Virtual campaigning replacing political rallies in the COVID-19 era in US
By Jairo Mejia
Screen capture showing President Donald Trump and a campaign message, or meme, designed to influence voters - the latest salvo in what will likely be a 2020 presidential campaign heavily weighted towards virtual campaigning and online content. EFE-EPA/ Instagram Donald Trump /Best quality available/ Editorial Use Only/No Sales
By Jairo Mejia
New York, May 14 (efe-epa).- The Covid-19 pandemic has put an end - at least during this election cycle - to the mass campaign rallies in the run-up to the US election in November, forcing a change in strategy in which the social networks and "memes" are the main weapons and where recommendation system algorithms play a vital role.
Campaigning for elected office is one of the most social activities that one can undertake in the US. Over the course of months, hundreds - or even many thousands - of people all over the country gather in various venues to listen to presidential candidates or their surrogates at events that often have the flavor of pop music concerts.
In the weeks prior to election day, an army of supporters goes door to door in strategically designated areas encouraging undecided electors to cast their votes for favored candidates.
This year, however, the time-honored practice has been made unthinkable in the months remaining before Nov. 3, when Republican President Donald Trump will face off at the polls against former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden was the first candidate to test the difficulties of campaigning from his living room: uncomfortable silences, interrupted Internet connections, non-existent excitement and the familiar "Can you hear me?" with which those working remotely during the pandemic are all too familiar.
Last week, Biden held a "virtual campaign rally" for his supporters in Tampa, Florida, enlisting a disk jockey who tried to liven up the proceedings from his own home while the event was plagued by invited guests who spend long seconds looking at the cameras on their devices without saying anything or vanishing in the middle of their remarks.
Meanwhile, other politicians seem to be moving through the new normal like fish in water. Take, for instance, Democratic New York Congresswoman Alejandra Ocasio-Cortez, who visits her voters at "Animal Crossing," a Nintendo videogame that simulates a virtual village and which has surged in popularity around the country during the quarantine.
Out in front of everyone else is Trump, whose campaign has figured out how to succeed in the art of the "meme" and who has a team laser-focused on creating this kind of viral content on the social networks.
A meme is an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture such that memes - which are discrete units of knowledge, gossip jokes and the like - are to culture what genes are to life.
On Monday, Trump's Instagram account distributed a meme in which imprinted over the president's face was the phrase "Hope you had fun investigating me - Now it's my turn," a reference to his attempts to hype "Obamagate," an alleged scandal for which there is no proof but which could affect the previous administration.
That content received 1.7 million "likes" in just a few days while Biden posted on his own account a comedy "sketch" with funnyman Keegan-Michael Key that barely received 50,000 likes.
It might seem banal, but in a campaign that's going to be won - above all - online, it will be those who know how to manipulate language on the social networks like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Tiktok who will have the greatest opportunity to mobilize the electorate.
Syracuse University communications professor Jennifer Stromer wrote in a recent column that although it seems that this year's election campaign will be unprecedented and one for which nobody was prepared, the truth is that campaigns have been developing their virtual machinery for quite some time and this time around they merely need to up their game.
The algorithms that recommend and organize information on the main social networks, probably moreso than in any other campaign so far, will be what strengthens or deflates the messages of the candidates who are better adapted to the digital world, and that could end up translating into greater voter participation and more votes.
"To me, on a broad level, if Donald Trump is the internet equivalent of some hateful meme, we are the internet equivalent of one of those videos ... that is a soldier coming up and getting a hug," Biden's digital director, Ron Flaherty, told CNN last week.
"We are living through one of the most existential changes to the way the internet behaves probably since Trump got elected. We are in a space where a lot is changing. There's a lot of evidence that people are pivoting towards consuming good news, feel-good stuff because of the environment that they're living in," he added.