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    The 2020 Strategy to Beat

    By Peter Gallotta–

    There is a new Get Out the Vote (GOTV) strategy taking hold across the country. Many of the leading candidates for president are banking on it, while others are scrambling to keep up with it. I call it: Get Out the Social Media (GOTSM).

    In the coming months, we will watch the presidential candidates take to the campaign trail, host fancy fundraisers, participate in town halls and pack arenas to deliver electrifying speeches to their supporters. As with any election, ground game is key, especially in swing states. But the next president, whether we realize it or not, could be elected by a far more insidious tactic: social media.

    We’ve seen this before. Last year, the special counsel released indictments against Russia’s Internet Research Agency, two different companies and 12 individuals for attempting to digitally influence the 2016 presidential election. The special counsel’s report mirrors the Senate Intelligence Committee findings that Russian intervention on social media likely suppressed the vote of both Bernie Sanders supporters and African-Americans, urging them to vote for a third-party candidate or not to vote at all.

    What’s more unsettling is that these interferences continue to this day. Even if we were to put a stop to foreign meddling in our elections (and we should), social media remains a challenging space to regulate. It is, after all, a giant bullhorn that virtually anyone can access and utilize with pretty limited checks and balances. And it looms large as the biggest dark horse of the 2020 race.

    In my column last month, “The President Can’t Handle the Truth,” I talked about the ways in which Trump leverages social media to misinform the masses and appeal to his base. It’s no surprise then that Trump’s former social media strategist, Brad Parscale, has been hired as his 2020 campaign manager. Trump already has a whopping $100 million raised for his re-election campaign and there’s no doubt that they will spend some of that cold hard cash on social media. In fact, they already have.

    In 2018, Trump was among the biggest political spenders on Facebook, YouTube and Google search. Between May and October of last year, the Trump campaign spent $4.8 million to run over 100,000 ads on Facebook. Parscale has said that he plans to build an “army of Trump” through online engagement, going beyond swaying voters with sensationalist information and directly recruiting armchair activists into active Trump voters.

    But Donald Trump isn’t the only presidential candidate who’s trying to build a social media empire. So is Bernie Sanders. Some call it “Bernie TV,” but ever since his 2016 race, Sanders has powerfully leveraged social media to deliver his message directly to his supporters and left-leaning voters. In 2017 alone, his team published 550 policy-focused videos that were shared on Facebook and Twitter. Last year, they began live-streaming town halls featuring Sanders on Facebook—each outdrawing CNN on the night it aired.

    The strategy for Sanders comes from a perception, if not reality, that the mainstream media still does not sufficiently or accurately cover him or his views. Why deal with a middleman when you can deliver your message in a more direct way and at an unmatched scale? His videos have been viewed over 800 million times.

    One of the most watched clips captures a Republican Senator challenging a Canadian doctor on their single payer health care system (which, of course, backfired on the Senator). That clip alone has been viewed 32 million times. It’s now not so hard to see how Sanders is helping to change the national conversation. In fact, a January 2019 poll shows that a majority of Democrats not only support Medicare for All, but 84% of them want the Party to make it a top priority.

    When it comes to the central issues to be debated amongst the Democratic presidential candidates, Sanders will likely have a major advantage in influencing not only the discourse, but also the public sentiment on key policy proposals. The fact that he announced his candidacy for president on social media also says a lot about how he’s going to run and, more importantly, communicate his vision to a broad swath of voters.

    But it’s not just the more social media savvy campaigns that are revving up. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who’s rumored to be announcing a presidential run, has been actively receiving briefings from digital and social media companies as he develops a strategy to appeal to young voters. It is also rumored that Biden is prepared to hire at least 20 social media experts when he announces his 2020 campaign.

    In the end, of course, social media doesn’t vote. People do. But in 21st century politics, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become more than just sources of information; they are influencing outcomes. For now, we might be able to sit back and watch the social media arms race from afar, partaking in the occasional #FeeltheBern or #NeverBernie debate on our own newsfeeds (oh, how we love to relitigate 2016). But as 2020 draws near, we can’t discount the power of GOTSM. It may do a little or it may do a lot. But it will do something.

    Let’s just hope it works out better for us this time.

    Peter Gallotta is a 30-something LGBT political activist holding on to the city that he loves thanks to rent control and two-for-one happy hour specials. He is a former President of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club and currently serves as an appointed member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee and an elected delegate to the California Democratic Party.