Howard Dean was seen as a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination against Bush during the 2004 presidential election and is remembered for using technological strategies through the Internet to gain popularity with voters. (Samantha Laurey / Golden GateXpress) (Samantha Laurey)
Howard Dean was seen as a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination against Bush during the 2004 presidential election and is remembered for using technological strategies through the Internet to gain popularity with voters. (Samantha Laurey / Golden GateXpress)

Samantha Laurey

Let’s get digital: The social media persona and its purpose in politics

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is largely thought of as being the first politician to really utilize social media in a political campaign. Its capabilities have largely increased in how it’s used, but platforms also now raise concerns regarding misinformation and their users’ intent

September 16, 2021

When Howard Dean boarded the New York subway in summer 2003, he assumed he would be attending a low-key, low profile event.

Dean, former Vermont governor, candidate in the 2004 presidential election and a self-described frugal man, took the subway to get to a bar on Essex Street. Supporters of his were meeting there and organized the event using Meetup.com, a site launched in 2002, to schedule and plan events among people with common interests.

Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, urged him to attend, but he said he hadn’t expected much — Meetup events typically generated turnouts in the 10s of attendees, occasionally a few 100 attendees at most.

After getting off the subway, Dean and Trippi got to the bar and saw lines of people stretching around different corners of the block. He didn’t realize what was happening — he thought it was unfortunate that so many people were trying to gather at the same time as his event.

“And that was a holy shit moment,” he said laughing, recalling about 500 people having shown up to see him.

Though in its infancy, social media became a primary tool Dean utilized to breakout from fellow Democratic candidates. The internet-made candidate, often described as the first in politics to effectively use it, revolutionized how social media would be utilized — from running a campaign to constituent outreach, the internet and social media have become inseparable from the political landscape.

Retweet, Regram, Rewind: How we got here

Even before Dean’s stint as a contender for the presidency, the Internet had already picked up traction for its capabilities.

The nation, according to Melissa Camacho, a BECA professor who has worked in media-related offices at Congress and the United Nations, was still reeling from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal; it was initially published on the Drudge Report in ’98, a conservative blogging-esque news site.

Following the scandal, Camacho described a ubiquitous sense of excitement toward the Internet’s capabilities, with Dean urging more and better use of social media.

“One of the students actually had his own political blog — he had been featured in The New York Times, like a half page, so he got a press pass — and he interviewed every single representative that was there,” said Camacho, who attended the 2004 Democratic National Convention with a group of students as a summer school director for the Junior Statesmen Foundation.

“And the thing is that they were like, ‘Who’s this kid?’ He said, ‘I write the blog.’ And all they heard was blog — whoop! They didn’t know what it was. But they understood that it had influence.”

Dean said he thought the internet would “change human nature for the better.” He admitted that he has never been quite social media savvy himself; younger members of the campaign brought the idea of integrating social media in the campaign strategy to him.

One of his first instances of using the internet for his campaign was when they asked him to hold a livestream, eating a ham and cheese sandwich.

The video streamed on a plug-in webcam on a Macbook and raised $625,000 — an impressive amount, compared to fellow candidate Dick Cheney’s concurrent fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina, which raised $525,000.

Camacho said this changed the way the public thought about the internet and its capabilities. Until then, it had largely been used as a resource to pull information from, not a connecting and community-building goldmine, something Dean understood and seized through his campaign staff.

According to Dean, his campaign reached over 140,000 members on Meetup, about 1,000 chapters and over 800 monthly meetings by Fall 2003, a dramatic increase from the 11 organized Meetup.com events that February.

WATCH: Howard Dean became what can be referred to as the first viral political meme — a scream that many say was the nail in the coffin for his run. While he disagrees, Dean said that moments like this now don’t jeopardize officials because of public understanding of social media now. He now enjoys political memes that satirize and call out politicians, specifically noting Tiktok.

“We didn’t think of that strategy — kids saw that strategy, and young people thought of that strategy,” Dean said. “They were just fed up with the way the country was going.”

His message could be broken down into two statements: “Let the Democratic Party behave like Democrats” in opposing then-Republican candidate George W. Bush’s policy; and affirming to the voter (specifically, young voters), “you have the power to do something about this.”

Camacho said that the use of the internet allows politicians to cut travel costs and still allows for fundraising, constituent outreach and cast a bigger net for outreach. Dean merged the two when he launched his “Sleepless Summer” tour in 2003, where Meetup was used to energize and organize his base.

