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The 24-hour meme machine: what the US election can teach Australia about digital campaigning

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Digital experts are warning that the next federal election will push online campaigning to a much darker place, where communities will be deliberately divided as “alternative facts” become the stock in trade of political warriors.

The major parties in Australia are studying the US 2020 presidential campaign as part of their preparations. If the US campaign is anything to go on, the battle to persuade voters will be largely fought in the digital worlds that people increasingly inhabit.

Ed Coper is the director of the Center for Impact Communications and is undertaking a post-election review of the US election for the Australian Labor party.

His message? Having studied the Biden campaign’s response to the 2020 presidential campaign, the progressive side of politics needs to prepare for the parallel realities that will exist online and move early to address misinformation.

Counteracting the messaging among target groups will require serious strategies. It is not just a matter of getting Facebook and Twitter to take down objectionable posts or mark them as not based in fact. Strategic marketing is needed to counter the attacks.

The ALP acknowledged in its review of the 2019 federal election campaign, undertaken by former federal MP Craig Emerson and former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill, that Labor had lost its digital advantage.

Labor once prided itself on being, in Coper’s words, light years ahead of the Coalition on digital campaigning. But in 2019 Labor was outmaneuvered by the Coalition.

“Labor’s reluctance to embrace ‘digital-first’ campaigning left it flat-footed and falling behind its opponents,” Emerson and Weatherill wrote in the report. “Few, if any, party officials have genuine expertise in how digital platforms work and how progressive organisations can make the most of the opportunities they offer.

“Labor employs very few digital specialists and often the default position is to define digital as the responsibility for managing some social media accounts and to allocate this to relatively junior staff and officials.”

Recommendation 22 in the report said: “Labor must develop a comprehensive strategy for message defence and combating disinformation, which should include full-time resources dedicated to monitoring and addressing false messages.”

As the ABC revealed, before the last federal election Andrew Hirst, the director of the Liberal party, hired Topham Guerin, a boutique digital marketing outfit in New Zealand set up by Ben Guerin and Sean Topham.

The pair run what has been dubbed a 24-hour meme machine – a social media firehose of attention-grabbing, emotion-manipulating, behaviour-nudging messaging designed to corral the faithful and convert the fence-sitters.

In 2019 Topham Guerin bombarded the feeds of Australian voters with simple messages about Shorten and tax. Again and again. The memes and posts were not particularly well made – they had shouty text and badly photoshopped images. But they hit a nerve and there were lots of them.

Speaking at a libertarian conference after the Australian election, Guerin said his firm sometimes “badly slaps some text onto a reused meme”.

“But the best social media strategy is like water dripping onto a stone,” he told his audience. “The same message over and over. The challenge is to produce a variety of content to do so.” Later that year the pair were asked to assist Boris Johnson’s campaign to break the Brexit deadlock. In August they were awarded a £3m (A$5.33m) contract to work on the UK government’s Covid messaging.

The 2020 US presidential campaign under Donald Trump took misinformation and capitalising on social media platform algorithms to new heights – or lows.

“The media sees the tip – the voters who are targeted see the iceberg,” Coper says. The US political campaigns had geared to counter foreign interference because they thought it would be a geopolitical actor that would attack them online, he says.

There were a few minor examples. The US director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, pointed the finger at Iran as a prominent suspect in efforts to disrupt the American political process by sending threatening emails claiming to be from the rightwing Proud Boys group to potential Democrat voters.

But if foreign misinformation occurred, it was dwarfed by another actor: Donald Trump and the White House.

Since the US election, Donald Trump has used social media to reinforce claims of voter fraud, despite there being no credible evidence. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Since the US election, Donald Trump has used social media to reinforce claims of voter fraud, despite there being no credible evidence. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

“The parties’ war rooms were largely redundant because the misinformation was largely coming out of the candidate and the White House itself,” Coper says. “The White House was doing it in broad daylight.”

The most spectacular was the messaging on Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and a mysterious laptop supposedly containing information about allegations of corrupt conduct in Ukraine and China. Only the New York Post chose to publish a story. But that didn’t stop the “news” about Biden’s son becoming one of the dominant narratives late in the campaign on Twitter and social media.

Since the election, Trump and his surrogates have used social media to reinforce his public assertions of widespread voter fraud, despite there being no credible evidence and multiple courts rejecting so-called evidence of such fraud.

Their efforts have had a profound impact. A Fox News poll released in mid-December found that 77% of those who cast ballots for Trump thought the election had been stolen from him.

Elections are always a battle of competing narratives. But in a digital world where people inhabit their own filter bubbles, and algorithms serve up news that reinforces that worldview, the problem for political campaigners becomes much more difficult to address.

The first task is to identify which groups of voters are being misled, says Coper. Then it’s a matter of giving them information to counter the misinformation.

Coper says conventional fact-checking or trying to negate the information doesn’t work. “It just reinforces the negative message.”

The Biden campaign adopted a strategy of using paid digital advertising and bought real estate directly in the feeds of groups they believed were being targeted with misinformation, either by the White House directly or by sympathetic third parties, he says.

“Biden built a good model. It was not to try treating the hurt, but treating the wound.”

For example, the Trump campaign put out a number of memes and posts that reinforced the message that Biden was in cognitive decline. There were videos of his stumbles that, cut together, looked really bad.

The Biden campaign paid for short videos of Biden looking presidential and speaking in eloquent terms to counter the Trump material, Coper says. Often they were unrelated to the negative Trump videos. They were just aimed at presenting a very different view.

“Biden’s team weaponised that,” Coper says. “It was very effective with swing voters who then believed that Biden did not have a cognitive impairment.”

The campaign estimated that their counter-strategy shored up 800,000 votes.

Of course, US campaigns have billions of dollars at their disposal to buy advertising on social media platforms, and Australian political parties have much less to spend. Australia also has no laws that require truth in political advertising, so campaigns such as the one on “Labor’s death taxes” in 2019 can be hard to derail.

However, Coper says that in the wake of the US experience, the social media platforms are now hypersensitive to the proliferation of fake accounts that can be used to jumpstart trending hashtags and to whether they are becoming the purveyors of fake news.

“The first step is to get them to act.”

Political parties will need to have teams to monitor what’s happening. It may not be possible to persuade some people who are deep in their filter bubbles, but the parties will need to be vigilant to stop conspiracy theories and fake news bleeding into audiences critical to electoral success.

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