free college tuition, $15 minimum wage, raise taxes on 1%, overturn Citizens United, ban fracking, legalize marijuana, end for-profit prisons
Hillary Clinton had an immense wealth of thoroughly researched and developed policy proposals. And sincere or not, she arguably had a more progressive policy platform than any previous Democratic Party presidential nominee. But they were still safe, old ideas, articulated in uninspiring ways. Like a tree falling in an empty forest, your stances on issues don’t matter if nobody hears about them.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were both massively underestimated by the political establishment again and again because their unorthodox platforms completely defied the commonly accepted wisdom. They were not platforms that would have passed the old test: focus groups and polling to determine which policy stances would be supported by the largest amount of likely voters. But they were genius because they weren’t targeted to be the message that would perform best among moderate voters. They were viral platforms. They were platforms whose greatest strength was motivating millions of everyday people to share that message with everyone they knew.
These platforms are ones that say something about who we are for supporting them. To be part of the Donald Trump movement meant you were a brave honest person unafraid to speak the truth against political correctness. To be part of the Bernie Sanders movement meant being the voice of real people not influenced by corporate interests and lobbyists.
These aren’t just platforms, they’re stories. They explain why things are fucked up now, point to the villains on the other side, and offer a path we can choose to challenge those villains directly and defeat them. Along the way, we learn who we are, why we’re part of this, and the better world we seek to create.
The lesson here is in the viral era, instead of picking the message that gets the highest initial approval rating from the elusive “swing voter”, political leaders and movements will succeed by choosing a message that resonates most deeply among a base of supporters who will spread that message to the broader public. When we develop a message, we often forget about the real-life implementation of delivering the message. We assume it will be perfectly delivered to everyone, top-down by TV spots and glossy mailers and highly disciplined political operatives. But in the real world, people don’t really trust these messengers, increasingly less so in a society unraveling, where people have a growing skepticism of institutions. People trust people they know as messengers, people like them, people in their own communities. Political movements need to create messages that ordinary people can and will effectively communicate to others when it comes to those conversations around the family dinner table or in the break room at work or in a bar with friends and yes, the macro-version of all of this, what they post on social media for hundreds of friends and relatives to see.
You could see Bernie Sanders’ message sweep like wildfire among young Americans. He had deeply enthusiastic supporters among so many ordinary grassroots young people who, without any formal training or official talking points, could still articulate his campaign’s story. Trump had this too. Clinton did not. A truly powerful message is one where a nervous volunteer on their first day can forget the talking points and still end up saying exactly what they need to say, because they actually understand and believe the core fundamental message of the movement at a deeper level.
Imagine if you asked the world’s top social media experts to find the demographic of people who make up the hardcore base of each party. Then you told them “Forget the conventional political wisdom, instead develop a presidential campaign platform uniquely targeted just to appeal to this base group that will make them so inspired that they’ll want to share that message with their social networks”.
They would quickly identify working-class rural white guys as the core Republican voter base and would probably develop something almost exactly like the Trump campaign to appeal to them: fiercely anti-immigrant and anti-outsourcing with huge promises on jobs, a populist anger towards political elites and political correctness, and a reduced emphasis on the trickle-down economics pushed by rich Republican donors. Above all, the story told to the people who have seen declines in their social and economic status would be that this tough successful guy, this ultimate winner, was going to bring back the old America where times were better for blue-collar rural white guys.
The team would then look at the Democratic Party and come across a problem. There are really two core voter bases: young people and people of color. If they chose young people, who came of age during and after the financial crash, continue to struggle with debt and underemployment, and have had their fundamental faith in the political and economic system shaken, they would likely develop something very close to the Bernie platform.
More than any other factor, this is ultimately why Sanders came so close but failed to win the primary. Bernie’s viral message was brilliantly-tailored to young white people, performed fairly well among young people of color, and was actually surprisingly strong among rural blue-collar white people. But the Bernie Sanders story failed to resonate with older people of color, leading him to huge losses in the Deep South where black voters make up most of the Democratic base and the Southwest where Democrats are heavily Latino. While Bernie won the majority of white voters, and a crushing majority of young people, he ultimately lost among Democrats overall.
