The Bloomberg memes say he’s got enough money to take risks. But what do they say about democracy?

In this Jan. 22, 2020 photo, Democratic presidential candidate, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the ​U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Winter Meeting in Washington. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Since the era of Barack Obama’s presidency, social media platforms have served as a testing ground for politicians to market themselves, reach out to voters, and generate online buzz. And it seems, the more they’re willing to spend, the more experimental they can afford to be.

The latest politician to foray into the social media sphere, in a decidedly unconventional way, is Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City. Since entering the presidential race in November, Bloomberg’s campaign has poured tens of millions of dollars into a media blitz to promote his candidacy.

Notably, Bloomberg’s camp has been paying meme-makers and influencers to post campaign ads disguised as fake direct messages from the candidate. Among the accounts recruited are influential meme aggregator Jerry Media and @GrapeJuiceBoys, a meme page with more than 2.7 million followers. 

The Bloomberg campaign has also hired hundreds of workers to post daily in support of the candidate on their personal social-media accounts and via text messages to their friends. The billionaire’s support has plateaued in the polls, and his strategy will be tested come Super Tuesday, when voters from 14 states and one territory head to the voting booths.

John Wihbey, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern, says he gets it. While Bloomberg’s influencer strategy may have the undesired effect of placing him in an unfavorable light from an optics standpoint, Wihbey says that the presidential contender has the financial wherewithal to experiment with different modes of advertising. 

John Wihbey is an assistant professor of journalism and media innovation. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Bloomberg raised hackles because it looked so blatantly like a desperate play for some kind of street cred in the world of Instagram,” says Wihbey, who authored a book about how the structure of news, information, and knowledge is evolving and how the news media can foster social connection, titled The Social Fact: News and Knowledge in a Networked World.

“He’s an old guy, and he’s a billionaire; it just doesn’t look authentic. But a younger candidate doing a similar thing without billions, it might actually look like democracy.”

Obama, who was dubbed the “first social-media president,” made his presence on the internet with the creation of the @POTUS account on Twitter. He went live on Facebook and snapped on Snapchat. Then, President Donald Trump, with his hyper-active presence on Twitter, took the intersection of social media and politics to new levels of intensity and direct engagement.

A senior national spokeswoman for the Bloomberg campaign has defended the social media strategy as an attempt to “reach people where they are and compete with President Trump’s powerful digital operation.”

She’s not wrong, says Wihbey.

“I think the Trump campaign [in 2016] was quite effective,” he says. “And I think the Trump campaign has got to again have a sophisticated digital strategy. And if Mike Bloomberg ends up having to run against Trump, he’s going to need to have a sophisticated strategy. Maybe this isn’t the right particular strategy, but maybe it is.”

While Bloomberg’s approach might be novel, politicians exerting their influence through people who hold considerable sway over a targeted demographic isn’t entirely new or unusual, says Wihbey. Even prior to the advent of the internet and television, political figures would pay volunteers to distribute leaflets, knock on doors, and stump on their behalf.

The question, he says, is to what extent Bloomberg’s tactics blur the line between traditional campaign organizing and the distribution of sponsored content, and whether that should rise to the level of scrutiny from the Federal Election Commission.

“I could see regulating this area and having policies, but I think the gray areas will just continue,” Wihbey says. “And the one thing I wouldn’t want to do is discourage voters and people from actively participating in politics and voicing their views and trying to influence their friends, because that’s part of the process.”

Certainly, says Wihbey, some transparency is in order. He believes that social media sites—in addition to labeling sponsored political content—should disclose information around influencer campaigns, including how much was paid and how many people were reached.

“I think that allows certain parties, such as watchdogs, regulators, journalists, and researchers the kind of vital information they need to make a judgment about how influential this [strategy] might be and how it fits into a larger picture of political influence,” Wihbey says.

Since the 2016 presidential campaign, social media companies have grappled with how to treat political advertising. In an effort to curb the spread of disinformation campaigns, they’ve enacted stricter rules and policies to regulate political ads. Now, they’ll have to contend with the intersection of political content and influencer marketing. 

In response to the Bloomberg meme campaign, Facebook, which owns Instagram, announced that it would permit “branded content” from political candidates as long as the content is clearly marked as sponsored. The social media giant will not, however, consider the posts to be political ads, and therefore will not collect any payment.

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