In the aftermath of the second presidential debate, Facebook and Twitter lit up with two competing memes. One depicts a smiling Hillary Clinton, with the campaign slogan "I'm with her" superimposed in black text at the top of the screen. The second juxtaposes a photo of Clinton - shown in a menacing shade of red - with a photo of Donald Trump, standing in front of an American flag: "I have a different pledge," it declares. "My pledge reads 'I am with you, the American people.' "
Both images have been "liked" and shared tens of thousands of times on social media. But neither bubbled up on its own merits - they were prodded and boosted and given a leg up by their respective campaigns. While it may not be obvious to the casual Twitter user, both the Clinton and Trump camps have enlisted networks of supporters to amplify select, on-brand messages before and during the debates.
On Sunday (local time), these networks were out in full force, retweeting dozens of designated slogans, memes and links; during the 90-minute debate, and in the hours preceding it, each campaign sent four email blasts instructing their bases on what to tweet.
Strategists call this "rapid-response": the practice of shaping the election narrative in real time as events unfold. As little as 10 years ago, that meant talking directly to reporters.
Now, however, digital staff in both camps know that the day-after story about a debate relies, in some part, on what trended on Twitter the night of. And so, Clinton supporters were asked to share the Democratic presidential nominee's "I'm with her" tweet at 4.46pm ET; five hours later, the Republican nominee's supporters got a similar email prompt from Trump's "Big League Truth Team."
"Twitter is what passes for real-time conventional wisdom now," explained Joe Rospars, chief executive of the progressive brand agency Blue State Digital. "You want people consuming bits of the debate with your framing on them. And you want them, through their RTs, to influence the press' impressions."
This sort of strategy is not new, but it has evolved over successive elections. Rospars knows that first-hand: He headed President Barack Obama's digital campaigns in 2008 and 2012. In 2008, the Obama campaign launched an initiative called "Fight the Smears," which basically encouraged supporters to send massive email blasts debunking Obama rumors to all of their friends. In 2012, an even more aggressive effort, called the Truth Team, invited supporters to engage their friends by email, in person and on social media, "responding to unfounded attacks and defending the President's record."
This year, the objectives on both sides seem slightly more diffuse: not "correcting the record," necessarily, but certainly vying for the larger megaphone. The Clinton campaign has organized a network of "Grassroots Tweeters," which it has instructed via listserv during both the presidential and vice-presidential debates. Late last week, the Trump campaign launched The Big League Truth Team.
"My hope is that we're activating people who want to help out and amplifying the conversation," said Amber Discko, who handles Digital Organising for the Clinton campaign. "We've seen great success so far ... I'm learning a lot from our supporters, even."
Both initiatives employ similar methods, though their messages differ. After signing up on either Trump or Clinton's website with a Twitter handle and an email address, the typical volunteer receives periodic emails from the campaign, asking them to retweet specific posts. Both campaigns also coordinate more closely with a select group of highly-followed "digital influencers": the Clinton campaign through a closed Slack channel, and the Trump campaign via conference call.
Clinton's campaign typically asks supporters to share positive messages about her policy or candidacy, the majority of them from "third-party validators" like advocacy groups, other Democrats, and celebrities. (Of the 16 tweets the campaign asked supporters to boost last night, three involved the Affordable Care Act, two discussed Clinton's potential Supreme Court nominations and one praised Clinton's senatorial record.)
"It's not just about us. I always want to include a diverse group of people," Discko said. "And there's enough negativity out there - we want to focus on highlighting her record."
The Trump campaign, on the other hand, only asks supporters to retweet messages that have been sent by it or the candidate directly, and many of those messages are on the attack. During the debate, supporters were told to share 18 tweets and four Facebook posts, the bulk of them criticising Clinton's email scandal and her stance on the Affordable Care Act.
While the Trump campaign did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Washington Post, it has explained its goals on its official website: "We cannot count on the rigged MSM to bring the truth to the American people ... Join the Big League Truth Team and help fact check Crooked Hillary LIVE during the debates."
"It speaks to the broader approach of the campaign," Rospars said. "Trump wants voters to take his word, almost uniquely among other candidates."
As to which approach is more successful, well, that's exceedingly difficult to say. Gordon said that, on average, engagement on a given tweet doubles after it's been included in her email; in the coming weeks, she plans to send the messages more frequently in the hopes of getting voters to register. The Trump campaign, meanwhile, told the Daily Caller that the Big League Truth Team was "insanely successful" after the vice-presidential debate and that it saw engagement rates increase by a factor of 3.5. That would appear to jibe with a recent paper from researchers at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, which found that pro-Trump tweets, no matter their source, are consistently more likely to go viral.
Virality isn't everything, though, and regardless of who won this round, one thing's for sure: There's a definite limit to both the campaigns' and their tweeters' power. According to TweetElect.com, the single most viral tweet from Sunday night's debate was posted by the pollster Frank Luntz, and boosted by neither Trump nor Clinton.
It went viral the old-fashioned way: because a lot of dispersed, unaffiliated individuals decided to retweet it.