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How Biden Fights Against Trump's Free Social Media
The Summer, and campaign 2024, is about to begin. And Trump still has the social media advantage ...
As we head into Memorial Day, we cannot fail to note that the summer before election day is is usually the time that candidates announce their intentions to run for the highest office. And the big money is sure to follow, in dead sprint, seeking influence. President Biden, the incumbent, opened the floodgates by announcing his re-election campaign in April, symmetrically on the four-year anniversary of his ‘19 campaign announcement. Back then he promised to heal the “soul of the nation.” This time he asks voters to help him “finish the job.” But can he? Especially when Trump has a growing media advantage?
The President’s team are girding themselves for a battle that will take place on land and in the mediasphere. Biden ultimately spent over a billion dollars on his 2020 bid and, according to speculation, this time might blow past two billion. The Biden ‘24 campaign has doubled down on digital early, which is an interiguing story this morning. Trump’s digital ad spends — in ‘16 and in ‘20 — dwarfed his competitors, largely on the recommendation of Brad Parscale, his former campaign manager (who has since had a change of heart). “In its first month, President Biden’s re-election campaign has already tripled what Donald Trump’s team has spent in online ads in 2023, an attempt to jump-start small donations and lessen Trump’s digital advantage,” write Alex Thompson and Sara Fischer in Axios.
Today’s Axios story is not just an interesting reversal in ad buy strategies between the frontrunners. “This is a shift from 2020 when Trump's team outspent Biden's online,” Thompson writes on Twitter. “That could be a reflection of personnel. Brad Parscale and former digital director Gary Coby, who led Trump’s digital teams in 2016 and 2020, are not working for Trump’s 2024 campaign.” What are some other reasons for this shift other than personnel? The Biden campaign, I would argue, is strategically acknowledging Trump’s natural social media advantage. Barbara Bickart, Susan Fournier, and Martin Nisenholtz wrote a fascinating article in Harvard Business review titled, What Trump Understands About Using Social Media to Drive Attention in 2017. They write:
(Trump) began with an enormous seedbed: Just before Election Day he had more than 19 million Twitter followers, 18 million Facebook fans, and nearly 5 million followers on Instagram. The broadcast and cable networks — almost unwittingly — amplified Trump’s network capabilities. Every time they reported on a tweet or posting, they effectively seeded the message among millions of viewers, many of whom, in turn, shared these messages. This offline/online complementarity helped Trump double his Twitter following during the campaign. Social and broadcast media work hand in hand, and Trump understood this better than his rivals, gaining by some estimates almost $2 billion in free air time through March 2016.
The article, again written in 2017, could not possibly anticipate that CNN — six years later — has learned absolutely nothing about giving Trump earned media. Last week’s Town Hall can only be properly construed under the category of an an in-kind donation from John Malone, the largest shareholder at Warner Bros. Discovery, who also happens to be a right-wing billionaire as well as mega-donor to the — wait for it — Trump campaigns. And while Malone does not have day-to-day oversight of CNN’s programming decisions, his shadow looms large over the cable network. David Zaslav, who is CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery Inc, is implementing a “Malone friendly” CNN. From Prem Thakker at TNR:
CNN’s new owner, Warner Brothers Discovery Inc., is headed by David Zaslav, who seems to measure the success of the network’s shift mainly by how many Republicans it gets on air. Zaslav is also very close with Warner Brothers’ leading shareholder, John Malone, a self-described “libertarian” who once held 32 percent of the shares of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and also donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration. Malone has echoed desires for CNN to “evolve back,” suggesting Fox as a role model network, by having “‘news’ news, I mean some actual journalism, embedded in a program schedule of all opinions.”
Which brings us to Chris Light, who actually is doing day-to-day management at CNN. Licht is just now starting to accept that the Town Hall was a giant shitshow. But why did it even get on the air? According to Media Matters:
Licht has engaged in a “strategy shift” geared at presenting “a new, more ideologically neutral CNN,” as The Washington Post put it. (Brian) Stelter and (John) Harwood lost their jobs while Keilar was demoted. Cuomo and Lemon are also out — albeit for much more credible reasons — with their prime-time slots now filled by coverage from the network’s anchors. These changes don't seem to be benefiting the business — CNN’s ratings have tanked under Licht — but he’s accomplishing Malone’s ideological goal.
As much as I detest big, dark money’s presence in American politics, it is obvious that the Biden administration — fighting against significant media headwinds — feels the need to gain any leverage over Trump’s advantages. You can see how, strategically, Biden’s digital ad spends are meant to counteract Trump’s online outrage machine and its allied amplifiers, standing athwart Hunter Biden’s laptop, shouting “Conspiracy!”
Biden not only has Fox and now, it seems CNN, to contend against, but also right-wing social media and talk radio. That is a lot of fertile, viral media real estate. The notion that the media landscape has irrevocably changed — against Biden — struck me, watching the President at the WHCD this month, and how outdated the whole thing seemed to be. Newspapers and cable networks buying tables and dressing fancy and roasting themselves while drinking bloody marys en route to Tammy Haddad’s White House Correspondents’ Weekend Garden Brunch. Neither C-Span nor CNN ran repeats or put the dinner On Demand.
That is a media world that is dying.
Trump is, unfortunately, the first “social media President” in the same way that Kennedy — God help us — was “the first television President.” The campaign finance process in America is out of control. “Total spending on presidential elections more than doubled from $2.4 billion during the 2016 cycle to a record-shattering $5.7 billion during the 2020 cycle, not adjusted for inflation,” writes Taylor Giormo at Open Secrets. To his credit, Biden’s top donations came largely from retired individuals. He raised over $137 million alone from that group.
And although Trump — with 86.9 million followers —has not used Twitter since January 8th, 2021, Elon Musk has certainly made his microblogging site a Trump-friendly environment. Imagine how much more dangerous — and effective — Trump could be if he got past the snub and began using Twitter again …
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