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Who’s behind the Democrats’ online grassroots armies?
How distributed networks of activists are intentionally sharing content to counter the Right
While we often write about paid media campaigns each week, organic posts on Facebook and Twitter can rack up just as many (or more) impressions, shares, and clicks. Posts from right-wing media receive hundreds of thousands of interactions on Facebook every week - often with little counterweights on the left. In this week’s newsletter, we’ll dig into some of those counterweights - specifically the online grassroots armies who are building distributed networks for sharing content on social media.
Grassroots Analytics Campaigns’ mission is to lower the barrier of entry into politics, including at the staff level. Our friends at GAC have committed $100,000 to recruit and place entry-level, BIPOC staff into Democratic campaigns through their Finance Match Program, learn more about it here. 👏
By the numbers:
Here were the top 10 political ad spenders on Facebook and Instagram last week:
The Republican National Committee topped the list of spenders nationwide last week, most recently attacking Vice President Harris, in an attempt to use their supporters’ prejudices to collect email addresses/fundraise:
On the Left, Planned Parenthood has quickly ramped up its spending, and just in the past few days since SCOTUS’ disastrous Texas decision, became the top spender on Facebook political ads - dropping over $250,000 since September 1st. We took a look at their campaigns and how Democrats are using the draconian Texas abortion ban to go on offense.
Meanwhile, here was the political ad spending picture on Google + YouTube last week:
As the California recall election entered its final week, a confident Gavin Newsom flooded YouTube in California with $734,500 in ad spending last week. The Governor’s ads prominently feature Bernie Sanders, compare Larry Elder to Trump, and highlight the need for a continued pandemic response under Newsom’s leadership.
While Larry Elder is running what seems to be the most credible Republican campaign online, Newsom’s digital spending of late has just swamped the rest of the field. For the love of God, if you live in California - vote NO and return your ballot ASAP.
We should also note the League of Conservation Voters’ spending last week, which included lots and lots of YouTube ads in support of clean energy jobs as part of the Build Back Better agenda. You can view the ads targeting swing district members of Congress here.
… and FWIW, here’s political ad spending on Snapchat so far in 2021 - not a Republican in sight:
Through avenues like the Finance Match Program and Insider job board, Grassroots Analytics Campaigns is going above and beyond to make sure Democrats find the best talent for their campaigns. 🏆 Learn more about them here.
Who’s behind the Democrats’ online grassroots armies
In the final days before the 2020 election, Nick Knudsen was very busy. Facebook had just announced a political advertising ban, blocking campaigns of all sizes from efficiently reaching their voters, and Democrats needed other ways of distributing content to audiences on social media.
“Suddenly, there were big firms and campaigns who'd built entire strategies around creating content paying to get it in front of eyeballs online, who were then faced with a huge challenge. They couldn't necessarily move that content in the way that they'd planned. Some of them came knocking on our door in September and October because they needed a way to move content organically. It was the only option,” he told me in an interview this week. [Read the full interview here]
Nick is the founder of DemCast, a distributed network of several thousand online grassroots activists, whose sole purpose is to share progressive content and drive strategic messaging across the internet.
While we often write about paid media campaigns each week, organic posts on Facebook and Twitter can rack up just as many (or more) impressions, shares, and clicks. Journalist Kevin Roose and CAP Action’s Alex Witt regularly monitor and share how organic posts, primarily from the right-wing media, rack up hundreds of thousands of interactions on Facebook every week - often with little counterweights on the left. Groups like DemCast aim to fix that problem.
Twitter is [sort of] real life
In 2020, we saw the viral success of the Lincoln Project, which regularly racked up millions of views on their often cheesy, baby boomer-focused anti-Trump videos. Regardless of what you think of that group (everyone seems to have thoughts), their content energized many casual observers to share political content for the first time. Videos and posts that rack up millions of views on Twitter can catch the attention of the press, who dutifully report on the content to earn their own clicks, thus generating even more views off-platform.
An example: When PACRONYM created a mail-in voting video last year just meant to be shared organically on Twitter, it ended up being aired in its entirety on dozens of local news channels across the United States.
Sharing is caring
Distributed networks like DemCast take this type of content strategy to a different level, with very intentional one-click share tactics and short-term campaigns. They recruit hundreds or thousands of keyboard warriors to push out similar messaging or memes over a certain period of time. They’re currently creating and sharing content against the California gubernatorial recall, and an earlier campaign during President Biden’s first 100 days earned close to three-quarters of a billion impressions in a four-hour period on Twitter.
“Look, we all know Twitter is not always real life and impressions aren't necessarily the most important thing in the world, but those are all eyeballs seeing progressive messaging and it can really help to impact the media narrative, to engage the base, and make people feel excited about the fact that they got out and voted for Biden and that positive things are actually happening,” says Knudsen.
The Truth Brigade
Especially on Facebook, where algorithms elevate inflammatory and outrageous content, Democrats are at a clear disadvantage. Intentional sharing of tested, progressive messaging is one of the only ways that Democrats can fight back to fill their neighbors’ newsfeeds. Other groups have begun doing this too - Indivisible recently launched the Truth Brigade, which enlists their local activists to be trained in best practices in disinformation inoculation and counter-messaging techniques.
These volunteers then regularly personalize and share strategic counter-message campaigns online and off. According to the group, more than 4,500 people have joined the Truth Brigade, and #TruthBrigade tweets and Facebook posts have been viewed more than 105 million times (that’s just public posts they can measure). They hold twice-monthly Zoom calls and have over 2,000 members in a Slack channel. Last night we attended one of those calls, which featured a rundown of recent viral disinformation and tips on how to counter it online - and lots of asks to share messaging far and wide.
Generating offline actions
If you’re rolling your eyes and still think this is just a bunch of Democrats retweeting each other, recognize that these networks can also drive real-world, offline actions on behalf of campaigns and causes. In 2020, DemCast raised over $1.4 million for over 400 down-ballot campaigns and recruited volunteers for 12,000 shifts in the final stretch of the election. During the Georgia Senate runoffs, they recruited over 2,000 volunteer shifts for things like phone banking and text banking.
“We see digital activism as a gateway to other forms of activism. What we saw in 2020 was that a lot of our members who had been kind of keyboard warriors their whole lives, jumping in with Demcast, develop a sense of community, and then take advantage of opportunities to engage in other ways: doing phone banking, text banking, etc,” said Knudsen.
Vote Save America is another effort that built and engages a network of online followers to take action offline. Leveraging their huge, devoted network of podcast listeners and Twitter followers, the team at Crooked convinced over 300,000 people to sign up to “Adopt a State” in 2020, which turned into 140,000 volunteer shift signups, 17 million phone calls, and 8.3 million text messages sent to voters. You can read more about their 2020 impact here.
At the end of the day, these groups aren’t alone in their efforts. There are a host of other organizations that do an amazing job at driving action online - particularly when it comes to lobbying elected officials, signing petitions, etc. But, we’d argue that sharing content and messaging to compete with the Right is just as important as sending an email to Joe Manchin’s spam folder, and probably more effective at influencing someone’s opinion. 👀
Ahead of 2022, we hope to see many more efforts like these if Democrats are to compete in the newsfeeds of Americans.
That’s it for FWIW this week! You can catch our full Q&A with Demcast’s Nick Knudsen here…and if you enjoyed reading, make sure to SHARE on Twitter by clicking the button below!