How Joe Biden's digital workforce tamed the MAGA web

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Last April, when Rob Flaherty, the digital director of Joe Biden's presidential campaign, told me that the former Vice President's team were planning to use feel-good videos and inspirational memes to target President Trump in a "battle for the soul of the internet." beat. My first thought was: good luck with that.

After all, we've talked about the internet, which doesn't seem to reward anything uplifting or nuanced these days. In addition, Mr. Trump is a digital powerhouse with a huge and passionate following, a coalition of popular right-wing media boosting his signal, and a flair for saying the kind of outrageous, attention-grabbing things that are algorithms from Facebook, Twitter, and the catnip YouTube. And after writing about Mr. Biden's comparatively tiny web site last spring, I heard from legions of nervous Democratic strategists who feared using "Heal the Nation" messages against the MAGA meme army would be like bringing a windmill would be a price war.

But in the end, the bed wetters were wrong. Mr. Biden won and although he had far fewer followers and far less social media engagement than Mr. Trump, his campaign fetched record amounts and eventually neutralized Mr. Trump's vaunted "Death Star" – the name of his former campaign manager Brad Parscale, gave the digital Operation of the campaign.

It is probably impossible to find out if any particular online strategy was decisive in moving the needle for Mr Biden. Offline factors like Mr. Trump's mistreatment of the pandemic and the economic devastation that went with it undoubtedly played a large role. With successful campaigns spawning copycats, it's worth looking under the hood of Biden's digital strategy to see what future campaigns could learn from it.

After the election, I spoke to Mr. Flaherty along with more than a dozen other people who worked on the Biden Digital team. They told me that while the internet alone didn't vote for Mr Biden, some key decisions have improved his chances.

In the early days of his campaign, Mr. Biden's team planned to build their own digital media empire. It posted videos on its official YouTube channel, ran virtual forums, and even set up a podcast hosted by Mr. Biden, "Here's the Deal". However, those efforts have been hampered by technical glitches and lukewarm receptions, and they never got near the reach of Mr. Trump's social media machine.

So the campaign revolved around a different strategy that expanded Mr Biden's reach by working with social media influencers and “validators,” people who trusted the type of voters the campaign wanted to reach.

"We weren't the biggest megaphone compared to Trump, so we had to help arm everyone," said Andrew Bleeker, president of Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic strategy firm that partnered with the Biden campaign.

A validator at the top of the team list was Brené Brown, a popular writer and podcast host who speaks and writes on topics such as courage and vulnerability. Ms. Brown has a loyal following among suburban women – a critical demographic for Mr Biden's campaign – and when Mr Biden appeared on their podcast as a guest to share his own stories of grief and empathy, the campaign saw it as a coup.

Also at the top of the list was actor Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, whose following slant is right and male. Mr. Johnson's endorsement of Mr. Biden and his fellow campaigner, Senator Kamala Harris, this fall created a so-called permissive structure for his supporters – including some who may have voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 – to support Mr. Biden, members of the campaign staff told me.

Celebrities are not a new campaign strategy. However, Mr Biden's team also worked with lesser-known influencers, including YouTubers like Liza Koshy, and partnered with a group of developers known as TikTok for Biden. This campaign paid off to promote Biden content on the teen-dominated video app TikTok.

Perhaps the campaign's most unlikely reviewer was Fox News. Headlines from the point of sale that had a good impact on Mr Biden were relatively rare, but the campaign's tests showed that they were more convincing to voters on the fence than headlines from other points of sale. When they showed up – like in October when Fox News reported an endorsement Mr Biden received from more than 120 former Republican national security and military officials – the campaign paid off to promote it on Facebook and other platforms.

"The headlines from the sources that were most surprising were the ones that made the most impact," said Rebecca Rinkevich, Biden's director of digital quick reactions. "When people saw a Fox News headline endorsing Joe Biden, they stopped scrolling and thought."

A frequent criticism of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign was that it focused too much on targeting the elite of the highly informed people on Twitter rather than paying attention to the much larger group of voters who get their news and information on Facebook. In 2020, Mr Biden's digital team was keen to avoid repetition.

"The whole ethos of the Biden campaign was 'Twitter is not real life,'" said Flaherty. "There is a risk of running a campaign that is too aware of your own ideological corner."

Because the Biden campaign was focused on Facebook, it paid special attention to “Facebook mothers” – women who spend a lot of time sharing cute and uplifting content that the campaign believed could be made to join positive messages about Mr. Biden's character. The target audience, said Mr Flaherty, were women "who would go out and share a video of troops coming home or following The Dodo," a website known for heartwarming animal videos.

A successful clip for this group showed Mr. Biden handing his American flag pin to a boy during an election freeze. Another video showed Mr Biden talking about overcoming a stutter in his youth and meeting Brayden Harrington, a 13 year old boy with one. Both have been viewed a million times.

Voters also responded positively to videos showing Mr Biden showing his mastery of foreign policy. In January, after a US drone attack killed Iranian General Qassim Suleimani, the campaign released a three-minute Facebook video by Mr Biden explaining the situation. Despite its snoozy title, "Joe Biden Discussing Donald Trump's Recent Actions in the Middle East," the video became one of the campaign's earliest viral hits.

