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How Michael Bloomberg is using digital media in the 2020 election

Michael Bloomberg has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on his presidential campaign

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Michael Bloomberg is investing heavily in digital media advertising Credit: REX

The text message looked like ordinary political spam. "Mike Bloomberg is the president we need to unite our country!" it read. The next message, however, was more unusual: "Please disregard. Vote Bernie or Warren."

In fact these messages, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, were not sent by a campaign staffer or an enthusiastic volunteer. Instead they were the work of a financially stressed recent graduate from Sacramento, California, one of more than 500 Americans who have signed up to bombard their friends and social media followers with pro-Mike messages for a cool $2,500 (per month.

This unusual scheme – a slightly cleaner and much more generous recreation of China's "50 cent army" of pro-government online trolls – is part of an unprecedented digital advertising blitz from the former New York City mayor, who on Tuesday will formally enter the race to be chosen as the Democratic Party's nominee for US president. It is emblematic of a candidate who has sought to short-circuit the contest by carpet-bombing it with money from his gigantic personal fortune – but also one who has pushed the boundaries of what is permissible in a political campaign.

"He's doing a campaign strategy that I would call 'all of the above'," says Tim Groeling, a professor of political communication at the University of California, Los Angeles. "[Bernie] Sanders had intense followers that were really invested in the campaign and were willing to volunteer a lot of activity. Bloomberg doesn't have that intense of a following... [so] he is trying to buy the equivalent. This $2,500 a month payment system [is] for people to do what every other campaign gets their volunteers to do for free."

Mr Bloomberg campaigning Credit: Reuters

Not that Bloomberg can't afford it. According to Forbes, he is the world's eighth richest man, with a net worth of around $60bn (compared to Donald Trump's $3.1bn) derived from an empire of financial data terminals. His pitch to voters is taht he is smarter, richer, more successful and far more sophisticated (though not taller) than the "carnival barking clown" currently occupying the White House, and that he is the "boss" who can whip America into shape. In practice, he has struggled for breathing space with a crowd of other Democratic moderates who have so far failed to unite against the surging, socialist Bernie Sanders. Still, though Bloomberg will only actually appear on ballots from "Super Tuesday", when a huge number of delegates are up for grabs in 14 simultaneous state elections, he has already spent more cash on Facebook and Google adverts than every other major presidential candidate combined.

The aim of this bonanza is to beat Trump's superlative 2016 effort, which Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth recently described as "the single best digital ad campaign I've ever seen from any advertiser". Or, as Bloomberg's campaign manager Kevin Sheekey put it last month: "We’re gonna spend Trump out of office." The 78-year-old mogul has promised to keep up the shopping spree even if he loses the nomination (including to Sanders). But at times his tactics have bordered on spam, fake news and social media manipulation, leading one expert to accuse him of "hacking your attention".

In one case, Bloomberg's campaign sent out a clip of a TV debate which had been edited to make his opponents look far more stumped by one of his attack lines than they really were. Aides defended it as an obvious parody. In another, the campaign tweeted a series of "satirical" quotes from Sanders praising various dictators, only to delete them after a backlash. It also commissioned a horde of sponsored posts from Instagram influencers, flagrantly violating a ban on politicians running any such campaigns. After that, Instagram actually reversed the policy, and now asks only that candidates and their influencers flag the sponsorship using an official tool.

Most controversially, Twitter last month banned 70 accounts that had tweeted identical pro-Bloomberg messages, accusing them of beaking "platform manipulation" rules originally designed to stop Russian influence campaigns. It is unclear whether these accounts were entirely fake identities or whether they were simply members of the $2,500 army who had copied the Bloomberg campaign's boilerplate messages instead of crafting their own. Neither Twitter nor the campaign responded to requests for comment.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appYet according to Renee DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory who has extensively studied Russian covert campaigns, Bloomberg's methods are drawn less from government government trolls and more from corporate shills. "The comparison to Russia is so absurd," she says. "The appropriate comparison is astroturfing, in which people are paid money by pharmaceutical companies or whatever to go onto social media and talk about how wonderful their headache medicine is." Normally the US would regulate that as a consumer protection issue  – but DiResta says that election authorities have failed to draw up matching rules for politicians.

Groeling, meanwhile, argues that Bloomberg is embracing a tried-and-tested Trumpian tactic: "trolling the media to pay attention to what he wants them to pay attention to." The edited video clip, for example, happened to feature Bloomberg's best moment in a debate that otherwise went badly for him, meaning he may have gained more positive spin from reports that questioned his tactics than from the clip itself. The same is true of Bloomberg's fake Sanders tweets: everyone who saw them being debunked was also exposed to the claim that Sanders supports dictators, even if they had never heard it before.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appIn other words, Bloomberg might be the first truly post-Trump candidate: a rival oligarch, shameless about his wealth, who is willing to bend the truth and incite controversy in order to hijack the spotlight. Some have therefore feared that his victory would herald the end of American democracy as we know it. But Groeling is more optimistic: yes, Bloomberg has spent a "staggering amount of money", but he is far away from actually winning Democratic voters and has suffered in every arena that he does not control.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appThe true test of Bloomberg's plan will begin on Tuesday – and it may yet transpire that its only real winners are a handful of ordinary hustlers who will breathe more easily paying this month's rent.

How Michael Bloomberg is using digital media in the 2020 election