‘Charlottesville, Virginia is home to the author of one of the great documents in human history. We know it by heart,’ says a freshly sanded Joe Biden over swooping strings, in tight focus and excruciating high-definition. As the camera cuts closer, you can just about notice his watery eyes flicking from one side of the autocue to the other. The former vice president is taking up arms in ‘the battle for the soul of America’, and he’s doing it on YouTube.
The build-up to elections used to center upon television air-time: CNN town halls, fierce attack ads, appearances on late-night talk shows. But the humanoid sociopaths over in Silicon Valley changed all that in the Obama era. Now the key battleground is social media, and the hunt is on for a viral moment. Like the advertising and digital media industries before it, political campaigning has shamelessly pivoted to video. Hard.
Biden’s campaign launch on YouTube is just the latest example. 2020 Dems have attempted to piggyback off AOC’s success by going live on Instagram as they crack open a beer or go to the dentist’s. Tulsi Gabbard, one of the more telegenic candidates, has taken to doing subtitled pieces-to-camera, tailored for Twitter, while she lays out an area where she differs from the rest of the field, be it moving on from Mueller or slating Saudi Arabia.
Mueller reported Trump did not collude with Russia to influence our elections. Now we must put aside partisan interests, move forward, and work to unite our country to deal with the serious challenges we face. pic.twitter.com/xTkHkyrAxp
— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) March 28, 2019
Midwest champion binder-flinger Amy Klobuchar prefers a more off-the-cuff approach: the videos she tweets are uncaptioned, honest, natural, and presumably shot on iPhone by a cowering intern.
The Trump Administration supports totally undoing the Affordable Care Act.
I’m headed to the Senate floor to read the letters of 100 families from across the country who would suffer if these protections went away. pic.twitter.com/BW3g3p1v9L
— Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) March 26, 2019
She’s also dipped her toes in the art of the cutesy BuzzFeed-esque video, recruiting her daughter to show all the neat things you can do with an Amy Klobuchar bumper sticker. Sadly, eating salad isn’t one of them.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is a particularly social-savvy septuagenarian. He draws upon a 40-year archive of footage to demonstrate his consistency on his platform issues.
Bernie has another advantage in the social media video game: his 2016 run for president. Online supporters who were ‘feeling the Bern’ formed Facebook groups and subreddits which helped amplify his message across the internet. Some of his habits are echoes from the Zuckerberg golden age, like his post-State of the Union Facebook Live stream. But as anyone in digital media can tell you, Facebook has changed a lot since 2016. Mark Zuckerberg’s company craftily changed their algorithm in response to accusations of allowing malign actors to influence foreign elections, with devastating effects for many small-to-medium-sized publishers and brands.
Some advertisers took the step of filing a class action lawsuit against Facebook claiming the firm artificially inflated the number of video views ads were receiving to give an inaccurate sense of their impact. Might a Facebook-heavy candidate like Sanders might be suffering similar setbacks? His page is also peppered with polished 90-second clips perfect for autoplay: square, headlined, with large subtitles superimposed to be as gawp-friendly as possible. With many autoplaying videos, Facebook users are scrolling as the ad is rolling. They may be counted as a ‘viewer’ for glimpsing the first three seconds of a video: does that truly constitute a meaningful relationship with a prospective voter?
The pursuit of authentic human connection with the electorate has turned America’s politicians into glorified vloggers. It’s easy to feel sorry for them: what is the true cost-benefit of telling a career public servant that they have to imitate Tyler Oakley to beat Trump? In 10 years, America has evolved from ‘yes we can’ into ‘like and subscribe’. We can’t be a million miles from the first scandal where a candidate gets accused of pushing sponcon. Imagine a world where Cory Booker gets his page removed for copyright infringement for posting a trailer for his girlfriend’s new movie, or where Jameela Jamil nukes the Gillibrand campaign for trying to plug diet tea. Does it really seem so far away?