The next online political ad you see may come from an unexpected source: your favorite social media sensation.
In the runup to the 2020 election, political activists are reaching out to popular Internet personalities to help promote candidates and causes. These social media influencers can range from movie and TV stars with millions of followers on Twitter to “microinfluencers” who appeal to relatively small but valuable groups of potential voters on Instagram. And it’s a tactic that may become more common as Twitter and Google place new restrictions on traditional political ads.
Consumer goods companies have long used influencer advertising. Global celebrities such as Kim Kardashian or Selena Gomez are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single Instagram post promoting clothing or cosmetics. Companies pay these vast sums because the message is delivered by a personality that millions of people already like and trust, which may make it more effective than traditional ads.
Politicians are trying to piggyback on the popularity of social media influencers for the same reason. “You want a message not to come from a PAC or from a campaign,” said Curtis Hougland, founder of Main Street One, which develops online marketing campaigns for progressive causes. “You want it to come from someone in your community.”
In some cases advocacy groups are paying influencers to espouse their causes. Meanwhile, the more common practice among political candidates is to post a breezy bit where they banter with big stars.
Bernie Sanders has done one-on-one video interviews with Killer Mike, with 378,000 Twitter followers, and Cardi B, with 8.3 million Twitter fans. Andrew Yang does interviews with popular online talk show hosts; his chat with conservative pundit Ben Shapiro earlier this year has been viewed 2.7 million times.
The Republican National Committee said it is training members of its “Rising Stars,” a collection of minority activists intended to diversify the voices within the part, how to “engage and influence their community,” a spokesperson said, but declined to provide further details on social media strategies.
Main Street One has compiled a database of 3.4 million social media microinfluencers whose online postings have built up a significant number of fans. The database includes years of postings that can be analyzed to identify people who are most likely to agree with Main Street One’s political slant. In addition, Main Street One works with companies such as like AspireIQ, a sort of temp employment agency for microinfluencers, where they get paid to deliver marketing messages to their followers.
Minnie Park, whose posts on art and fashion have earned her over 33,000 Instagram followers, registered with AspireIQ. There she learned that Main Street One was launching a campaign to oppose the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration. Park, who immigrated from South Korea 18 years ago, was eager to participate.
“I talked about my story of coming to this country when I was 20 years old,” said Park, whose Instagram nickname is @muscle_park. “A world where I can experience more diversity and equality, in terms of being treated more equal to men.”
Park wrote up a message of support in her own words, and shared it with her Instagram followers. She wasn’t paid much — less than $100, Park said. She did it mainly because she agrees with the message. And Park said she may lend her Instagram feed to other causes, such as environmentalism and women’s rights if the opportunity comes around.
Another participant in the Main Street One campaign, Adriana Lee, got just $25 for posting a pro-immigration message on her @yogawithadriana Instagram feed, which is followed by about 75,000 yoga fans.
“I try not to be too political on my Instagram page unless it’s a good Trump joke,” Lee said. But as the granddaughter of Cuban immigrants, she takes the issue personally. “When it gets politicized I think people forget that these are the lives of human beings that they’re messing with,” Lee said.
NextGen America, a political advocacy nonprofit founded by billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, sought out social media influencers for a get-out-the-vote campaign during last year’s midterm elections.
Marissa Strang’s Instagram travel and lifestyle page @marissa.daily has about 4,700 followers. That was enough for NextGen America, which recruited Strang to put up a couple of posts urging her fans to go to the polls. In exchange, Strang received no money, just some T-shirts and keychains. “But there was no payment expected,” Strang said.
It’s harder to find examples of political candidates paying social media influencers.
“I don’t think a candidate would want to appear to be buying endorsements, because it would make them look pretty bad,” said Isaac Simpson, director of content strategy for the NVE Experience Agency, a New York marketing agency.
Indeed, in November, a super PAC formed to support Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker acknowledged that it offered to pay social media influencers to support his candidacy, according to BuzzFeed News. AspireIQ subsequently removed the offer from its platform. The Booker campaign denied any involvement, and the PAC, United We Win, said that it had acted independently.
By contrast, the free media exchanges on social media, like Democrat Tulsi Gabbard’s chats with actor and comedian Joe Rogan broadcast on YouTube, are the contemporary version of an appearance on the “Tonight Show.” Her most recent appearance, in November, drew 3.3 million viewers. That’s about half as many people as watch the “Tonight Show” on a typical night. But because social media influencers appeal to particular segments of the electorate, candidates can target their messages with a precision that old-school TV can’t match.
Such microtargeting spawned politicians’ love affair with online advertising. But in a bid to combat false advertising, Twitter last month announced a ban on most kinds of political ads. Meanwhile Google, the leading vendor of online ads, set strict limits on the precise targeting of ads, so that it’s no longer possible to aim ads specifically at affluent Republicans or unemployed Democrats.
Thanks to these changes, it will be harder for candidates to find exactly the voters they’re looking for. But social media celebrities may have already found them.