On the tour, Dean raised over $1 million when he reached Bryant Park in New York City; he also broke the record in the third-quarter of 2003 for most money earned by a Democratic candidate in a single quarter — nearly $15 million, with the average contribution being $15.

“[I realized] I’m responsible for all these people. That was the moment everything was done by the internet, all the word of mouth,” said Dean, recalling his August 2003 rally in Seattle that pooled over 15,000 attendees. “We didn’t make a phone call for fundraising after about June, not one. Money was just pouring in, in small donations, as fast as we can process it.”

To tweet, or not to tweet: what makes an effective politician

While Dean did not snatch the nomination for president, he laid the foundation for social media to develop into a widespread phenomenon in the political arena.

Following the election, members of his campaign created Blue State Digital, a digital strategy and grassroots firm. The firm helped former President Barack Obama secure the Democratic nomination and the presidency, both in 2008 and 2012.

His 2008 campaign created the largest political YouTube channel at the time and created a space to forward a grassroots movement through local organizing, while his 2012 run focused on creating an identity for the president, also pioneering one-click fundraising in politics.

“That’s how Obama won,” Camacho said. “He was able to do a lot of fundraising. He did a lot of grassroots organizing. And he used the internet to do it, and his constituencies, and the people were campaigning for him, they really honed in on that power of community building and harnessing.”

How a candidate or elected official engages with their bases through social media is also something that can measure effectiveness.

Camacho described the “social media persona” — how a person presents on social media, compared to their in-person personality — as having potential to become problematic because of the scale of influence elected officials have. She said that while it may work for a Kardashian, politicians are a different story.

It’s what also can make or break a campaign as well. She mentioned that campaigns, such as former Sec. Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, can run untargeted, unspecific, and ultimately read as cringe-worthy. It’s where former President Trump thrived, she said; he lost re-election but succeeded both times in branding and selling himself to his base.

WATCH: SF State BECA Professor Melissa Camacho talks about the role of the media in the 2016 election, and its coverage on former Sec. Hilary Clinton, the first woman to secure the nomination for a major political party in the U.S.

Dean said that leaders who engage in Twitter feuds take the focus off of the issues and put it on themselves instead. He named Sen. Ted Cruz for doing this; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uses witticisms on social media as well, but he said the difference is in the way she engages with her constituents, often through Instagram Live videos and stories to hold conversations, educate and ask questions.

Jenny Lederer, linguistics program coordinator at SF State, said that social media evokes what is known in linguistics as technically computer mediated communication — essentially, language becomes more conversational on platforms such as Instagram or Twitter. However, the use of acronyms, emojis and emoticons change it as well (neither for better or worse, Lederer said).

Lederer said that each medium, in some capacity, constrains the message. For Twitter, this means the word count, forcing candidates and elected officials to condense large messaging into short text.

“The way Donald Trump does that is by using capitals, by using the excess of exclamation points,” she said. “Donald Trump has a really unique feature where he tends to capitalize only the first letter of words and phrases that he wants to emphasize rather than the whole entire word or phrase.”

Trump also used direct speech acts, where the words themselves are the act itself, such as the pronouncement of marriage. Lederer said this is highly uncommon among politicians, but was used in July 2017 when Trump barred transitioned transgender individuals from serving in the military.

Despite his frequency on Twitter, Lederer said that he lacked a sense of fluency that younger generations have with the platform. He noted a lack of usage with acronyms, emojis and emoticons across his now-deleted account.

And for an “unknown” candidate and party, social media can be crucial — as Camacho described, it’s become essential during the pandemic.

SF State professor and California governor recall candidate Michael Loebs, chairperson for the California National Party, argues that for him, the long term goal of the election isn’t just to win — it’s to build visibility.

The CNP argues that the state of California, which hosts the fifth largest economy in the world, should become independent from the U.S. due to its diversity in geography, politics and overall issues. But the CNP isn’t technically a party as of now.

In order to be an official party, it must have 0.33% of the state’s registered voters under that party’s name. And of California’s roughly 22 million voters, the CNP has somewhere between 500 and 600, as of this June.

Loebs said the pandemic benefitted the CNP to the extent of allowing the party to centralize its message and reevaluate how to convey its policies. He said that while Twitter has become the party’s main platform, a younger CNP member has helped develop the party’s TikTok and Instagram accounts.

At the time of publishing, Loebs received 17,722 votes — 0.4% of the votes — with 71% of the total votes counted, according to polling data published by the New York Times. Loebs expressed excitement at this — both he and CNP Secretary Yvonne Hargrove said the next step is to energize this voting group and get them to become registered voters to the party.

