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Updated Dec 17, 2023, 6:20pm EST
media

Democrats built an influencer economy. Can it save Joe Biden?

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The Scoop

When the Environmental Protection Agency opened public comments this month, they were flooded with more than 60,000 comments from people who support Joe Biden’s new power plant regulations — and had learned about the issue from micro-celebrities they follow on Instagram.

“So join me and let’s get LOUD!” one influencer, Ariana Jasmine Afshar, exhorted her 46,000 Instagram followers. “Let’s show them that we are serious about the young generation’s future.”

This was not a spontaneous outpouring of digital passion for energy regulations, however. Some of the social media celebs, including Afshar, were being paid to speak out by political influencer marketing firm atAdvocacy, which was working with environmental awareness client Evergreen Action to push the president to the left on climate issues. Afshar speaks regularly on social issues to a following that also includes 200,000 people on TikTok, and her posts about the regulations helped inspire some of them to write to the EPA.

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Influencer marketing, pioneered years ago by the culture industries and fashion and beauty brands, is now big business. And 2024 is shaping up as the first serious influencer election. Both parties have cultivated networks of informal spokespeople who can reach younger voters or supporters who may not see or be moved by traditional television advertising. An ecosystem of companies on the left including Vocal, atAdvocacy, and Social Currant have emerged to connect candidates to influencers and help those influencers get paid for speaking out on behalf of causes and candidates.

“The young people under 35 that watched the [Republican] debate is in the tens of thousands,” Stuart Perelmuter, the CEO of the influencer network atAdvocacy told Semafor. “We’re reaching them by the 10s of millions every single day.”

And they’re reaching them in an ecosystem that occasionally makes it difficult to tell which posts are paid and which aren’t, as Federal Elections Commission rules are ambiguous on online influencers in elections.

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Perelmuter told Semafor that his organization is “very cognizant” of the rules, and noted that the company has been successful because it connects “values-driven” influencers who are already passionate about certain topics with organizations and campaigns that share those interests. But he also acknowledged that placing tags in posts disclosing that they are paid also can weaken their impact.

“Several of our creators put it on there anyway, we encourage them to do what they’re comfortable with. A lot of our creators would happily disclose they’re being paid, and do, in other ways. But sometimes those tags mess up the algorithms, and they just don’t get seen by as many people. So the regulatory world of paid, user generated political content is virtually non-existent at this point,” he said.

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Know More

Top political strategists over the last several months told me that much of the money paid to creators and influencers next year will come from PACs and center largely around messaging on policy areas like climate change, abortion, and voting rights.

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But harnessing influencer and creator voices is clearly on the minds of top national Democrats involved in the biggest race. President Joe Biden’s digital team has openly discussed at length its strategy for wooing influencers in an unpaid capacity. Last month, the White House hosted its first ever creator holiday party, inviting influencers to the White House to post. (Donald Trump did more or less the same in 2019.) Since taking office, Biden’s team has regularly invited its loose network of political supporters online to the White House for briefings, and granted interviews to supportive Substackers and YouTubers. Last year, Biden granted a rare one-on-one sitdown interview to Brian Tyler Cohen, a popular YouTuber who helped launch atAdvocacy.

In addition to convening influencers, the White House and Biden teams have also built strong relationships with the leaders of the organizations that will deploy them. The Biden digital teams have privately hosted atAdvocacy and Social Currant at the White House to discuss influencer messaging and learn about the digital information ecosystem.

The networks have also developed close ties to each other. Last week, the Center for American Progress, one of the most well-known liberal institutions, hosted an event on the importance that independent digital voices will have on the election next year. Ellie Langford, the senior director of strategic partnerships for CAP’s digital advocacy team, is an alum of Vocal during the 2020 cycle (Vocal itself is led by an alum of the Center for American Progress). Social Currant has partnered with AtAdvocacy on several issue campaigns. Many key players from all companies were in attendance at CAP’s event last week, hosted by Langford.

Trump alies have been investing heavily in influencer marketing over the past several years, and plan to make it a part of the former president’s strategy next year.

In 2020, Trump’s former top digital staffer in the White House Ory Rinat founded Urban Legend, a 14-person company with a network of over 700 influencers who enter into contracts with clients and are paid by “conversions” when a follower engaged with the campaign - either through a signup or donation. The president’s 2020 campaign paid Legendary Campaigns, a parner organization of Urban Legend, $1 million for online advertising, and the Make America Great Again PAC continued to pay the company for influencer marketing over the past several years between election cycles. Rinat clarified to Semafor that his group works with advocacy organizations, trade groups, and nonprofits, but doesn’t work with any political campaigns, and won’t be involved in next year’s election.

