DFL activists and volunteers across the state will gather for a series of training sessions this summer aimed at preparing the party’s base for the 2020 elections. Campaign workers will learn fundamentals like how to write letters to the editor, craft winning messages and lead effective door-knocking efforts.
Also on the agenda: a primer on social media best practices, including, perhaps most importantly, what not to tweet.
“If you say something that doesn’t reflect your party’s values or your candidate’s values, it can quickly go viral,” DFL Chair Ken Martin said. “The minute you send, you can’t get it back.”
Candidates and political operatives who interact with the media and the public are well aware of the weight their words, whether in person or online. But the rise of Twitter and other social platforms is rapidly expanding the circle of supporters whose phrasing and views can attract public scrutiny — and backlash. A few ill-considered taps on a smartphone can give ammo to opponents and potentially trigger a PR crisis for your side, regardless of whether the post came from a high-profile candidate or an unpaid volunteer.
“These days, anybody can blow up a campaign,” said Bill Hillsman, a veteran political consultant who worked for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and former Gov. Jesse Ventura. “That’s a big difference from a command-and-control sort of view.”
The risk of rogue posts was underscored last month when the DFL dealt with the fallout of two widely criticized online posts. First, a deputy communications director came under fire for a tweet calling a new U.S. Naval ship a “murder boat.” The staffer, who was stripped of his communications role but remains employed by the party, apologized and deleted his Twitter account. Days later, a DFL volunteer serving on a local chapter board resigned over a disparaging tweet about the military service of Republican Rep. Tom Emmer’s son. The DFL publicly denounced both posts.
Republicans, too, have faced backlash over supporters’ social posts. In February, a northern Minnesota GOP chapter came under fire for sharing a meme on its Facebook page that compared U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. The group later apologized and took down the post, which it said was made by a volunteer.
Minnesota Republican Party Executive Director Kevin Poindexter said the party takes the risk of social missteps “very seriously.” It too offers trainings to ensure candidates, staff and volunteers know “what is good content, what is online acceptable behavior.”
“We do a lot of work here with the party to educate those folks to make sure they understand they are a public figure in public domain and that all that is being looked at and can reflect back on the party or their cause,” he said.
Some campaigns now ask staff and unpaid volunteers to sign a social media agreement before they begin work. Legislative leadership in both parties have developed policies of their own. Ellen Anderson, a Senate DFL spokeswoman, said the caucus strives to balance staff members’ rights to express their political views with a desire to stay on message. She also reminds legislative aides not to engage in posts that could be construed as campaign activity while on the clock.
While the social media rules are constantly evolving, Anderson said the overarching message remains the same: “Think before you tweet.”
The risk that someone even loosely associated with your organization can give your brand a black eye in 280 characters or less isn’t limited to campaigns and political groups. Institutions ranging from school districts to sports teams are establishing ground rules for people associated with their programs. A 2012 study by the Society for Human Resource Management found 40% of workplaces have a social media policy in place.
But in politics, the consequences of a Twitter controversy are especially high. Sophisticated research and rapid-response operations on both sides can spot and amplify problematic posts in real time. Both sides say the increasingly polarized state of political discourse is making the problem worse.
Martin said he has seen a spike in vitriol online since the 2016 election, a trend he attributes in part to the personal attacks that fill the president’s unfiltered Twitter feed.
“He gives license to everyone else to do it,” Martin said, adding, “We just need to get back to civility.”
Not every problematic tweet is intended to offend or demonize the other side. Poindexter says the “dangerous combination” of a lack of judgment and “going for the snark to get the likes” is also a driving force.
“Folks don’t understand some of the ramifications of what they’re saying,” he said.
The stakes are expected to intensify as the 2020 election heats up, especially given the growing threat of disinformation online. In June, a video that was altered to make it appear that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was slurring her words racked up more than 3 million views online. Officials from both parties are working now to educate members on how to spot and avoid sharing so-called “deep fakes” and other false posts.
“There’s real concern out there that people, whether it’s candidates or staff, could be potentially manipulated for nefarious reasons,” Poindexter said. “That’s something that concerns everyone across the spectrum.”
Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising, sees the elevated risks as part of a “devil’s bargain” campaigns accepted when they decided that social media’s boost in reach and immediacy was worth letting go of some of the traditional message control.
Given that you “can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Hillsman says the key test moving forward won’t be whether your surrogates slip up on social media, but how fast you can get a damaging post “in the rearview mirror.”
“The trick,” he said, “is to try to not let it get out there and blow up into something bigger.”