Pandemic Politics: Targetted Influence in the Age of Covid-19


What happens in an election when national or global crises prevent rallies, in-person meet-and-greets, door-knocking, fundraisers, and handshakes? Political parties and candidates must reach people where they are: online, at home, on their phones and in their inboxes.

One hand is holding a sticker with "I Voted" written on it against a blurred background.

In the absence of in-person canvassing to persuade and influence voters, since the pandemic began, political campaigns and candidates have been forced to lean hard on their digital strategies to create personal connections. At the same time, politicians and the influence industry of political campaigning have been forging new and creative techniques to reach voters online and at home.

In South Korea in April, where campaigns traditionally are focused on in-person interaction, candidates adjusted their strategies by hosting YouTube talk shows, uploading their speeches online, and offering QR codes where voters could download election materials.

In Singapore, candidates arranged “online rallies” and encouraged livestreamed “Ask-me-anything” sessions.

In Belarus, YouTube and social media were key in organizing opposition and registering voters, while post-election rallies, protests and arrests were livestreamed online.

Technologies created on the fly

While this shift toward online campaigning around the world was already underway, it has been dramatically accelerated due to the pandemic. Nowhere has the shift been more evident than in the US Presidential election in 2020.

As Betsy Hoover, co-founder of the US tech-investing firm Higher Ground Labs, pointed out at the very onset of the pandemic, "This shift to digital campaigning is something we've seen gradually over the last decade.

But now, we basically expedited that shift to happen over a couple weeks in one single moment." This means some of these novel or experimental methods are being rolled out to millions of voters without time for testing or considerations of data privacy, and without time for the regulations of electoral commissions or social media platforms to catch up.

The developments during the US election can serve as a case study for how the digital campaigning landscape will change worldwide, as the influence industry in the US has been exporting its data-driven tactics since its inception.

Campaigns get creative

According to one estimate, Joe Biden and Donald Trump spent an estimated $US 98 million and $US 150 million respectively on Facebook ads alone in the months leading to the 2020 Presidential election. But investing in ads on Facebook is now just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Campaigns are branching out to reach voters on a host of other platforms including YouTube, Reddit, TikTok, Snapchat, and more.

Last month, Democratic congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez streamed her online gaming session on the platform Twitch, gaining 450,000 views, and Joe Biden's campaign designed an island dedicated to Biden in the popular digital game Animal Crossing.

Both techniques successfully connected with younger voters especially, reaching them at home at their desktop computers and on their mobile phones in venues typically dedicated to entertainment.

Because such efforts represent the first political forays into these platforms, they can easily be used to bypass existing campaign regulations. For instance, campaign strategists from both parties in the US enlisted content creators in 'hype houses' on TikTok to promote candidates' apps or sign up for their SMS services, thereby evading TikTok's ban on political advertising.

The rise of the micro-influencer

In the absence of in-person campaign events, US candidates also tapped into a new digital marketing tool: influencers on social media. The influencer agency Village Marketing, for instance, helped Joe Biden secure livestreamed lock-down interviewswith popular online influencers like rap star Cardi B and podcasters Khadeen and Devale Ellis, providing a more intimate connection with followers and reaching a younger demographic, who might encounter them while scrolling through their Instagram or other feeds.

Along with courting endorsements from celebrities with large social media followings, campaign strategists also leveraged so-called micro-influencers – ordinary people with 5,000 to 20,000 followers on social media – and paid them to tweet or post partisan political content. Messages from micro-influencers are an asset to campaigns because they are perceived as more authentic and trustworthy than traditional advertisements.

What's more, micro-influencers, unlike the candidates themselves or more high-profile surrogates, can take the time to interact personally with their followers. Researchers at The Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin who studied this trend said, "When using advanced technologies such as CRMs, marketing analytics tools, and social listening software, in conjunction with nano-influencers, marketers gain the ability to coordinate flocks of 'digital door knockers' on a scale that traditional canvassing could never hope to achieve, all while infiltrating close relational networks that would otherwise be off-limits."

The relative novelty of using micro-influencers to deliver political messages also allows campaigns to bypass restrictions on political ads and disclosures about spending. An Instagram post by a micro-influencer, for instance, may be considered ‘branded content' rather than a political advertisement.

A flood of email, robocalls and texts

We have also seen that political campaigning in US in the context of the pandemic has  prompted a massive uptick in the use of email, robocalls, and peer-to-peer texting to reach voters. While these methods were already a staple of digital campaigns, many companies have capitalized on the chance to promote their marketing services to politicians during the pandemic.

According to one study, the vast majority of political emails used manipulative tactics like dark patterns or clickbait to get readers to open them. Donald Trump's campaign, which boasted about the number of email addresses they have been able to collect at rallies, are still using their email list post-election to send emails to supporters to solicit donations.

In addition to the deluge of emails that campaigns have sent during the pandemic, a host of new or 'improved' digital tools have made it easier to send bulk SMS messages and make automated robocalls. An estimated three billion political text messages were sent in the run-up to the US election, facilitated by products like the peer-to-peer texting service RumbleUp, whose website boasts access to "comprehensive national records for voters, consumers, constituents, predictive non-voters, non-registered voters, and their contact information (including mail, cell phone numbers, landlines and emails)" as well as "an extensive Voter Data Filter, with hundreds of behavioral attribute fields, demographic fields, and predictive information to provide your campaign with excellent audience targeting for your needs."

Campaigns also made use of advanced marketing tools for automated dialing, such as the service PhoneBurner, which lets callers disguise their number with local caller IDs and "drops pre-recorded voicemails in one click, without you having to wait for the beep."

Suppression, disinformation, and other tactics

Perhaps the most concerning consequence of pandemic politicking is the extent to which digital techniques are being harnessed to suppress the vote and disseminate disinformation. On voting day in the US election, residents in several states received robocalls and texts telling them to 'stay safe and stay home'.

Just weeks before, voters received threatening emails that looked like they came from a far-right Pro-Trump group, telling them to vote for Trump "or we will come after you." ProPublica reported that misinformation about the potential dangers of voting were targeted at Chinese Americans on WeChat, while similar messages were spread among South Asian voters on WhatsApp.

If 2016 was the year that Facebook ads and micro-targeting where proclaimed to have made the difference, 2020 has shown that there are now a vast range of digital tactics that can give candidates an edge. The need to improvise new methods for reaching voters in the pandemic has opened up even more avenues to political campaigning, which may have previously been used only for marketing, entertainment or personal communication.

It's likely that techniques that proved successful in the US election will be exported to and adopted by campaigns outside of the US, while the US influence industry will also be looking for successful methods abroad that they can market at home. Either way, the traditional or expected boundaries between political campaigning and voters' everyday interactions online mean it will be harder to distinguish between personal and political channels for messaging.

Furthermore, this shift means that those without access to the internet risk being left out or further disenfranchised. With no sign that this trend will reverse, regulators, policy-makers and social media platforms should turn their attention to how these digital methods will change the shape of politics – who is reached, how, with what messages, and at what cost?

To find out more about the the 'who, what and where' of the political influence industry, download Tactical Tech's report Personal Data: Political Persuasion or watch our video

Your Data, Our Democracy.