As Bernie Sanders takes the lead in the 2020 Democratic Primary, much attention is being paid to the online community supporting him sometimes called “Bernie Bros.” Other Democrats have complained about the vigor of Sanders’ online supporters which sometimes crosses the line into targeted harassment. To his credit, Sanders has explicitly condemned this behavior although critics argue he could do more. I’m not so sure he could – or should for that matter.
The best a campaign can hope to do when it comes to managing online communities is to attempt to channel them into productive behavior, like sharing the campaign’s message, correcting the record, raising money, and turning out voters. Without this focus, the emotion and enthusiasm don’t simply go away, they just find their ways to other outlets.
The Hong Kong protesters’ motto has been “Be Water!” borrowing from Bruce Lee’s maxim that “Water can flow, or it can crash!” Today’s new technology-powered social movements more closely resemble water in their formlessness and shapelessness. No matter what, gravity ensures water flows downwards. Successful political campaigns seek to channel the water-like communities supporting them into effective action.
A Community With a Cause Beats Campaigns With a Message
Having a die-hard community of extremely online supporters is a major competitive advantage for candidates in the present era. The near-impenetrable echo chambers these supporters create are part of what propelled President Trump to the White House in 2016.
In 2018, the social media-savvy high school students who survived the shooting in Parkland, Florida organized and made more progress in changing attitudes – and policy – around gun control than decades of Democrats’ campaigns and messaging.
Bernie Sanders is leading a cause – what he calls a “revolution – more than a campaign and the community around that cause is more enthusiastic than any other group of campaign supporters. Andrew Yang offers another example from the 2020 campaign. He tapped into a community of extremely online individuals who support policies like a universal basic income (UBI) and addressing the challenges of automation. Yang lasted longer in the race than many traditional politicians who tried to campaign on their own “message.”
Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About
Candidates and campaigns need to embrace fully their online communities in order to unlock their full potential. Letting amateurs take a more active role in your campaign’s messaging strategy unnerves most political professionals who seek to tightly control all aspects of the campaign.
But the truth is, any semblance of control is an illusion. The online conversation is what drives the narrative nowadays – not whatever a campaign’s message of the day happens to be. So the choice for campaigns is do you want to tap into your online community by bringing them into the tent or do you want them shaping the conversation without any guidance from you?
Integrating your online communities as part of your broader campaign team means empowering your paid staff to interact with them and sharing the content your community creates through official channels.
The days of an individual politician setting the agenda are long gone so their campaigns need to stop trying and instead embrace the communities around causes the candidate champions. To return to our earlier water metaphor, are you expending lots of effort and resources to send water uphill? Or are you channeling the water in the direction it’s already flowing?