Chairman's Desk

The perils and power of digital media

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on February 9, 2020.

If there is one lesson we learned this week, it is that digital media continues to shape politics in ways we still do not understand.

Since its inception, strategists and pundits have treated digital media as a tool: a way of better understanding constituents and expanding reach to them. The reality is very different. Over the past decade, social media platforms and the internet more broadly have fundamentally changed not just the channels we use but the very nature of politics itself.

Consider Donald Trump. It’s not just that social media is the cornerstone of his political strategy, it has defined him as an entity. Without Twitter and Facebook, President Trump simply would not exist. Firstly, Trump’s base of supporters are creatures of social media, which has enveloped them in an echo chamber, validating their feeling that the rest of America has lost its mind, not them. When Trump told them the same thing, that validation was made concrete.

But Trump is not just a master of social media, he is a product of it. From the moment he descended his golden escalator and announced his candidacy, his every impulse has been characterized by a desire to stir controversy and generate clickbait. His obsession with crowd sizes and viewer ratings reflects a metric of success familiar to any social media user: impressions and views.

Trump’s State of the Union address this week was tailor-made for the digital age. Realizing that very few Americans would watch the entire address, Trump opted instead to create made-for-Twitter vignettes to be shared around the world.

Trump was not content with merely calling out the travails of “Lenny Skutniks,” as the invited guests of each president since Reagan are known. Instead, the leader of the free world channelled Oprah and, in real time, handed out a school-voucher scholarship, reunited a military family and awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom to guests in the crowd. Each dramatic moment fit perfectly into a 90-second clip for digital consumption.

And just as the digital age has shaped our politicians, it has shaped the process of politics, too. Chaos descended on the Iowa Democratic primary this week as malfunctions with a newly implemented reporting app wrought havoc on the process. The historic success of the Buttigieg and Sanders campaigns was thus overshadowed by concerns about the accuracy and consistency of the results.

Trump surrogates were quick to point to Iowa as evidence that Democrats are not ready to run a country. But the Iowa debacle also spoke volumes about a reality of the 2020 campaign: Republicans’ vast dominance over Democrats’ in digital capacity. Even compared to President Obama’s formidable digital operation, the Trump team is miles ahead.

For context, between his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Obama grew his digital database by roughly 55 per cent. Trump’s team has already grown theirs by 150 per cent and are aiming for list growth closer to 300 per cent. They have invested four times more in social media than television. The reason is simple: in today’s world, digital strategy is the fundamental building block of campaign strategy.

Canadian political parties have been slower in taking this lesson to heart. In 2016, the Trudeau Liberals significantly outspent other parties’ social media advertising. That said, conservative platforms like Canada Proud and Rebel Media have changed the digital playing field, reaching millions of Canadians with highly engaging content.

In the current CPC leadership race, Erin O’Toole’s campaign has already signalled its belief in the importance of social media. In late January, the campaign rolled out a sizable Facebook ad buy.

But just as digital media can provide momentum, it can also kneecap an otherwise solid campaign. Peter MacKay’s campaign was criticized this week for an aggressive Twitter ad that mocked the prime minister’s penchant for yoga classes and spa visits. The reality is that most Canadians have no appetite for the kind of social media attacks that have become the norm in America.

And therein lies the rub. Just as I wrote last week about the lack of consensus when it comes to online grieving, we are now experiencing the same lack of consensus in online campaigning.