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Widespread distrust means that campaigns can no longer rely on earned media to deliver their message to voters.
Depending on who you ask, media distrust is the logical and appropriate conclusion to decades of biased reporting, the result of an ever atomizing media landscape, which emphasizes confirmation bias or, possibly, a blend of both.
Regardless of the cause, in this media environment, campaigns need a new strategy — particularly if they want to reach voters outside their base.
Friend-to-friend contact through a variety of digital channels among likely voters has proven to be a useful tool in both turnout and persuasion efforts. Moreover, it’s an increasingly valuable strategy in a world of rampant institutional distrust.
Consider this: Harvard researchers found that after 2016 many conservatives had been getting their information in a “relatively insular right-wing media ecosystem whose shape and communications practices differ sharply from the rest of the media ecosystem.”
This ecosystem “partly insulated its readers from nonconforming news reported elsewhere and moderated the effects of bad news for Donald Trump’s candidacy.”
The latest example of this phenomenon occurred in Alabama, where if it were not for more than 22,000 write-in votes, Roy Moore would be the next junior senator from the Yellowhammer State.
In fact, leading up to the special Senate election, Moore tried to dodge numerous, credible accusations of sexual assault by The Washington Post by attacking the paper and enlisting conservative, partisan news outlets to do the same. Eventually, allied pols and the RNC were given enough cover by this insidious reporting to crawl back into Moore’s camp.
Moore’s campaign bet that, buttressed by the claims of their most trusted media sources and their allies, Republican voters would feel comfortable dismissing the reports of media outlets of whom they have long been suspicious.
Indeed, the plan seemed to be working. In the lead up to last Tuesday night, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll published 10 days before the election, 71 percent of likely Republican voters said they did not believe the allegations against Moore were credible.
As this race drew ever more national attention, Moore could be confident that he would continue to receive ample positive attention from those outlets that were most supportive of his candidacy and most willing to amplify his campaign’s talking points (and refutations). Especially once Trump decided to throw his weight behind his fellow Republican, the type was set for the primetime television hits and website-leading articles.
By limiting his public events in the days before the vote, Moore didn’t need to worry about talking to reporters--friendly or not. The story of his candidacy was static, as was his support from all the institutions that mattered. And the facts of his assaults and rhetoric were shrouded by the veil of partisan opinion. The campaign’s lines were parroted on national television networks, in the local news, and on social media, much as Trump’s were last cycle.
But the results in Alabama didn’t follow the 2016 pattern. Here the media strategy employed by Doug Jones’ campaign is instructive. The Democrats used swarms of digital volunteers to excite the electorate. By his campaign’s estimation, volunteers sent out almost 1 million text messages in the weeks leading up to the special.
His digital organization proved invaluable. Jones’ campaign found voters on their cellphones and in social media, and delivered their message consistently, powerfully, and broadly. This is how Democrats need to run campaigns. But without a galvanizing opponent like Moore, this might not be enough.
If Democrats want to continue to be competitive in races across the country and in races that garner a fraction of the national attention that the Alabama special did, they need to work on building the digital infrastructure to support teams of digital volunteers who can speak directly to people who already trust them.
Organizing mass movements of digital volunteers, and enabling them to use their social media platforms as soap boxes, will break through the noise. If Democrats can turn our online supporters into trackable manageable digital volunteers, we will be able to translate historic grassroots organizing advantages into electoral victories.
Technology that allows volunteers to find and contact their friends and family with campaign messages is designed specifically for an environment in which trust is difficult to earn.
If volunteers don’t need to prove their trustworthiness, they are leaps and bounds ahead of other information sources. If these volunteers reach voters through channels where they already communicate--like Facebook and text messages from personal phones--they have the remarkable and precious opportunity to change minds. This is a remarkable prospect in today’s political climate. This is where campaigns should be focusing their energy.
Shola Farber is the co-founder of The Tuesday Company, which offers digital field organizing software.