Digital edits, a paid army: Bloomberg is 'destroying norms' on social media

Sheera Frenkel and Davey Alba, The New York Times

Posted at Feb 27 2020 11:24 AM | Updated as of Feb 27 2020 06:15 PM

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg watch as he participates in the Democratic presidential debate from his campaign office in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, US, Feb. 19, 2020. Caitlin Ochs, Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO — In the first few months of his presidential campaign, Michael Bloomberg has been as aggressive on social media as President Donald Trump was 4 years ago — but with a lot more money to spend.

Bloomberg has hired popular online personalities to create videos and images promoting his candidacy on social media. He is hiring 500 people — at $2,500 a month — to spend 20 to 30 hours a week recruiting their friends and family to write supportive posts. And his campaign has posted on Twitter and Instagram a flattering, digitally altered video of his debate performance last week in Las Vegas.

Through his money and his willingness to experiment, the billionaire former mayor of New York has poked holes in the already slapdash rules for political campaigns on social media. His digitally savvy campaign for the Democratic nomination has shown that if a candidate is willing to push against the boundaries of what social media companies will and will not allow, the companies will not be quick to push back.

“The Bloomberg campaign is destroying norms that we will never get back,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which studies disinformation. The campaign, he said, has “revealed the vulnerabilities that still exist in our social media platforms even after major reforms.”

On Friday, Twitter announced that it was suspending 70 pro-Bloomberg accounts for violating its policies on “platform manipulation and spam.” The accounts were part a coordinated effort by people paid by the Bloomberg campaign to post tweets in his favor.

Twitter’s rules state, in part, “You can’t artificially amplify or disrupt conversations through the use of multiple accounts,” including “coordinating with or compensating others” to tweet a certain message.

In response to Twitter’s move, the Bloomberg campaign issued a statement on Friday evening. “We ask that all of our deputy field organizers identify themselves as working on behalf of the Mike Bloomberg 2020 campaign on their social media accounts,” it said. The statement added that the tweets shared by its staff and volunteers with their networks went through Outvote, a voter engagement app, and were “not intended to mislead anyone.”

Social media companies have been under pressure since the 2016 presidential election. Over the last year or so, they have publicized a stream of new rules aimed at disinformation and manipulation. Facebook, Google and Twitter have created teams that look for and remove disinformation. They have started working with fact checkers to distinguish and label false content. And they have created policies explaining what they will allow in political advertisements.

Most social media companies have special rules that place elected officials and political candidates in a protected category of speech. Politicians are allowed much more flexibility to say whatever they want online. But the companies have had a hard time defining what is a political statement and what crosses the line into deception.

When Trump posted an altered video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Facebook and Twitter refused to take the video down. A 30-second video ad on Facebook in October falsely accused former Vice President Joe Biden of blackmailing Ukrainian officials to stop an investigation of his son.

Bloomberg, a latecomer to the race, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into it. As the owner of Bloomberg LP, he has the money and the resources to vastly outspend his rivals.

Bloomberg has reassigned his employees and recruited other workers from Silicon Valley with salaries nearly double what other campaigns have offered their staffs. The roughly $400 million he has spent has made him omnipresent in ads across Facebook and Instagram, as well as on more traditional forms of media such as television and radio.

His campaign’s sophisticated understanding of how to generate online buzz has shown how uneven social media’s new political speech rules can be.

Bloomberg’s lackluster performance in the Las Vegas debate — three days before Saturday’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada — was startling even to his supporters. But soon after, his campaign’s digital team edited the debate into digestible bites on social media that made Bloomberg appear as though he had done better. On Thursday morning, a video was posted to his Twitter account.

“I’m the only one here, I think, that’s ever started a business. Is that fair?” Bloomberg said in the clip, showing him up on the debate stage. The video then cut to reactions from the other candidates, who appeared speechless. Crickets chirped in the background as the silence stretched on for 20 seconds.

In reality, Bloomberg had paused for about a second before moving on.

“It’s tongue in cheek,” Galia Slayen, a Bloomberg campaign spokeswoman, said of the video, which was viewed nearly 2 million times within hours. “There were obviously no crickets on the stage.”

Was the video against the rules?

Referring to new guidance on manipulated videos, Twitter said it would most likely label the video as misleading. That is, it would if the rule, which goes into effect in March, were already in effect. The company said it would not label Bloomberg’s video retroactively.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said it would not remove the video. The company has recently altered its policy on manipulated media to state that Facebook will remove videos that have been edited “in ways that aren’t apparent to an average person and would likely mislead someone into thinking that a subject of the video said words that they did not actually say.”

The companies are less certain of how they will handle Bloomberg’s hiring of 500 “deputy digital organizers” to recruit and train their friends. (All 500 have not been hired yet.) His campaign has said it is paying people to use their own social media accounts to publish content of their choosing to mobilize voters for Bloomberg.

“We are meeting voters everywhere on any platform that they consume their news. One of the most effective ways of reaching voters is by activating their friends and network to encourage them to support Mike for president,” said Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for the Bloomberg campaign.

The Bloomberg team said the people they hired were ordinary Americans, and would not include so-called social media influencers, or individuals with large social media followings. The campaign said the digital organizers would not add disclosures to every post, but they would be directed to clearly identify in their social media profiles that they were affiliated with the Bloomberg campaign.

“We recommend campaign employees make the relationship clear on their accounts,” said Liz Bourgeois, a spokeswoman for Facebook. But if Bloomberg’s employees do not make clear on their accounts that the campaign paid them, Facebook has no easy way to identify them, she said.

Facebook has also made it clear that influencers who post content in support of Bloomberg’s campaign must clearly label themselves as being sponsored. The company also is exploring ways in which it can identify and catalog sponsored political content.

Google, which owns YouTube, did not respond to a request for comment on how it plans to handle paid influencers as well as digital organizers working for the Bloomberg campaign.

Brooking and other social media experts said they believed that until the companies saw themselves as media organizations — not neutral internet platforms — they would continue to struggle with how to police their platforms.

“We would not tolerate a falsified, unattributed political ad on CNN. We would not tolerate a paid campaign staffer masquerading as an objective analyst on NBC,” Brooking said. “We should not tolerate these behaviors on Twitter and Facebook today.”