Loebs, personally, does not engage on social media — let alone owns a smartphone. He carries a flip phone, saying that he is wary of how social media changes how people interact with each other.

“It’s interesting to me as somebody who’s very detached from it to see how those distinctions are shaping up,” Loebs said.

Tik … tok: The wait (and fight) for Big Tech accountability

If all good things must come to an end, then the internet is no exception. While social media has allowed politicians to express themselves and their messages, it has also given rise to misinformation and is swarmed by conspiracy theories.

Dean said that typically, Washington insiders are about two cycles behind when it comes to understanding trends in the mainstream. Both Dean and Camacho agreed that a lack of understanding comes at the cost of regulating and overseeing these threats.

The House passed the Stopping Harmful Interference in Elections for a Lasting Democracy Act in Oct. 2019 in response to Russian interference in the 2016 election. The bill, which would require heightened transparency of political ads on social media among other components, sits in the Senate, along with a laundry list of other related bills.

“This is very typical with technology, right?” Camacho said. “We are very excited about what we can do, and we sometimes don’t look hard enough at the follow-up, because with every action, there’s going to be a consequence.”

Camacho said that part of the problem also stems from a general lack of education, saying that it is expected that people participate in the political process, but are failed in being informed. This lack of education plus misinformation that thrives off of emotional responses creates a recipe for disaster, which she said were factors that were behind the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

Part of social media’s danger is its use of algorithms in creating echo chambers — the tendency for your feed to only show you content that you want to see. This creates what is known in linguistics as communities of practice, or speech communities. These communities often lump people together to reflect their identity, which can include their politics.

It’s something Loebs said he was worried about while campaigning for governor. He said that he was concerned that the notion of California independence becoming a fringe take on state politics.

“I think an overemphasis on social media was kind of what brought about a lot of the sort of insular politics of 2020, both on the left and the right, because you weren’t seeing other human beings and kind of the only people you were talking to,” he said.

This is very typical with technology, right? We are very excited about what we can do, and we sometimes don’t look hard enough at the follow-up.”

— Melissa Camacho

Lederer said these speech communities are what can bring together conspiracy theorists such as QAnon. Lederer mentioned the use of Pepe the Frog, an internet meme later co-opted by white nationalists. The Tech Transparency Project also published a report revealing that the Jan. 6 Capitol attack was largely organized by far-right militias and Proud Boys on Facebook for months without interference from the tech giant.

Coded language, such as Pepe, also makes such speech communities easier to recognize, Lederer said. She said the image of the cartoon frog has since been reclaimed in the mainstream by K-pop and “stan Twitter” — “stan” is the combination of “stalker” and “fan,” representing pop culture fanatics — as well as by Hong Kong protesters in 2019 and 2020, unknowing of its ties to white nationalism.

On the flip side, regulating speech raises concerns as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders said to Ezra Klein of the New York Times in March that Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Trump made him “uncomfortable.” Twitter will also not allow the National Archives access to make Trump’s tweets available to the public and suspended an account on its platform that sought to tweet statements from Trump’s website.

Dean said that he doesn’t believe the government should be regulating free speech either though; he suggested that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act be repealed, which grants immunity to website platforms for the content its users produce.

Both Democrats and Republicans can agree that Section 230 is flawed — but for different reasons. Many Democrats argue that it fails to hold tech companies accountable for issues such as hate speech and misinformation, while many Republicans say it censures conservative voices and should be repealed altogether.

In May, President Joe Biden revoked a Trump-era executive order regarding Section 230, essentially offering a “clean slate” on discussions surrounding it. In July, White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said that the administration would be reviewing Section 230.

“At some point, Zuckerberg is gonna decide, ‘I’m not going to allow on Facebook, stuff that’s going to cost me a lot of money.’ And I think that’s the only way to deal with this,” Dean said. “Because you can’t regulate [speech] … that will ultimately undermine democracy. But to have the courts issue monetary damages seems to me to be a better system.”

Camacho said that ultimately, there’s no way to be prepared for what can happen next — including a Trump-inspired social media platform, which has already housed terrorist propaganda since launching in July. All that is known is that social media is here to stay.

“We’ve come from not just acknowledging the fact that social media can be influential, but now it is a tool that, inevitably good or bad, is going to be part of the political landscape from now on,” she said.

The San Francisco GOP and recall campaigns for Larry Elder, Caitlyn Jenner, John Cox and Kevin Faulconer did not respond for comment.

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