When I spoke with Biden deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty last summer, he acknowledged that conservatives had scaled up their influencer ecosystem. But he stipulated that the Biden campaign was focused not just on cultivating established political influencers, but figuring out how to boost voices that can persuade undecided voters rather than simply get the message out.

“What they’re starting to build out is the digital version of what they’ve always had,” he said, comparing the outspoken right wing digital influencers to angry, impassioned Fox News pundits. “They’re slower on the ‘persuasion influencers.’ They’re building an influencer ecosystem and we’re trying to talk to people where they are.”

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Max’s view

In an increasingly fractured media landscape, the appeal of influencers to campaigns on both sides is obvious. They’re trusted by their audiences and, according to political media buyers, significantly cheaper than a political television advertisement. Creator-focused companies told Semafor that the influencer programs are particularly effective at cheaply acquiring voter and supporter emails and signatures, and with rapid-response messaging. Campaigns and causes like creator networks because they can find influencers who they feel could reach their intended audiences, and provide them with some guidance and messaging.

The relatively loose federal election regulations also allow influencer speech to be more opaque than traditional advertising. While campaigns must disclose that they’re paying the firms that contract influencers, it isn’t clear to the average viewer that they’re watching someone who is an informal paid spokesperson. This also allows campaigns and causes to pay to boost their message even when platforms, such as TikTok, prohibit direct political advertising.

Since 2020, a cottage industry of companies have emerged to service campaigns and causes looking to connect with influencers and others with large and medium sized social media followings. Some, like atAdvocacy, focus largely on connecting individuals with large political followings with causes. The organization, which was founded in 2021, has built an influencer network of out 200 creators, and worked on senate races, ballot initiatives, and pressure campaigns for various left-leaning causes. The organization’s influencer network helped recruit phone bankers to help Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, raised awareness in Pennsylvania about a contentious county commissioners race with a viral video with over 600,000 views, and did get out the vote for the Wisconsin state supreme court race.

Perelmuter said as political strategists see the decline in traditional TV viewership, many have begun investing money into the space. Early next year, his company plans to launch a creator application that looks a bit like Tinder, allowing influencers to “pass” or “match” with various causes or campaigns that they may feel passionately about.

Other organizations have reversed that formula. Unlike atAdvocacy, which largely focuses on connecting political figures with causes, Social Currant works with influencer talent agencies to connect causes with non-political creators who may be passionate about certain causes or candidates. In a preview of the company’s annual impact report shared with Semafor, the organization said that 70% of the creators it worked with in 2023 were “from outside the political space, continuing our mission to build with and invest in creators to expand the progressive space.”

In an interview with Semafor, Social Currant CEO Ashwath Narayanan said the company paid out more than a million dollars to influencers last year. He said with the company’s first major presidential election cycle coming next year, the organization expects that number to be higher.

“In 2022, we saw it sort of a little bit last minute, but for 2024, people are planning earlier,” he said. “I can’t compare it to 2020 because we didn’t do any work then, but we are seeing more people start even now thinking about their creator plan.”

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Room for Disagreement

The lack of guardrails around influencer speech online has worried many federal election experts, who believe that 2024 could see a torrent of unregulated political speech across the platforms.

“Current FEC regulations and campaign finance laws from Congress have not kept up with how federal campaigns are run including lots of on-line content that is never ‘broadcast’ on TV,” Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an election law expert at an the Stetson University College of Law, said in an email. “Political actors know this and they game these loopholes to evade clear disclosures that would help voters.”

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Notable

  • In its profile of Urban Legend founder Ory Rinant, Wired pointed out that “most social media marketing campaigns get deleted when they’ve run their course” and that Urban Legend’s campaigns were no exception.
  • A few members of congress themselves have developed their online personas akin to influencers. Rep. Jeff Jackson has racked up over 2.5 million TikTok followers with his viral dance and explainer videos. Ex-congressman George Santos parlayed his expulsion from congress into a lucrative part-time gig selling personalized videos on Cameo.
  • Some of the seeds for the current influencer political economy were planted in 2020. Michael Bloomberg’s failed 2020 campaign partnered with meme accounts, and offered people online $150 per post to share why they supported the former New York City mayor.
  • The U.S. is hardly pioneering this practice. A study of the 2022 Philippine presidential elections, won by the son and namesake of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, pointed to the rise and importance of “micro- and nano-influencers that elude campaign finance rules” in Marcos Jr.‘s victory.
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