Innovation

Election Tech: How social media and big data changed everything, a Q&A with Joe Trippi

Tech is behind the unruly US presidential campaign of 2016. The establishment has lost control. Joe Trippi explains how this could be the most technologically innovative election in history.

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Image: Daniel Rodríguez Quintana / iStock

Joe Trippi is a veteran campaign media master. He has built companies and advised some of the biggest names in politics—Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt—on how to successfully apply cutting-edge media technology for more than three decades. His expertise ranges from buying broadcast television advertising in the 1980s, to spin doctoring news pundits in the 1990s, to grassroots organizing on the social web.

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Image: Joe Trippi
In 2004, Trippi engineered Howard Dean's insurgent run at the Democratic nomination by using digital media to sidestep the establishment, and communicate with and raise funds directly from voters. While Dean was ultimately unsuccessful at grabbing the nomination, the digital tactics Trippi helped pioneer a decade ago echo in the web-based success of the equally-insurgent Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders campaigns in 2016.

In an interview with TechRepublic, Trippi detailed the evolution of campaign technology, how social media has changed politics, and why voters should be wary of big data in the hands of big campaigns.

Let's start with the basics: you're a campaign and media veteran. How has the use of technology changed during your tenure in politics?

When I started in politics there were only three TV channels in most cities. Cable was the way rural areas received those channels. So tech has gone from three to dozens then hundreds of channels, then to the Internet, social media and mobile. I was once quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying that I was brought up on three television channels, and I was worried that the kids raised on thirty channels would someday become old enough to compete with me. Oops!

You've seen a lot of tech trends come and go. What technology innovations have been legitimate game changers?

The internet and social media have changed everything—but what they really changed was a massive shift in power. TV and radio allowed powerful people to control and own the message, and ordinary people had no way to talk back. The Internet and social media empowered the bottom. Anyone can move a message that could be seen by millions. The top has lost control. That's why this year's political cycle seems so unruly to the establishment, and to the media.

In 2004 your use of technology made big waves. What did you do that worked?

We used the internet for two things in 2004. We went around the media and party leadership to create our own network of supporters and small donors. We did it out of necessity. No one in the Democratic party leadership or in the party's established donor base was going to help Howard Dean. We had to find a way to empower people to build a different kind of campaign from the bottom up.

Why did it work?

We were able to get hundreds of thousands of people to connect together online, and to contribute millions of dollars to the campaign. We ended up breaking Bill Clinton's record for the most ever raised by a Democrat. Obama obliterated our record by using our methods, four years later. I think the Obama campaign kept the innovation curve growing in 2008 and 2012. In 2008 in particular they really innovated and continued to empower people.

What's changed since then?

In 2012 things started to flatten out. There was less emphasis on innovation that empowered people, and more innovation focused on data mining and analytics. By 2016 there has been almost nothing new that really matters. Most of the campaigns are just trying to catch up with 2008 and 2012, and most of the focus has moved from empowering people, to frankly, manipulating people in a targeted way.

You were an early evangelist of Twitter and social media. How has social media changed politics?

The great thing about Twitter is the conversation and the information flow from people you trust or follow. Again it's a power thing. Social proof. If three friends you trust tweet that the hot new movie sucks, does it matter anymore how much the studio spends on TV ads? Are you going to go see it? The worst thing about social media is the ugliness that anonymity allows people to spread rumor, fears, anger and resentment, which I think has helped make our politics even uglier than it already was.

How do you anticipate campaigns will use social media in 2016?

I actually expect this to be the most negative presidential campaign cycle in modern history. Competitive major media, and social media will reinforce each other. The campaign that drives the other's negative ratings higher wins. It's already happening.

When campaign managers and candidates come to you, what technology advice do you give?

I tell them to put the digital team right outside the campaign manager's door. That's where I put the digital team. Digital is the core of today's campaigns. Every department in the campaign needs to understand that. You need to work with the digital team if you are going to be successful.

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Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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