Bernie Sanders, Digital Opportunities, and Networked Political Participation

—Daniel Kreiss

[A version of this piece originally appeared on UCLA Digital Cultures Lab.]

Why is Bernie Sanders, the candidate who has so successfully attracted legions of supporters, on social media?  In the 24 hours after the NH primary alone, Sanders was reported to have raised $7 million, breaking Ron Paul’s $6 million 2007.

During the 2016 presidential election, Bernie Sanders’s run is showing us, again, how the right candidate, who catches the moment, finds the compelling message, mobilizes the right groups, and builds the right infrastructure, can effectively wield social media to gain electoral resources and secure victories at the ballot box.

One way to understand why some candidates are successful at digital and social media mobilization is through the lens of what I call ‘digital opportunity structures.’  Building off a body of work in social movement theory, digital opportunity structures can be conceptualized as features of the political environment, and candidates’ symbolic, material, and relational position in it, which shape the possibilities for using digital media for strategic electoral ends. These opportunities are only realized, however, when a candidate’s staffers perceive them, and have the skills to navigate the networked, hybrid media environment.

For example, a number of scholars have noted that insurgent candidates can often inspire digital mobilization among passionate subgroups of party activists. There are other features of the political environment that shape the capacity for digital mobilization in the context of electoral politics, if campaign staffers themselves perceive and have the ability to take advantage of these opportunities. They include the field of candidates, composition of the electorate, the relative power and size of groups in the party, which party holds office, the issues the candidate is running on and the broader political culture, the candidate’s biography and charisma (a candidate’s public persona and the willingness of people to believe and follow her), structures and patterns of legacy media coverage, perceptions of viability, the media practices of the candidate’s supporters and the ideological and party activists she appeals to, and so on.

In essence, digital opportunity structures are the hands that campaigns are dealt by the electoral context, the candidate, and the fields of politics and media that shape the possibility for specifically digital mobilization. Every candidate faces a different digital opportunity structure, and they also change as a race unfolds as the result of the actions that political actors take and the outcomes of electoral contests.

I believe that the idea of digital opportunity structures explains a lot about the 2016 cycle, specifically the outpouring of support on social media around Bernie Sanders, and his campaign’s deft ability to capture and help it grow. Politics is, in part, a performance. Sanders’s movement candidacy and his clear message about inequality that reaches across class and demographic categories has resonated within the Democratic Party. And, Sanders’s campaign laid the infrastructure to capture and grow its candidate’s extraordinary digital mobilization, ensuring that when opportunities arose the organization, technology, and practices were in place to capitalize on them.

For example, the campaign has used social media to translate the energy and enthusiasm of Sanders supporters into electoral resources. Sanders’s massive online fundraising has helped keep him competitive with Hillary Clinton. Sanders’s campaign and supporters have leveraged the symbolic affordances of social media to create new “inadvertent audiences” for the candidate’s message, sharing content on their social media pages that reach people not normally engaged in politics. And, they have turned to digital media to build field tools and applications that facilitate electoral organizing. Meanwhile, the efforts of his supporters have become an important part of the media attention to his candidacy in their own right.

This work is, in part, the result of staffers and consultants who have digital and technological skills. The diffusion of digital campaign strategy, practice, and technologies can be charted across electoral cycles and down ballot through firm founding and the movement of presidential campaign staffers to other sites in politics after elections.  Sanders’s digital consultancy Revolution Messaging was founded by a former 2008 Obama staffer, Scott Goodstein. Tim Tagaris, a partner in the firm, worked on a number of high profile campaigns including Ned Lamont’s insurgent senate bid and was a former digital DNC staffer under chairman Howard Dean.

Clinton has an all-star digital team of Obama veterans as well, such as Obama 2012 digital director Teddy Goff, but the candidate faced and continues to face a very different digital opportunity structure. And it shows, with her performance and positioning in the Democratic field not inspiring digital fundraising and participation, at least in comparison with Sanders. Clinton is an establishment Democratic candidate who faces a tough environment for digital mobilization given her long tenure in the public eye, well-established persona, establishment aura, pragmatic positioning in terms of ideology and policy, and message of experience. Consider, for instance, baseline social media numbers. Sanders has more Twitter followers than Clinton, more YouTube followers, and a vastly greater reddit following that has been an important fundraising vehicle in its own right, all of which is extraordinary for a senator who has only recently been in the national public’s eye.

While these things may or may not deliver Sanders the nomination, and Clinton still has more followers on important platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, it is hard to imagine an insurgent candidacy progressing this far in a world without social media and the ease with which it facilitates donations, communications, and participation. Today, the immediacy of social media and the digital fundraising infrastructures around it enables candidates to run fundraising drives in real time while they are on the stage, and return again and again to small dollar donors on social media, through online advertising, and in emails. Meanwhile, social media support strategic communications through trusted validators and lower the cost of electoral participation. In this world, some challengers may be able to gain advantages over better-financed, established opponents.

Daniel Kreiss is Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Journalism and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is one of the contributors of Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns (NYU Press, 2015).

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