It all comes from above.
During election campaigns, major parties and candidates get the vast majority of coverage. They reinforce this with paid communication – TV and social media ads – and “owned” communication – events, emails, organic social media and more. This combines to motivate the voters they want to get out, and suppress or deter the ones they want to stay at home.
All of this effort is designed to move the public mood just a little. No campaign wins when the mood is strongly against them.
Everything else internet researchers look for and technology journalists write about that potentially impacts politics sits below that level – the influence of PACs, active disinformation campaigns, foreign influence, Facebook groups, viral trends, hashtag campaigns, bots, QAnon, Whatsapp chats – all of it. (Campaigns sometimes do these things for themselves, and it’s important to know when they do, but mostly, they’re too unpredictable and the forces they unleash too undirected, to be worth sustained effort.)
The result of all this activity is chaotic movement. It’s like standing in a storm, with the rain, leaves and branches lashing you from every direction. And it’s possible, though very unlikely, that a tree might one day land on your head.
But campaigns are the wind that carries it all. Fly above the clouds and you’ll see their spiralling, inexorable progress. Everything else moves within them. We should try to measure and predict their movement, and read their intentions, to learn something about their nature and how they might affect us.
Covering technology in campaigns is about obsessing over the new. For a while, Who Targets Me was the future, looking at political ads on Facebook when no-one else had any data or had yet tried to understand them (we’ve written previously about why we think Facebook ads remain so important and interesting).
Like we did when we started, it makes sense to examine new things when they’re fresh. But never forget you’re standing in the storm – the old things that campaigns put their time and money into.
Everyone has incentives to cover technology as if it’s the news – it’s exciting and interesting – but remember also to cover it as if it’s the weather.