The campaign also experimented with lighter tariffs by placing Biden for President virtual lawn signs in Animal Crossing, the hit Nintendo game, and creating a custom “Build Back Better” card in Fortnite, the popular Battle Royale game reach younger voters. Some of these efforts have been trickier than others. However, they all reflected the campaign's decision to send a pro-biden message to as many corners of the internet as possible.

"Our goal was really to meet people where they were," said Christian Tom, head of Mr. Biden's Digital Partnerships team.

One of the goals of the campaign, say Biden staff, was to promote content that builds "social trust" – in other words, avoiding the kind of energizing, divisive tariff that Mr. Trump has used to great effect.

However, Mr Biden's digital strategy wasn't all puppies and rainbows. The campaign also joined a number of popular Facebook left-wing pages, many of which are known for posting aggressive anti-Trump content.

They called this group the "Rebel Alliance," a funny reference to Mr. Parscale's "Death Star," and they eventually became the owners of sites like "Occupy Democrats", "Call to Activism", "The Other 98 Percent" and "Being." Liberal". In the Signal messaging app, the page owners formed a group text that became a kind of quick-reacting brain trust for the campaign.

Updated

Dec. 4, 2020, 2:01 p.m. ET

"I was free to choose the carotid artery," said Rafael Rivero, co-founder of Occupy Democrats and Ridin 'With Biden, another big Facebook page for Biden.

Mr Rivero, who was paid as an advisor to the Biden campaign, told me that not only did he skip over the content of the Occupy Democrats, but he often gave campaign advice based on the performance on his part.

For example, during the National Convention of Republicans, Mr Rivero noted that a meme posted by Ridin 'With Biden about Mr Trump's comments on Medicare and Social Security went viral. He notified the rest of the Rebel Alliance group and recommended that the campaign check out the news for Mr. Biden's official Twitter account.

"It was kind of a big, distributed news test," Flaherty said of the Rebel Alliance. "If it went through Occupy or any of our other partners, we knew it was heat."

These left pages gave the campaign a bigger Facebook audience than it could have reached on its own. But they also allowed Mr. Biden to keep most of his news positive while still taking advantage of the anger and outrage felt by many Democratic voters.

In its internal tests, the Biden campaign found that traditional political ads – professionally produced, good-looking 30-second commercials – were far less effective than impromptu behind-the-scenes footage and ads where regular voters looked directly into or on their smartphones their smartphones were talking to webcams about why they voted for Mr Biden.

"All of our tests have shown that higher production value is no better," said Nathaniel Lubin, an advisor to the Biden campaign. "The things that were more real, grainier, and cheaper to produce were more believable."

So the campaign commissioned a series of simple lo-fi ads targeting key constituencies, such as a series of self-recorded videos of Biden supporters who hadn't voted in 2016 and talked about their regrets.

In addition to hiring traditional democratic advertising firms, the campaign also worked with so-called "small batch developers" – lesser-known producers and digital developers, some of whom had little experience of creating political ads. Among the little developers it hired: Scotty Wagner, a former professor at an art school in California who produced a video about young people who supported Bernie Sanders in Democratic elementary school and shared things they didn't know about Mr. Biden, and Jawanza Tucker, a TikTok creator who made a video based on a TikTok meme about why he voted for Mr. Biden.

One of the major obstacles to the Biden campaign was a tsunami of misinformation, which was in large part compounded by the Trump campaign and its right-wing media allies. There have been unsubstantiated rumors about Mr. Biden's health, unsubstantiated questions about Ms. Harris's citizenship, and false claims about the business relationships of Mr. Biden's son Hunter.

The campaign was an internal effort to combat these rumors known as the "Malarkey Factory". But it carefully selected its battles and used data from voter tests to guide its responses.

For example, when the Hunter Biden laptop story surfaced, some Democrats – concerned that it would be the 2020 version of Hillary Clinton's email story – suggested that the Biden campaign forcefully denounce them . However, the tests of the campaign found that most of the voters in their key groups failed to follow the complexity of the allegations and that this did not change their minds about Mr Biden.

"The conversation with Hunter Biden was many times bigger than the email conversation we had with Hillary Clinton, but it really didn't hang because people think Joe Biden is a good guy," said Bleeker of Bully Pulpit Interactive.

The campaign was still responding to the reports and Mr Biden defended his son during the debate stage. But a full counter-news campaign was no longer launched.

Responding to misinformation, the Biden team tried to address the root of the narrative. After right-wing influencers posted compilation videos of Mr Biden tripping over his words and looking forgetful, the campaign polled voters to see if there was any response to attempting to label him mentally incapable. It turns out that the real concern of many people wasn't Mr. Biden's age or his health per se, but whether he was an easily manipulable tool of the radical left.

The Biden team identified the voters who were most likely to see these clips and ran a targeted digital advertising campaign that featured videos of Mr Biden speaking clearly at debates and public events.

Mr Flaherty, the campaign's digital director, said the campaign's focus on empathy provided insight into how it deals with misinformation: not as a cynical Trump ploy swallowed by gullible scammers, but as something that required Listening to voters to understand their concerns and concerns beforehand fight back. Ultimately, he said, the entire digital strategy for the campaign – the Malarkey Factory, the TikTok developers and Facebook mothers, the Fortnite characters, and the small batch developers – was about getting a friendlier version of the internet from the she still believed she existed.

"It was about how we can toss the incentives of the internet on a little loop." he said. "We decided early on that we would be authentic Joe Biden online, even if people said it was a trap."