LONG READ: What the US election can teach public sector communicators

I’ve long had the idea that elections are great learning places for communications people.

It’s where new channels can be experimented with as rival sides jockey for fractions of an inch advantage.

None more than the US elections.

In 2008, Obama’s blended use of on-the-ground activism and email was a compelling formula. In 2016, Trump’s use of Twitter as a hand grenade to blow-up the news agenda was just as compelling.

In 2020? It’s far more complicated.

It’s about conspiracy theories as reality, it’s TikTok’s micro-entertainment explosion and it’s about the push back of the gatekeepers of quality journalism and the push back of social media companies becoming gatekeepers to call out fake news.

As I’ve been researching this blogpost I’ve realised that so much is stuff about the 2020 US election comms is stuff we don’t see or are stopped from seeing.

Let me explain.

The return of journalists as fact checkers

On the day after the election count, Donald Trump took to the White House media briefing room to deliver his view that the election was being stolen by his opponent but gave no evidence. In 2016, this would have been reported as faithfully as a court stenographer verbatim and in full.

In 2020, the 24-hour rolling news ticker gave its own commentary and broadcasters cut away. The aim is not to give voice to lies but to be a gatekeeper to the audience.

While right minded people would no doubt breathe a sigh of relief there’s no question that people at the fringe would see this as stopping a democratic voice. For them, it stokes their radicalisation rather than defeats it.

This would have been unthinkable a few years ago. In 2020, at the top level bullshit is being called out. As someone who has worked in a newsroom and despairs at lies being normalised this can only be a good thing.

It also shows up when the Wall Street Journal refused to run a tenuous story about Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s son and a laptop purporting to be his. In 2016, this would have been run. In 2020, it wasn’t so wan’t the game changer it could have been.

The tactic of planting a story in traditional media and letting right wing commentators ruin with it has been busted.

If we’re watching the news we can see this. If we’re not, we could see this as democracy stopped.

The start of social media platforms as fact-checkers

In 2016, the strategic tweet to shape the news agenda was a characteristic of the Trump campaign. In 2020, it was blunted by the social media companies themselves.

So when Trump tweeted an ellegation without evidence, there was disclaimer.

The echo chambers that gave those tweeted lies oxygen have also been diminished by tighter controls on hate speech. The more extreme right wing commentators who were such media voices in 2016, had been driven from the platform by 2020.

Take the example of Alex Jones, the right wing broadcaster who has alleged the Sandy Hook massacre was fake, who has had his audience cut after being banned by leading social media polatforms. Jon Ronson’s podcast traces Alex Jones’ background to find the reasons for his descent into conspiracy theories. But he concludes that the kickback at him was nothing compared to when Jones was on social media.

If we’re using social media we can see the content that’s directly called out but we can’t see the voices that have been excluded.

The normalising of conspiracy theory as fact

In amongst the headlines on election day is this piece of news.

A QAnon supporter who supports the view that America is run by a Satanic cabal of elites who abuse children has been not only elected but embraced by the Republican Party.

I don’t even know where to go with this piece of information.

Or rather, I don’t WANT to go where this piece of information takes me.

If we think that children should be brought up knowing the difference between right and wrong we have an inherent belief that right will prevail. It’s a view reinforced by theatre, drama and soap operas.

It’s not a view supported by the ballot box. As communicators, we need to take seriously the baseless before it grows and becomes elected. There are 160,000 members of QAnon groups in the UK and one in four Britons believe a QAnon conspiracy.

Don’t think that people are rational and will see through things.

We don’t always see conspiracy theories if they’re shared by friends or family.

The start of TikTok as a powerful channel

As a fringe TikTok user, I turned to the BBC’s excellent podcast ‘The TikTok Election‘ for the skinny on how this is being used as an election tool.

In the US, 100 million Americans use TikTok and content shapes by users taps into the the algorithm, the programme reports.

When Donald Trump chose to stage his first rally after recovering from COVID-19 in Tulsa a gran on TikTok suggested TikTok users reserve seats to leave him standing alone and a million did.

This was sabotage by ordinary people who had accidentally tapped into TikTok’s algorithm to upend the great and the powerful.

‘Hype houses’ are loose allegiances of fellow-travellers on TikTok who will support fellow travellers. Their aim is to get their content to drop into your newsfeed. Democrats have them and so have the Republicans but they’re shaped by people on the ground rather than the party themselves.

There was a hot take in the BBC TikTok podcast:

TikTok is the rise of micro-entertainment. The most dense content format known to man. It is where you can get the most ‘ooo’s’, ‘ahhs’ and ‘ha-ha’s per second and that makes it completely different than old school social media.

If you think of old social media like stories on Instagram as being biographical, spontaneous social media but TikTok is different. It’s not about you it’s about what you perform for the world. That makes it micro-entertainment which is story-boarded, pre-meditated and there’s a tonne of effort put into each video.

People have become addicted to this form of fast-paced content and other social networks are adapting. It’s also hugely powerful for advertising because with most social media you’re used to scrolling through so quickly and skipping whatever doesn’t seem relevant but with TikTok’s micro-entertainment it unfolds so quickly that you don’t even have a chance to skip them.

TikTok is home to countless niches of content. That means every type of sub-culture, every type of hobby or interest has a place on TikTok. Well, if you made that content for your friends it might only resonate with a few of them. When you put it out to the world, TikTok’s algorithm can find the right people to root it to. That includes political and justice focussed content. That means if you have a different political viewpoint or you don’t care about an issue someone can make you care about that issue with a high quality succinct TikTok.

Josh Constine, head of content at investment company SignalFire.

But you won’t see any of this if you are not on TikTok.

But the media landscape is so fractured, why is anyone surprised that this could be anything but?

Email as a fundraising machine

At the start of the campaign, I sign-up to the Trump and Biden campaigns as I have done for every election since 2008.

More than 90 per cent of emails had a single call to action to ask people for money. No surprise considering the amount of money being spent on campaigning.

Both reflect the tone and flavour of each campaign. So, the day after polling day Trump stokes the idea that the election is under attack.

Whereas, the Biden campaign re-focussed on fundraising with tight subject lines and a clear call to action.

But you won’t see this if you’re not signed-up.

Legal action as a communications tool

As the days drag on from election day conmunications rather than polling or law appear to being used as the weapon.

As this piece in Politico points out, law suits are being taken with little chance of success. Their role is not to triumph in law but to try and intimidate and encourage the repetition of the wards ‘illegal ballot’ in the popular consciousness.

We’re fractured and the answer lies in research and teams

The media landscape whether US or UK is fractured.

The idea of a single billboard turning an election like Saatchi & Saatchi did in 1979 is the stuff of history.

We are more polarised and more extreme and successful political content rides on the waves of the algorithm that rewards this.

People consume things in different ways and at different times. Increasingly, we’re doing this in a way that isn’t public and the US Presidential election shows this to be true.

The skill of a strategic communicator is to understand what the landscape looks like and know the people who will be able to create the engaging content. It’s unlikely that one person has mastery of all of these channels but a well-assembled team can.

As someone who has worked in and around public sector comms one thing is true. Many of the extreme tactics from the 2020 campaign are unethical and can’t be replicated directly by an NHS Facebook page or a council ad campaign. But we all absolutely need to know and understand it.

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  1. Good read Dan, as always. I confess I was never more pleased than when the networks pulled the plug on Trump’s rant. If they’re starting to become instant fact-checking arbiters that can only be a good thing.
    Best to you in these lonely times.

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