Since the coronavirus pandemic captured the world by storm, events and other social activities that were already planned had to get creative to still meet the needs of consumers. Politics was not exempt from COVID-19's devastating impact.

Political conventions were streamed online, rallies’ audiences were socially distanced, and even politicians fell ill to the virus. That meant the political space had to change how it reached citizens.

David Schweidel, a marketing professor with Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, said relying on digital platforms and social media to reach constituents and potential voters isn't a new approach.

President Donald Trump’s digital campaign in 2016 redefined how American politics interacts on social media platforms. Brad Parscale was Trump’s digital media director at the time, and he was the mind behind the then-presidential candidate’s successful Facebook advertisements that played a big part in revolutionizing voting trends — a tremendous feat that was almost unheard of at the time.

“That kind of highlights the importance of digital media and social media specifically as we start approaching the November election,” Schweidel said.

Tracking voters through social feeds

Traditional advertising such as TV commercials or radio messages still serves its purpose, although it has a different trajectory as digital advertising. Historically speaking, Schweidel said, advertising and marketing teams are looking at what media outlets have the best reach and the cost to capture consumers’ attention. 

The limitation in that process, however, lies in accurately tracking advertisements’ reach. Sure, a marketer or advertising agency can estimate how many people see an ad or listen to a radio message, but digital platforms by design can pinpoint exact metrics, Schweidel said.

“Instead of saying, ‘Alright, I'm going to spend 'x' millions of dollars on a TV campaign, and I have a rough guess as far as how many people are going to be reached by that,’ when you start doing that and do it on a digital platform, you get exactly how many people are being exposed to it and exactly how many people are responding to it,” Schweidel said. “And in many cases, you're only paying for the people who actually respond to it.”

Digital advertising also provides grounds for political campaigns to better micro-target demographics. Instead of reaching millions of people with one broad message, a politician or elected official may disseminate several specific messages to smaller groups instead. This approach requires proactive planning in tracking data over time. 

Schweidel said this type of digital tracking can be implemented a few months in advance of an election cycle, but the tactic hasn’t really seemed to stop since Trump’s election almost four years ago. 

Part of the reason for this is that social media offers its users ample opportunity to optimize their feeds and content to their own interests. For example, if someone reads The Washington Post and comments on programs that air on MSNBC, “what that would tell me is this person probably leans liberal, but it also can tell me that the people this person is connected to are probably leaning liberal,” he said.

From that type of surveillance, advertisers can gauge who will interact with what, especially during political peaks.

Criticisms of transparency and accuracy

As social media popularity grows, so does criticism for how people — politicians included — use it. While the platforms let people connect to each other and have become a source of newsgathering and consumption, transparency and accuracy standards aren’t always upheld. Twitter banned political advertising in 2019, and Facebook is considering banning them before the 2020 presidential election, so politicians have to get creative with spreading information. 

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler broadcasted her campaign trails through Georgia, sharing photos of herself talking to citizens and sharing a stage with Gov. Brian Kemp. She’s running in a special election to serve Sen. Johnny Isakson’s remaining two years in his vacant seat.

“Shout out to the great folks at Trevoli Restaurant and the tremendous elected officials of Muscogee County supporting our campaign,” Loeffler wrote as caption to one of her Instagram posts.

However, sharing too much as an elected official could get some of them in trouble when they take to social media to air personal opinions. State representative Steve Tarvin of Chickamauga recently apologized for calling Cherokee County teachers “self-centered crybabies” in light of schools reopening for in-person learning amidst the pandemic. 

“It appears I hurt people, and I am very, very sorry for that," Tarvin said in an interview with GPB News. "I'm asking you, if you can do one kind thing this year, it's help a country boy let people know he's sorry." 

Herman Cain, former Republican presidential candidate and co-chair of Black Voices for Trump, was also under scrutiny because of his views on COVID-19. He attended Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Okla. without wearing a mask nine days before he was hospitalized after contracting the virus. He died from COVID-19 on July 30.

The power of social media influencers

Still, the relationship between politics and social media remains pivotal to American democracy, and the newer addition of influencers serves an intermediary role, Schweidel said. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can allow political campaigners to collaborate with users with engaged audiences for sponsored or branded content. 

“This is a new kind of activity that simply didn’t exist when the rules for internet political communications were last updated,” said Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission in The Denver Post

The U.S. Federal Election Commission has no explicit rules addressing social media influencers’ roles in elections.

Schweidel said the power of influencers won’t die any time soon because of its effectiveness. 

“I think it's a mistake to say, ‘Let me work with the people who have a bigger following,’ as opposed to saying, ‘Let me find people who have the stronger relationships with their audience,’” he said. “I think that’s still a space that’s still going to continue to evolve and see how it plays out in the political arena.”