But even though he lost, his campaign was still an unbelievable success that not only defied but destroyed the odds, powered by his immensely viral message. Think about Bernie Sanders for a minute: When he announces, no one in the establishment thinks he can even be taken seriously as a candidate, and even he doesn’t seem to think he has much chance of winning. Pundits, analysts, and experts laugh at the idea. He declares he will run without any corporate or PAC money, which he wouldn’t have gotten anyway. And then something happens. His social media is going nuts. It’s kind of weird but it’s so unpolished, it’s so real, it sounds like him and looks like him and it is him, straight up what he really believes, not some fake TV-ready persona with heavily crafted talking points. In a world of fake we crave realness. Suddenly Bernie starts attracting huge crowds and massive amounts of small grassroots donations and an army of young volunteers. Get this, the guy is literally openly running on taking down the corrupt elite not just in the financial system, but in the political system too, and he’s somehow getting away with it, people fucking love it, it’s a massive movement sweeping the country! He’s nearly running neck and neck with the supposedly pre-determined heir to the throne Hillary Clinton, despite nearly every single elected official and Democratic party leader and major donor and media pundit lined up against him. The people are speaking! What the fuck, could this actually happen guys??
Now that’s a story I would follow constant updates on, wouldn’t you? If I could share that story with pre-2016 me, with the headline “STUNNING UPSET: Unknown Socialist Senator inches from beating Hillary Clinton. Wall Street is PISSED.” you better believe pre-2016 me would click and share the shit out of that story.
Maybe Sanders and Trump aren’t the first social media candidates. In some ways Obama came first. But his campaign was like an earlier, cruder, 2008 version of social media virality: “Black Guy becomes president after Bush screws everything up. You’ll never believe what happens NEXT!” I mean, yeah sure I’d click on it too, but I’d know going in that it would be total clickbait.
Clinton’s campaign operated on a poorly imitated version of the Obama story and it just never really stuck. “Woman who has been considered Most Likely Democratic Candidate for President for a decade continues running for president. What happens next will be historic, but also roughly similar to what happened for the last 8 years.” Not a story I’d be excited to tell my friends about. And in fact, unfortunately I wasn’t, and neither was virtually anyone in my generation.
And Donald Trump? Literally everything he does or says goes viral and he knows it. Every tweet, every new ridiculous pronouncement, every outlandish move. He is the undisputed king of social media. Everything he says and does seems so real and unscripted and raw and unpredictable, you just can’t stop watching. Even post-election that’s how he governs, making people come up into Trump tower to try to win cabinet appointments like some reality TV show, conducting international diplomacy with a tough guy “bring it on” attitude that threatens to send the world teetering on the brink of nuclear war, swooping in to “save” factory workers from outsourcing with some “deal” he crafted as a master negotiator. America fucking loves watching billionaires do outrageous things with their money, show a total disregard for all the people we hate just because they can, say all the things you’re not supposed to be able to say, and win anyway. With all his mountains of money he didn’t even need it to promote his campaign because TV just ran his speeches and tweets as news. But they had to– they were just responding to a phenomenon already spreading through social media. More and more, mainstream news stories are picked up from something social media starts paying attention to first. That was the case with Trump and Bernie’s campaigns. But it’s also the case of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock. These movements realized they didn’t need the media establishment to take them seriously, as long as they were massively compelling and viral on social media, they could eventually force the mainstream media to cover it.
We need clear, consistent, and compelling narratives– we need stories– with heroes and villains and conflicts and arcs. Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed to define her own story and instead the story that stuck was the story told about her. She became Claire Underwood from House of Cards: the calculating, ruthless, manipulative, cold woman operating in the shadows with an unquenchable thirst for power, using her vast web of connections among the elite to serve herself, standing for nothing but her own ambition. This story has been told about her since I was a kid, too young to know who she was. But as the 2016 campaign moved on and she never crafted a compelling alternative, the story stuck deeper and deeper in the minds of the public, until this character became woven in seamlessly into the Bernie and Trump stories as the perfect villain in both.
