Campaigns and opposition research groups are beginning to broaden their strategies by adopting digital tools that allow them to connect with supporters and push back against opponents. The shift represents an acknowledgment of the effectiveness – and political imperative – of online outreach in the 21st century.
One such digital tool, Genius, was founded in 2009 under the name “Rap Genius,” originally intended for fans of rap music to comment on and decipher song lyrics. It has now expanded to include not only different genres of music but also a platform for annotating websites relating to news, history, sports, law, and technology.
That’s where the campaigns and outside political groups come into the picture. America Rising, a Republican opposition super PAC that conducts research on Democratic candidates, began using Genius in May as a way to annotate and fact-check Hillary Clinton’s op-eds by highlighting certain words and linking to a primary source – a news report or a video, for example – that either refutes or adds context to a particular claim.
For example, in a May 4 Des Moines Register piece titled “Iowans have great ideas for a better future,” Clinton recalled conversations she had with “everyday Iowans” who raised concerns about student debt, campaign finance, and economic fairness.
Before even delving into the actual text of the op-ed, America Rising used Genius to add an annotation to the headline that linked to a Washington Post story explaining that the “everyday Iowans” were actually people hand-picked by her campaign. (They were supporters who had previously attended two different “staged roundtables.”) This was intended to call into question the line where Clinton says, “And everywhere I went, I met Iowans with great ideas for how we can get there.”
Jeff Bechdel, communications director for America Rising, said Genius has proven itself to be an invaluable rapid-response tool. “It gives us the opportunity to say, ‘Here’s the pushback on that,’ in a very easy, digestible, easy-to-navigate way,” Bechdel told RealClearPolitics in an interview. “Nothing is more effective than when you get a candidate on video saying something counter to what they said before.”
The Clinton campaign decided to follow suit by employing Genius as part of its digital outreach strategy, which already includes using live-stream apps like Periscope and making a public Spotify playlist. But rather than attacking or fact-checking opposing candidates, a Clinton aide told RealClearPolitics their initiative aims to empower supporters with supplementary content, including verifying claims and posting GIFs or other images. The first project of the effort, which kicked off on June 14, began with supporters annotating the text of Clinton’s campaign launch speech in New York the day before.
“Genius enabled the campaign to engage supporters with their favorite lines from Hillary Clinton’s speech and share her vision with new audiences,” the aide said, without responding to America Rising’s unique employment of Genius to attack Clinton. “The campaign looks forward to potential opportunities for supporters and the Genius community to annotate.”
Political observers were surprised that, for the first two months of her presidential campaign, Clinton did not have an “issues” section of her website (an area where her political beliefs and policy ideas would specifically outlined). That webpage was finally added on June 16, and America Rising immediately seized on another opportunity to fact-check Clinton.
“We began talking with Genius back in February, but until Clinton started holding public events and putting content online, we couldn’t use it to its full potential,” Bechdel said. “Now, we plan to use Genius more and more as she lays out her failed, liberal agenda.”
On her website, Clinton details “the four fights,” which include “building an economy for tomorrow,” “strengthening America’s families,” “defending America and our core values,” and “revitalizing our democracy.”
On June 17, the day after the campaign launched the issues page, America Rising released its annotated versions of all four sections.
For example, when Clinton writes of the importance of confronting cyberattacks, that word is highlighted with an annotation linking to a Washington Post article that outlines criticisms of Clinton’s use of a private email address while serving as the nation’s top diplomat.
When Clinton calls herself “a champion of women and girls,” America Rising links to a New York Times article pointing out that her family’s charitable organization, the Clinton Foundation, accepted “millions of dollars in donations from Middle Eastern countries known for violence against women and for denying them many basic freedoms.”
Bechdel says there are countless other examples of what he calls Clinton’s hypocrisy and dishonesty, and his group plans to continue highlighting them. “Whether it’s Genius or tracking candidates … real-time speed, detail, and accuracy are the hallmarks of what campaigning is like and will be like in the future,” he said.
Campaign veterans concur on the effectiveness of Genius and similar modern electioneering apparatus. Zac Moffatt, co-founder of digital campaign consulting firm Targeted Victory and a former adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, said such tools would have been helpful to the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, and predicted that more campaigns will begin to use Genius.
“I envision a time where you’re going to have campaigns who have a big speech and then beyond their big speech is the background … to give a richer, deeper engagement to the voters,” Moffatt told RealClearPolitics. “In a campaign it’s all about access. [Genius] provides more access to the candidate and the campaign. It’s a net positive.”
The goal of using strategies that rely on websites like Genius is not only to provide insight into competitors, but also to develop “a better relationship with our supporters,” Moffatt added. A Clinton aide declined to comment on whether the campaign would consider annotating or fact-checking Republican candidates’ websites.
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