Q&A  | 

Jess Reis, expert in political comms, and the link between internet and politics in the US

“The biggest spreader of disinformation in the United States is President Trump”

Tags: 'fake news'

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Jess Reis leads the strategic opinion research team at Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI), a marketing, communications, and advertising agency that was founded by the digital marketers of Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign and currently runs a mobilization advertising program online for the Biden campaing.

Prior to BPI, Reis was a VP at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a campaign and research consulting firm where she focused almost exclusively on campaigns outside of the United States – and worked on national races in Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Venezuela, Bolivia, South Africa, Serbia, Thailand, Indonesia, and other places. “I think now we’re in an age where you can’t draw very hard lines between what “happens” online versus the real world”, she says.

How has the internet changed politics in the U.S.?

The way we talk to voters and respond to different constituencies has fundamentally changed as the internet – and, more importantly, smartphones – has become universal.
Internet access has simultaneously democratized our system and our access to power; yet also decentralized truth and ideas to the point where a common understanding for those with opposing ideas is hard to come by.

With every voter having their own Facebook feed or Whatsapp groups – it’s harder to “win” the news-cycle in a campaign. Yet the same fundamentals apply when using online methods to communicate with voters – overall message consistency, repetition, direct voter contact, and organizing are all still fundamentals. Doing these things online is harder in many cases, but just as important.

And contacting voters online makes some things a lot easier. Candidates that lack a national platform are given new opportunities to create online communities and advocates and reach voters.

For example, in previous Democratic primaries, candidates like Andrew Yang or Pete Buttigieg may have struggled to achieve a national following like they had without the long term digital campaigning and digital organizing that fostered their massive political movements. The ability to ignite a movement in the digital space alone and have that movement translate into real votes is powerful and new, and we’re seeing it shift races across up and down ballot.

And how has it changed its political leaders?

Here’s my take: In many ways social media clouds the views of political leaders, especially those who use it personally. Whereas a generation ago, candidates and leaders were hungry for what the public was thinking and how people were reacting – now many candidates feel that they can just open Twitter or their Facebook newsfeed and they automatically know how their constitutions or voters feel.

But candidates and political leaders have the same tailored, algorithmically-based feeds that we all do. They are not getting a true picture of their voters or constituents. In many ways, that leads candidates as people to chase things that are less important or ignore real threats.

Would Trump as president have been possible in the pre-digital society?

Hard to say. But Trump didn’t break through because of social media – he broke through because cable news covered him disproportionately and gave him so much free airtime. He also broke through because– and, believe me, this is hard for me to admit – he had a good opening message.

For the large part, Trump’s candidacy was based on the fact that he was a wealthy person – and he saw how the wealthy and powerful were able to have influence on the political system. His initial promise to voters was that he knew how corrupt the system was and that he could fix it.

I personally don’t think he ever had any intention of doing that – but American voters are so frustrated with money in the system and corporate influence and accountability. It makes total sense to me that this resonated with voters in 2015 when Trump announced.

Following the Biden campaign, 95% of all donations in August -a record-shattering $364 million- were from grassroots supporters and 57% were online donations. Is this a reflection of the new kind of voters and followers the internet is able to reach?

I interpret the Biden fundraising juggernaut as another stream of public opinion. Voters, especially Democratic and even Independent voters, are so desperate to be rid of Trump that they are putting their dollars on the line. Online fundraising makes it easier, of course, but my lesson from these astronomical numbers is less about the medium or platform – and more about the pure energy and frustration so many voters feel.

Will the election be won or lost in the internet, also given the Coronavirus factor?

Saying the election will be won or lost on the internet is like saying – will this election be won or lost based on TV ads, or based on news coverage, or any other stream of information that reaches voters.

Voters (and people) don’t draw very tight lines around “what they saw on the internet” or “what they saw on TV” or “what was in the news.” People, especially those who don’t live and breath politics, are getting information from all sources. They don’t take the time to categorize from which medium or channel it comes. I think that’s important for campaigns to understand.

On Coronavirus – it’s just so hard. At least in the US, voters feel beat down – it’s been such a hard 7 months. It’s hard for many to say that Trump is responsible – who knows what would have happened under someone else. But they do know who Trump cares about and who he puts first. And I think the past week in American politics has been pretty disastrous for Trump, regarding convincing uncertain voters he cares for them.

‘Pizzagate’ and the New World Order (NWO) are both conspiracy theories born in the internet with a big follow up in the US. Quoting The Atlantic, “at least 35 current or former congressional candidates have embraced Q”. How important can they prove in November 3, and in which extent can fake news and conspiracy theories impact the future of the US?

The biggest spreader of disinformation in the United States is President Trump.

The Republican candidates with links to QAnon are symptoms of a Republican party in disarray. They have become beholden to the fringe – which is where QAnon lives – and are more beholden to the few conspiracy theorists, over voters in general.

Fake news becomes dangerous when it crosses out of Facebook or Whatsapp groups; when mainstream sources – or candidates – elevate it. That’s what worries me about underground narratives like QAnon.

Internet makes it possible for any candidate's words to be misquoted, remixed, altered and memed, and widely shared across social media. How can a candidate make sure her or his message comes across nowadays?

Persistence and consistency are key to controlling your narrative in the digital space. A lesson that the Trump presidency has taught us is that with truth so decentralized a narrative’s penetration comes down to consistency.

Words and narratives are so quickly shared, analyzed and discussed that in that hyper speed school yard game of telephone your initial intentions can be completely lost. To assume that your message will be understood and digested in your first speech or ad is malpractice in a digital age.

Which is the most important digital platform for political persuasion and mobilization and why?

There is no one singularly important platform. Campaigners need to work backwards and first understand where their voters are – and build your outreach based on that.

Facebook is the most prevalent in the US, but GenZ and younger Millennials aren’t there. Whatsapp is huge among Spanish-speaking communities here, but less so among others.

What's the impact of US e-politics globally? Do politicians in other countries follow the steps of US political leaders?

For a long time, I thought the US was at the forefront and vanguard of all political communication. Not because we know more – but because we have very frequent elections and honestly because we have a lot of money sloshing around in our political system.

Many US practitioners were surprised by the election result in 2016. I was too – I was certain Hillary would win. But as I took stock of the aftermath, I noticed a few things:
A country deeply polarized;
A country worried about disinformation;
An authoritarian strain that played on voters’ ethnic worries.

Frankly, it felt to me like a lot of places I had worked in prior – from Venezuela, to Serbia, to Iraq. So – no longer do I feel like the US is at the vanguard. I feel like US politics has a lot to learn from other places, and I am trying hard to deploy those lessons as I work in 2020.