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Three US election badges.

Why Biden is investing in influencers to help with this year’s election

Move over Taylor Swift. You’re not the only one with crowds of worshipping fans who can tip the 2024 election.

Mega-celebrities like singers, athletes and Hollywood stars get the bulk of the attention when it comes to their coveted political endorsements. But this year, it’s the online influencers who candidates, including President Joe Biden, are increasingly looking to court.

Social media personalities on platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram boast hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of followers. These content creators bankroll their curated lifestyles by marketing everything from lipstick to watches.

The appeal of these influencers in the political sphere is obvious. Many have built up vast, admiring audiences. They’ve developed close, intimate relationships that can be leveraged. Their word means something to their followers, whether that’s promoting a L'Oreal eyeliner, or a presidential ticket.

If “Instagram is the new mall”, it might soon also be the new epicentre of political campaigning, particularly because influencers have a lot of credibility with young people. And, Biden needs young voters to turn out for him, particularly as polling suggests that young Republicans may be more enthusiastic about Trump than young Democrats about Biden.

Biden recently rolled out the red carpet at the White House for hundreds of influencers including actor Kalen Allen and artist Devon Rodriguez, hoping to persuade them to join his cadre of digital assets. Rodriguez has 9 million Instagram followers and Allen 2 million. Trump, too, has been cosy with conservative influencers such as the head of “Libs of Tik Tok” and Seth Dillon of Babylon Bee, a Christian news satire website.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee has constructed an online organising hub that reporter Makena Kelly has described as a “destination for influencers, surrogates, and supporters to receive party-sponsored talking points, messaging, and a wide variety of digital content to post on their own social media feeds”.

There are reports that the influential Democrat political action committee (Pac) Priorities USA is paying US$1 million (£782,000) to around 150 influencers to encourage the publishing of pro-Biden posts. Pacs raise money for candidates independent of official campaigns and then spend cash to bolster their preferred candidates.

The rise of influencers in American politics marks the latest evolution in a stream of technological innovations adapted by candidates, from Barack Obama’s early embrace of the internet and Facebook in 2008 to Trump’s unvarished, shoot-from-the-hip communication on Twitter in 2016.

Jill and Joe Biden in front of a white awning with influencers looking on.
Joe and Jill Biden host an event for influencers at the White House. Newscom/Alamy

Influencers, however, largely promise to be more subtle, more discreet, and more subliminal than conventional actors involved in electioneering. In fact, trend forecasters have suggested that not being in-your-face and overtly partisan can be the key to perceived “genuineness”.

A Biden-Harris bumper sticker that “just happens” to find its way into the backdrop of a YouTube clip touting the health benefits of kale smoothies. An “off the cuff” reference to Trump’s plans to strip abortion rights amid a product review for the latest Chanel handbag. It’s not just about parroting back formal campaign slogans.

Issues with influencers

The use of influencers in politics raises big legal, ethical and policy quandaries.

Influencers are generally required by the US Federal Trade Commission to disclose any sponsorships and financial gain from sales. Yet the legal landscape surrounding political influencers is still inchoate, and many critics say that politicians and Pacs exploit influencers to circumvent campaign finance laws.

The US Federal Election Commission has failed to offer regulatory clarity regarding the rules that apply to influencers in campaigns. Additionally, while some social media companies like Facebook actually paused political ads in the days immediately preceding the 2020 election, influencers were left untouched.

The possible problems don’t stop there.

Communications researchers Katie Joseff and Samuel C. Woolley, for example, have argued that the hiring of influencers in politics “amounts to a new and growing form of ‘inorganic’ information operations — elite-dictated propaganda through trusted social media spokespersons”.

Even worse, they say, top-down “propaganda from influencers are better able to evade detection systems built to detect political bots and sockpuppets and to defy regulators concerned with digital free speech”.

There’s no shortage of consternation about foreign nations and organisations, especially the Kremlin, wielding disinformation to meddle in US elections. While domestic influencers may not have nefarious aims, social media followers may be impressionable in thinking political endorsements are authentic.

The desire to court influencers might even distort public policy. As writer Katie Harbath has observed, when it comes to debates like whether to ban TikTok over privacy or national security concerns: “Democrats are in a tricky spot because they want access to the younger user base that the app has but also recognise the challenges with the app.”

Can influencers swing elections?

If the name “influencer” implies anything, the answer is yes — at least on the margins. While rigorous, experimental evidence is hard to come by, and the trend in politics is relatively new, it’s clear that Americans who increasingly get much of their news from digital sources are shaped by online content.

People First, a firm that specialises in influencer partnerships, has found, for example, that more than 40% of people surveyed “trusted influencers more than political campaigns themselves”.

Unsurprisingly, influencers are likely to disproportionately sway youth voters, who tend to lean Democrat. Gen-Z and young millenial voters could turn out at higher rates as a result.

In a 2024 election that’s likely to be decided by razor-thin margins in a handful of swing states, influencers could be influential. Biden, especially, can’t afford to lose the youth vote that supported Democrats at high rates in the 2022 midterms.

Conspiracy theorists who think that Taylor Swift is a CIA asset aiming to upend American politics are looking in the wrong place. For evidence of a more disruptive (and, potentially corruptible) form of politics, they need only fire up social media.

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