The role of social media platforms in distributing fake news and facilitating political ads aimed at voter suppression is a big reason why they’re under the gun in Washington right now. This year’s election provides an opportunity to prove they can keep their platforms clean, politically speaking. But if something goes wrong, they will learn the same lesson politicians already know too well: when it comes to elections, there are no do-overs.
Can Mark Zuckerberg get out the vote?
It isn’t generally a great sign when you hear “Facebook” and “election” in the same sentence. But the company has made a major push this year to expand democratic participation, prominently featuring a Voter Information Center at the top of users’ feeds that included links to register to vote, apply for an absentee ballot, and even volunteer as a poll worker. It isn’t alone. Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok have also been nudging users to vote. Snapchat says it helped over a million people register through its app by early October, more than half of whom would be first-time voters. But Facebook makes the grandest claim, estimating that 4.4 million people registered through its various apps. If that’s true, it could mean a significant number of new, disproportionately young voters join the electorate, helping to address the horrifically anemic participation rate of America’s youth. That would be good news for Facebook’s reputation—and for American democracy.
Can digital door-knocking replace the real thing?
Among the many industries upended by the coronavirus pandemic was traditional campaigning. A highly communicable virus makes for awkward conversations with canvassers on your doorstep. This is particularly acute for Democrats, whose voters and volunteers are statistically much more likely to be concerned about the virus than Republicans. Indeed, the Trump campaign claims to have deployed an extensive door-knocking operation, though at least one reporter has found those efforts to be sparser than advertised.
Even before the pandemic hit, however, Democrats believed they had an edge in the digital ground game. Tools like Mobilize, an events platform, and Team, a “relational organizing” app, allow Democratic campaigns and volunteers to connect online and leverage their existing social networks into get-out-the-vote efforts. The Republican digital organizing infrastructure is far less advanced.
Armed with new apps and a deep supply of texting, phone-banking volunteers, the Biden campaign has insisted that the decision to greatly reduce canvassing in person is no problem. This bucks decades of conventional wisdom and political science research suggesting that face-to-face conversations are the gold standard when it comes to turning out voters. But sending out canvassers to knock on doors is expensive. A Biden win could cause future campaigns to rethink how they allocate their scarce get-out-the-vote resources.
Is Twitter real life?
Trump versus Biden offers no shortage of contrasts. Here’s one that has stood out in the waning days of the campaign: The incumbent president is extremely online, while the former vice president is very much not. Since his original run for office, Trump has famously made social media the centerpiece of his messaging and fundraising strategy. He now seems to inhabit the pro-Trump conservative online echo chamber he helped create, peppering his rallies and debate appearances with references to memes and conspiracy theories that might not make much sense to the majority of the electorate, which doesn’t spend time on Twitter.
As for Biden? As my colleague Kate Knibbs has written, Joe is a temperamentally offline candidate. During the Democratic primary, he mostly refused to cater to the prevailing opinion on Twitter, which was to the left of the overall primary electorate. While his campaign has certainly invested in social media advertising, and even branched into new digital domains like, um, Animal Crossing, Biden the nominee has mostly stuck to an old-school approach. No meme armies, no overwhelming surge of rabid online fans, no viral Twitter dunks.