In the midst of a rally during the final week of his campaign, Josh Shapiro received his first report to BeReal. The on-the-spot photo app has garnered a huge following among young people seeking authenticity through platforms that encourage more polished messaging — but it’s an uncommon platform for politicians, who are used to practicing closer contact with voters.
For the Shapiro team, the launch of the BeReal account was a natural next step for their digital program that has not only advertised Shapiro as a candidate, but also recruited him as the lead on the platforms that young people use the most.
“[Young people] see these platforms, where someone has to be wholeheartedly who they are, and they’re a little bit more distinctive,” Shapiro’s digital director Annie Newman said in an interview last week. “We can see when someone is acting authentically or doing something that their digital director has asked them to do.”
It is a sign of how crucial online platforms have become for politics. Campaigns have engaged in influencer marketing and digital outreach for several cycles, but this transitional season those skills became a necessity. More than 8 million young people were eligible to vote this year, and with turnout expectations shaken after Trump, their support is imperative for battlefield racing.
At the same time, rapidly evolving media diets and the fluidity of platform policies have forced campaigns into new tactics, especially in-house content creation. Rather than treating candidates merely as products to be promoted, this new way of campaigning turns the candidate into a content creator, with often unpredictable consequences.
Earlier this month, CNBC reported that groups, like the Democratic Governors Association, have slashed their spending on Facebook, indicating that the platform had lost much of its effectiveness over the past two years. Instead of Facebook, campaigns and political action committees focused more of their donor dollars on streaming services like Hulu, where targeting is more accurate and ads skipping more difficult.
“There’s no point in putting a unique sharp 30-second ad on Facebook that would be completely different from anything people see” on their feeds, Alex Kellner, president of Bully Pulpit Interactive, told The edge in August. “So, can you get that same message in a carousel? Can you get that same message in a shorter life stage treatment?”
Democratic campaigns have spent this midterm cycle building massive digital programs, crafting messages best suited to each platform in a way that amounts to becoming their own digital media companies. John Fetterman, who is running to represent Pennsylvania in the US Senate, thinks his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, in short tweets out. Tim Ryan, hopeful for Ohio in the Democratic Senate, epitomizes the wacky Midwestern dad, who enlists staffers armed with surfboards to film social videos poking fun at his rival. Often with the help of consultants, the candidates have played a more intimate role in the production than ever before.
TikTok has also become a central outreach platform despite ongoing national security concerns. National security hawks like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mark Warner (D-VA) have denounced the app’s ties to China – but as the 2020 election season kicked off, the platform’s algorithm and traction with young people proved to be a problem for many. too tempting to resist campaigns. The platform banned all political fundraising in September, including everything from disabling a politician’s access to monetization features to blocking the use of their bios to link to fundraising pages (political ads were banned in 2019).
But even as TikTok rolled out these changes in the fall, campaigns continued to pour resources into the platform. With Facebook’s targeting value declining, candidates embraced the organic short video brand that popularized TikTok. These videos may not translate into money as easily, but they can translate to activated voters, especially younger ones.
“Candidates like Tim Ryan and Fetterman are stars on TikTok precisely because they take a digital-first approach and trust the young people they’ve hired,” said Caleb Brock, a forward-thinking digital consultant. The edge on Tuesday. “It comes down to trusting the people in your campaign to take risks and push the boundaries of what we do on social media.”
“It comes down to trusting the people in your campaign to take risks and push the boundaries of what we do on social media”
While Shapiro, Fetterman and Ryan often appear on their TikTok accounts, the direction of the content is mainly influenced by the young people they employ.
Speak with The edge in August, Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s communications director, explained that the candidate’s TikTok account would be managed by a Generation Z employee who had 25,000 followers on her personal account. By handing over the reins to young staffers, candidates are better positioned to create the content and participate in the viral trends that resonate best with young voters. Like helping your mom text after she forgets her glasses, the experience and content become more authentic and recognizable to viewers.
“Each platform requires a different type of content,” Julia McCarthy, NextGen America’s social media influencer manager, said in an interview in September. “We need to lean on content creators as the experts on these platforms.”
Another hidden factor is Apple’s advertising policies, which have toned down the advertising on the edge platform once held over native content. Last year, the company introduced a new feature called Transparency of app tracking, which allows users to choose which advertisers they allow to collect their data. Privacy advocates praised the feature, but it was a huge challenge for major political ad distributors like Facebook and Snap. If users opt out of tracking, platforms won’t be able to target their ads, reducing the incentive to pay for the audience.
After the content is created, the question is how to distribute it. Since 2020, President Joe Biden’s campaign and White House staff have… recruited hordes of online influencers on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok to spread the administration’s messages. To keep up with the trend, the Democratic National Committee set up its own online content distribution center for influencers in August. State and local candidates have followed in their footsteps and built their own army of influencers.
But instead of partnering with the biggest names on social media, down-voting campaigns are building relationships with creators in their states and districts. The Shapiro campaign runs a 41-strong network of TikTok influencers, with over 20 million followers, to spread its message across the country online. But it also developed its own in-house micro-influencer program called the Shapiro Squad, aimed at recruiting smaller influencers in Pennsylvania to more directly engage with local voters about its campaign.
That kind of active platform outreach is a major shift from the paranoia that followed the 2016 election — but for younger staffers like Brock, getting younger voters to the polls is essential.
“The algorithms are stacked against progressives and the future we’re building towards,” he said Tuesday. “It’s about time we fight back.”