‘Please disregard, vote for Bernie’: Inside Bloomberg’s paid social media army
A vocal Bernie Sanders supporter. A Chicagoan with zero followers on Twitter. A dozen registered Republicans. These are some of the digital soldiers Michael R. Bloomberg’s presidential campaign has recruited in California to boost the former New York mayor’s online profile in preparation for the March 3 Democratic primary.
The Bloomberg 2020 operation is hiring more than 500 people at a rate of $2,500 a month to text friends and post on social media in support of the former New York mayor and billionaire media mogul. These “deputy field organizers,” as the campaign calls them, are focusing their efforts on California and its 415 delegates up for grabs. It has not been picky in choosing messengers.
A look inside the strategy — based on documents reviewed by The Times, interviews with five of these organizers and an examination of the operation’s social media output — shows that many have been using accounts created within the last month for their Twitter posts. At least two had openly posted in support of other candidates. And unlike the high-profile influencers the campaign recently hired to create viral memes, the vast majority of these organizers have modest personal audiences. On Twitter, many have fewer than 20 followers.
Rather than create their own content, organizers often use the exact text, images and links provided to them by the campaign. The result has been a stiff outpouring of tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts with little to no engagement and sometimes half-hearted text messages. Some organizers were so robotic in their tweeting, Twitter suspended their accounts Friday evening after The Times inquired about whether their behavior complied with the platform’s rules on spam and manipulation.
The Bloomberg campaign’s tactics have raised questions about whether posts by campaign employees constitute sponsored content, how social media platforms should regulate nontraditional political advertising, and whether hiring temps with no particular affinity for a candidate is an effective form of electioneering in the first place.
The goal of the deputy field organizer operation is to meet “voters everywhere on any platform that they consume their news,” Bloomberg spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said in a statement. “One of the most effective ways of reaching voters is by activating their friends and network to encourage them to support Mike for president.”
The effort — first reported by the Wall Street Journal — represents a few gallons in an ocean of spending: Since Bloomberg entered the presidential race three months ago, the campaign has expended more than $450 million to flood nearly every avenue imaginable — including radio, television and the internet — with ads.
Campaigning aimed at friends, family and acquaintances is usually done by volunteers excited about the candidate, said UCLA professor Tim Groeling, who studies political communications and new media. That Bloomberg can pay for people to try to convince their social circle is a sign of the strength of Bloomberg’s financial resources but also an indication he may lack the kind of organic support that inspires grass-roots volunteerism, Groeling said.
The Times reviewed social media posts from some of the nearly 400 California deputy field organizers whose names and phone numbers appeared in a spreadsheet used by the Bloomberg campaign to track their progress. (The Google spreadsheet was not password-protected. After a reporter asked the campaign to verify its authenticity, the document was deleted from its location.) Organizers interviewed requested anonymity because of a memo from supervisors Thursday morning asking that they not engage with the press.
“A President Is Born: Barbra Streisand sings Mike’s praises. Check out her tweet,” Romir Kapur, a deputy field organizer for the Bloomberg campaign, tweeted to his zero followers, drawing on stock text provided by the campaign. At least half a dozen other users posted identical tweets; all were suspended Friday.
“WHO’S EXCITED FOR THE DEBATE TONIGHT!?” another organizer posted on Instagram, asking her followers to sign up for debate updates from Bloomberg’s campaign. The post received one like and a comment: “I hope you’re at least getting paid for this lol.”
Four out of the five organizers interviewed said the promise of money was the primary factor in their decision to work for the Bloomberg campaign.
One, a recent college graduate living in Sacramento, describes himself as an ardent supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination. But he hasn’t had a steady stream of income since October, and the Bloomberg gig seemed like easy money, he said.
The ambivalence shows up in his outreach efforts.
“Sam Donaldson just nailed it: Mike Bloomberg is the president we need to unite our country!” he texted one of his friends Monday through Outvote — the app organizers use to reach out to their personal networks. He drew on language provided to him by the campaign and logged the text as part of his Bloomberg organizer responsibilities.
But he quickly followed up with a personal addendum: “Please disregard, vote Bernie or Warren.”
Organizers said securing the work was easy, and the vetting process thin: Some first had to send in their resume, while others simply fill out a Google form with their name, contact information, address and links to their Twitter and Facebook accounts as well as “any other social media handle(s).”
Applicants’ recent social media posts were reviewed by campaign staff for racist or offensive content, or conflicting material, such as support for a different presidential candidate, organizers said. (The Bernie Sanders supporter was asked to remove posts, retweets and likes in support of the Sanders campaign.) Once approved, organizers completed training for various apps including Outvote, Hustle and ThruTalk and were encouraged to post on social media every day in support of Bloomberg.