Hillary Clinton’s story could have been “Grizzled Iron Lady stands against the rise of fascism”. This is probably closest to what she tried to pull off, but in such a lackluster way it never really took off. Clinton’s speech drawing attention to the growing white supremacist “alt-right” movement will probably be remembered as the most compelling and meaningful moment in her presidential run. But the main story of her campaign never quite reached “Donald Trump is a slippery slope to real authoritarianism”. It was more like “Donald Trump is rude and our kids shouldn’t hear that kind of language”. She didn’t run ads showing the real life impact of parents being torn away from their children by mass deportation or comparing Trump’s Muslim registry to the dark realities of Japanese internment. She ran ads showing him talk like your asshole drunk uncle. And in the end, millions of Americans chose the asshole drunk uncle they wanted on their side in the bar fight the world feels like these days. Clinton’s campaign actually helped tell Trump’s story, that he was a brutally honest tough guy who wouldn’t be held back by political correctness from doing whatever he needed to stand up for “real Americans” in this time of crisis.
I would have preferred the headline “Clinton recants 90’s politics, says Democratic Party needs to change for a new progressive era, and her presidency will mark a total departure from Bill’s.” I would have been an evangelist for that message because that would have told a truly compelling story about how social movements sweeping the country are bringing change that our political leaders can’t ignore any longer. Near the beginning of her campaign there was a real opportunity for this story to unfold. Her first policy speech of the campaign– that she thought her husband’s 1990’s crime bill was a mistake and she now wants to undo mass incarceration– was actually a pretty big deal and generated lots of positive media coverage. It told a story of her as someone with humanity and humility, who was here to fight the new battles, not just represent the old status quo, and her own woman independent of her husband’s legacy. That and the free-ish college platform were probably the most decent attention she got from the media throughout the whole campaign, some of the only times the news cycle actually focused on her ideas or vision or policies instead of the latest development in her bizarre saga of stupid scandals.
So how did the political experts not see this coming? How could they not see that we had entered this altered political state? Part of the problem is we’re measuring support with traditional polls, which are becoming increasingly unreliable at predicting how people actually vote (see: Brexit). Even our great mathmagician hero Nate Silver failed, although he suspected the rest of the polling world was being overconfident for Clinton and got a lot of flack for it from other pollsters. What’s happening here? With the rise of mobile phones with caller IDs, and with the declining number of people who even use a phone as a phone (young people like me basically only make actual phone calls in emergencies), most people don’t even pick up for unfamiliar numbers anymore, let alone choose to spend 20 minutes answering poll questions from a strange caller. The small share of people who do pick up and answer polls are a skewed sample, the kind of people who tend to be more open and trusting, for example. If there is a growth of angry cynical anti-establishment voters, they will be undercounted in poll after poll.
The response rate to polls is dramatically falling, and with it, their accuracy. Trump would often point to shitty online polls with terrible methodology saying he was winning, and we dismissed it as a stupid petty man’s ego-driven desperation to see himself on top. And yet those polls ended up being more right than all the mainstream phone polls and the statistics wizard-god Nate Silver.
There is a world online that traditional campaigns are not living in. We are essentially running blind to what’s going on there. People are living most of their lives online, and contrary to popular opinion that it’s all cat videos, people are having most of their political conversations online now too. Those interactions deeply shape voters’ understandings of who candidates are, what kind of people support them, and what they stand for.
So what should we do, assign professional campaign staff to lurk on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit comment threads and argue with trolls? Moving into this type of tactic would be quickly self-defeating as people would see right through it (“she’s a paid operative!!”)
The only way to win political battles in the viral era is to have a compelling message that real regular people will carry on their own through what they share with hundreds of friends and family members. That means much more than saying things in an inspiring way, it means actually doing things that are inspiring. It means motivating millions of ordinary people to become at least some small part of a mass social movement in their time. The era of platforms based on incrementalist policy reforms that won’t scare the corporate donor base is over. The era of triangulation and talking points calculated to find the least controversial stance on every issue is over. The era of campaigns aimed at winning over the endorsements of old establishment gatekeepers is over. It’s a time of movements now. If we try to fight a wildfire with a watering can, it will consume us.
When we face a huge and sudden loss, it’s important to understand why the other side won and learn from them, but also to look at the things our side is doing right and learn from ourselves. We are navigating and exploring this altered political state, building our ship as we sail it. But we know what it looks like to build a powerful political movement in this strange new world. We see it in Trump, of course. But we’ve also seen it from Ferguson, Missouri to Zucotti Park, New York, to Standing Rock, North Dakota. We’re building unstoppable movements for social, economic and environmental justice in this viral era. We need to understand what it is about them that’s working, and follow that path to victory.