Jess Reis is the director of the opinion research team of Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI), a marketing, advertising and communication agency founded by the marketing team of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Currently, BPI is in charge of the design and execution of the advertising campaign to mobilize online voting for the Joe Biden campaign.
Previously, Reis has worked in campaign research during electoral periods in Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Venezuela, Bolivia, South Africa, Serbia, Thailand, Indonesia, among others. “I think we are in an era where it is difficult to draw a clear dividing line between what ‘happens’ online and in the real world”, he says.
How has the internet transformed politics in the United States?
The way we speak to voters and respond to different constituencies has been profoundly transformed since the internet – and especially smartphones – became universal.
Access to the Internet has democratized our system and our access to power, but it has also decentralized the truth and ideas to the point of, for those with contrary ideas, it is very difficult to find a common point of understanding.
Since each voter has their own Facebook feed and their own WhatsApp groups, ‘winning’ the information cycle in a campaign is much more difficult. Still, the fundamentals they apply to online methods of communicating with voters – overall message consistency, repetition, direct contact with the voter and organization – remain the same as ever. Doing these things online is in many cases more difficult, but just as important.
And reaching out to voters online makes other things easier. Candidates without a national platform are presented with new opportunities to build online communities and advocates and reach out to voters.
For example, in previous democratic primaries, candidates like Andrew Yang o Pete Buttigieg It would have been difficult for them to build a national following without a long-term digital campaign or the digital organization that sparked their huge political movements. The ability to unleash a movement solely in the digital space and have that drive translate into actual votes is very powerful and new, and we’re seeing how it makes campaigns win or lose votes.
And how has the internet transformed political leaders?
Here’s my take on it: in many ways, social media clouds the vision of political leaders, especially those who use it on a personal level. Whereas a generation ago candidates and leaders longed to know what the public thought and how they reacted, now many candidates think that simply by reading the news they are offered Twitter o Facebook they can automatically know how their constituencies or voters feel.
But on social media, candidates and political leaders get the same algorithm-based, bespoke information as all of us. They don’t get a real view of their voters or their constituencies. In many ways this makes both candidates and individuals focus on minor things and ignore the real threats.
Would a President Trump have been possible in the predigital era?
It is difficult to know. But Trump didn’t jump on social media, he did it because cable TV channels gave him disproportionate coverage and gave him a ton of free airtime. And even if I admit it, his main message was good.
In large part, Trump’s candidacy was based on the fact that he had money. – and perceived how the rich and powerful could influence the political system. His initial promise to voters that he knew how corrupt the system was and that he could fix it.
Personally, I don’t think I intended to, but American voters are very frustrated with the influence of money in the system and the influence and responsibility of business in what happens. It makes perfect sense to me that this message reached voters in 2015, when Trump announced his campaign.
What is the most important digital platform for political mobilization today?
There is no single one. Those campaigning have to go back and understand where their voters are first, and build outreach based on it.
Facebook is the main social network in the US, but generation Z and young millennials do not use it. WhatsApp has a huge impact on Spanish-speaking communities, but less on others.
According to Biden’s campaign, 95% of donations in August – a record $ 364 million – came from new fan bases, and 57% were online donations. Does this reflect the new breed of voters the internet can reach?
I interpret Biden’s enormous fundraising power as another channel of public opinion. Voters, especially Democrats and even independents, are so desperate to get rid of Trump that they are starting to pour their money into it. Fundraising online is easier, of course, but what I glean from these astronomical figures has less to do with the medium or platform and more to do with the sheer energy of and frustration so many voters feel.
Will the US elections be won on the internet, especially considering the coronavirus factor?
Saying that elections will be won or lost on the internet is like saying that these elections will be won or lost based on television advertisements, television coverage, or any other information channel that reaches voters.
Voters (and people) don’t draw sharp lines between what they see on the internet or what they see on television or what is on the news. People, especially those who don’t regularly follow politics, get information from all kinds of sources. They do not categorize what medium or channel it comes from. I think it is important that political campaigns understand this.
Regarding the Coronavirus, it is complicated. In the US at least, voters are disheartened after a tough seven months. For many it is difficult to say that Trump is responsible; who knows what would have happened to another president. But they know who Trump cares about and who he puts in front of. And I think the last week in American politics has been a disastrous one for Trump, in terms of convincing certain voters that he cares about them.
The ‘Pizzagate’ and the New World Order (NWO) are conspiracy theories born on the Internet with a large following in the US. According to The Atlantic, “at least 35 of the current or former congressional candidates have embraced Q (Qanon).”
How much misinformation and conspiracy theories can influence the November 3 and the future of the United States?
The biggest propagator of disinformation in the United States is Trump.
Republican candidates with ties to Qanon are symptomatic of the mess in the Republican party. They follow movements on the margins – which is where Qanon lives – and conspiracy theorists, rather than voters in general.
Disinformation becomes dangerous when you leave Facebook or WhatsApp, when powerful sources or candidates use it. This is what worries me most about underground narratives like Qanon.
Internet makes the words of any candidate can be remixed, altered and become memes that end up being distributed all over the internet. How can a candidate make sure his message gets through today?
Being persistent and consistent are key aspects to control the narrative in the digital space. One lesson from Trump’s tenure is that, with truth so decentralized, the power of narrative resides in perseverance.
Words and narratives are shared so quickly, analyzed and debated so much that in that ultra-fast schoolyard that is your phone, your initial intentions can be completely lost. Assuming that your message will be understood and digested in a first speech is bad practice in the digital age.
What is the impact of US policy on a global level?
For a long time I thought that the US was at the forefront of all political communication. Not because we know more, but because we have elections very often and, honestly, because a lot of money flows into our political system.
Many professionals were surprised by the 2016 result. Me too, as I was sure that Hillary Clinton would win. But when I evaluated the situation, I realized several things:
The country was deeply polarized.
The country was concerned about misinformation.
There was an authoritarian strain that touched the ethnic concerns of the voters.
Honestly, it looked like many places I had worked before, from Venezuela to Serbia to Iraq. So I no longer think that the US is in the vanguard. I feel like we have a lot to learn from elsewhere, and I’m trying to apply those lessons to my work in 2020.