Hustle and ThruTalk are for more conventional duties including campaign texting and phone banking, respectively. Outvote, used by many Democratic candidates, recommends specific language to share with friends or post on social media.
Describing the training, one organizer said supervisors explained that the average person has a network of about 750 people on their phones. “They told us, ‘We want you to reach out to those friends you’re comfortable talking to and then also those friends you might not have talked to in a while, but might be interested in politics,’” the organizer said.
Training materials distributed to organizers emphasize authenticity in communication with friends. “Stay true to how you communicate. If you don’t think our text sounds like you, change it. Have a real conversation,” a training document states.
Although terms of employment for the position require organizers to indicate on social media channels used for official activities that they are deputy field organizers, a review found many who did not appear to disclose their affiliation with the campaign in their social media bios. On Friday, Singh said the campaign has now instructed organizers to identify themselves as campaign employees in their profiles.
Training materials did not suggest language for disclosing the organizer’s campaign role in texts or social media posts, and three organizers said supervisors did not provide this type of guidance in online meetings or training.
Several organizers said they would tell a few friends they were being paid to reach out but did not disclose it to everyone they contacted.
“When I text my friends — depending on the friend — a lot of people think it’s spam or my account was hacked,” an organizer living in Los Angeles said. “Once people realize it’s actually me who’s making these and it’s not spam, they kind of just figure I’m being paid for it.”
One organizer, a woman living on the Central Coast of California, said she always disclosed her position in her initial text. “It would be irresponsible of me to act otherwise. It just seems like the ethical thing to do.”
With campaign strategies changing so quickly, Twitter and Facebook have been tinkering with their rules while playing enforcement whack-a-mole. Facebook has historically treated political advertising and influencer brand marketing as separate issues. But earlier this month, after the Bloomberg campaign used a loophole in mounting a large-scale paid influencer campaign, Facebook revised the policy governing political ads, opting to let political campaigns pay online influencers to spread their messages.
Both Facebook and Twitter have rules against automated mass-posting by so-called software bots. Despite the Bloomberg campaign’s use of a large human workforce to spread its messages, the effect of hundreds of organizers posting the same preapproved content without bothering to personalize it created an effect similar to a botnet.
After The Times inquired about tweets by paid organizers, Twitter determined they ran afoul of its platform manipulation and spam policy, created in response to the activities of Russian-sponsored troll networks in the 2016 presidential election. The policy prohibits artificially boosting engagement on tweets and using deliberately misleading profile information. Twitter suspended 70 pro-Bloomberg accounts, including a number used by organizers; some belonging to unpaid Bloomberg supporters or campaign volunteers may have been swept up in the crackdown as well.
With its “astounding” level of spending, the Bloomberg campaign has been “very effective at influencing people before he’s had much contact with them,” UCLA’s Groeling said. “I told my students to sign up. It’s like free money — probably the easiest $2,500-a-month job they’re going to get.”
But it’s an open question whether paid messengers can get the same results tapping their personal relationships as volunteers powered by enthusiasm for a candidate.
“Having organized for years, volunteer canvassers were more effective time after time after time,” Betsy Hoover, a co-founder of Higher Ground Labs, a progressive tech incubator that funded Outvote and Tuesday Co., told Wired.
The organizers’ spreadsheet laid out ambitious single-week goals for the 396-person California paid outreach staff per week: over 200,000 minutes spent on the phone-banking app ThruTalk, 299,000 texts sent via Hustle, and 39,000 actions in Outvote, the app that facilitates texting personal contacts and posting on social media. (Outvote allows users to see the past political activity of their contacts. By plugging in organizers’ phone numbers from the spreadsheet, a reporter was able to determine how many were registered as Republicans, according to the app.)
By the end of the week, on Feb. 20, the team had come closest to its texting goals, sending out more than 142,000 Hustle messages in total. But the staffers averaged only an hour per person on the phones, short of their goal of 10 hours per week. And on OutVote, the team hit only 6% of its goal, amounting to fewer than 10 personal contacts or social media shares per person.
A Bloomberg campaign aide said because the program is new — deputy field organizers were hired only a few weeks ago, and more are still being hired — it’s too early to tell how effective it’s been. When asked whether other factors such as applicants’ support for Bloomberg or their social media fluency were considered, the aide said, “The only thing that was taken into account was whether applicants had social media accounts and knew how to use them.”
Campaign outreach can be discouraging work, with most people having little time for canvassers’ phone calls or door-knocks. It turns out hearing from one’s real-life contacts may not be much different.
The organizer on the Central Coast said, “I’ve gotten pretty much a rainbow of flavor of responses, from A to Z, including a few letters not in our alphabet.”
“Nobody’s unfriended me,” she added. “Pretty much, it’s a job, and I needed one.”
Times staff writer Sam Dean contributed to this report.
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