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Political Influencers with Nate Lubin


In this episode Elizabeth chats with digital communication strategist and experienced political campaigner, Nate Lubin about social media content creators in politics. Nate draws on his experience with the Better Internet Initiative which helps influencers make educational content related to progressive issues as well as his past experience as Director of the Office of Digital Strategy at the White House and Director of Digital Marketing at Obama for America. They talk about what constitutes a political influencer, how content creators engage in politics, and different models of influencer engagement.


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Episode Transcript: Political Influencers with Nate Lubin


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Elizabeth Dubois: [00:00:04] Welcome to Wonks and War Rooms, where political communication theory meets on the ground strategy. I'm your host,  Elizabeth Dubois. I'm an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa and University Research chair in Politics, Communication and Technology. My pronouns are she/her. Today, I'm talking with Nate Lubin about political influencers. Nate, can you introduce yourself, please?


Nate Lubin: [00:00:24] Absolutely. Thanks for having me. My name is Nate Lubin. I live in Brooklyn. I've been working on digital communications and technology for a long time. [I] worked in politics in the Obama White House and both of [Obama's] campaigns before that, running the Digital Strategy office and the campaign's digital marketing. I've since then started a couple of organizations in the world of trying to understand better what's happening online and [how to] improve online discourse, which we're about to talk about.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:00:48] Wonderful. Thank you so much. I'm really excited for the chat today. So this season on Wonks and War Rooms, we're talking about personal influence in politics and how technology is changing that. And one of the terms that has started to bubble up is the idea of a "political influencer", and not in the way that we think about anybody who has influence over political systems. So there's a version of "political influencer" in the literature that's like a politician or a journalist. We're not talking about them. We're talking about influencer as in "social media influencer". Or, a term that's being used more frequently right now is "content creator." These people who have substantial online followings [social media influencers], they often have pretty patterned relationships with commercial brands, they have a particular persona quite frequently. And this definition that I'm pulling there for "influencer" is coming from Brooke Erin Duffy's work. When we add on "political" to it, there's the argument that these are content creators that endorse political positions, social causes or candidates through media that they produce and/or share on a given social media platform. So before we get into  what they're doing and how they're doing it, does that definition track for you? Would you change anything about it?


Nate Lubin: [00:02:04] I think that definition tracks. I think the way we usually think of it is more in "creator" than "influencer", which I think is intentional. Not necessarily because "influencer" is not true, but that tends to be more of an advertising way of thinking about influencing around sales or awareness of a product, as opposed to something that we hope is more meaningful. I think there are political applications that are more like that advertising version. Like if you're saying, "I'm going to pay you money to go do something; talk about something; go vote Tuesday," that can be legitimate and it can be appropriate. It can be fine. I'm less interested in that kind of interaction than the kind where you're trying to have a more deep and more meaningful, longer term connection. And so for that kind of audience, where there's a more meaningful connection between the creator and the producer and hopefully around the actual substance of what they're talking about in connection to a topic and purpose, "creator" is more how we think about it.


Nate Lubin: [00:02:59] So one of the things that I started a few years ago is a program called the Better Internet Initiative, which is a nonprofit, US-based effort to help creators do that. So it's a fellowship model where they have a bunch of support and connections as part of the program, but we're not paying them per thing that they post. We're supporting them as humans, and as part of that program, they distribute fact-checked real information and [we] help them do that over time.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:03:25] Yeah, that is such an interesting model. And it's so different from the model of "political influencer" that I see embedded into election laws in Canada [Consult: Political influencers in Canadian election laws, as defined by Elections Canada in their interpretation note on partisan and election advertising on the internet] and in so many other places where the focus is really on that advertisement and marketing framework. So it's really thinking about social media influencer marketing in the case of politics. And so the model you're describing is pretty different, although money's still part of it. But for now, talk to me a little bit more about what going through that fellowship looks like. What are the supports? What does that model look like for the creator?


Nate Lubin: [00:04:02] So it means different things to different people. Part of [it] is creators who are part of it want different things from us. They are sort of willing to have different kinds of audiences and structures. But predominantly it follows a couple of consistent patterns. So we produce what we call briefs every month. So that is basically topical, often news-driven kinds of stuff that's happening in the world that's been fact checked and validated. Very often that is either provided to us or produced in partnership with other nonprofit organizations who are experts on those topics or those areas. And we give those briefs to these creators. They will make material on whatever channels they have. We focus on YouTube pretty often, but there's other channels as well, other platforms as well. And they're, as part of the program, committing to making content off of those briefs. Now, they can work with us to deviate from that which, again, is still fact checked and validated. But that's sort of the core of it.


Nate Lubin: [00:04:54] Now, around that we have a bunch of other things that we think are important. So, we try to provide some community support. We provide calls and meetings for the creators to get to know each other better, to have more of a peer group in this world that can be lonely and challenging and [it's] not always the easiest to be a public face online. And we've done some in-person convenings, we've done speakers, we've done a bunch of other things. We give support as it's important. So we're trying to make it easier for them to be comfortable doing this kind of thing, provide connections to these nonprofits, but then also have it easier [for them] to live this kind of lifestyle where this is important to what your work is.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:05:30] Yeah, that's really interesting. The variety of different components to that. I imagine some cool collabs come out of it too, between different people who are all part of the fellowship. Help them expand their audiences, potentially, in that way. I'm really interested [in] the political component. Do you all frame it as political content that they're creating when they're basing the content off of these briefs? Do they think of it as political? I'm using "political" here meaning like "small p" political, not in terms of, "are they saying go vote for candidate X or Y," that's a different bucket.


Nate Lubin: [00:06:07] Yeah. I mean, this is viewed through an American election law standard. So, political speech sort of has a different definition here [Consult: political speech is a constitutionally protected form of speech in the US]. This is not political speech in the way that that means. So it's not saying, "go vote for a candidate," that would be illegal under this sort of investment structure. It is sort of "small p" political in the sense you mean. It's dealing with issues, it's dealing with appropriate education material. That's kind of- The framing of this generally is we're trying to help these people, these creators educate their audiences in a way that is genuine and real. So a policy that will touch on issues of importance, that will deal with combating mis-/dis-information that exists online on a variety of topics. We're pretty explicitly framing this as an opposition to that, and sort of trying to empower these folks who have, in many cases, hundreds of thousands or millions of followers and subscribers that they are trusted voices and can be antidotes to misinformation. Right? So we're not going to tell them how to talk to their audiences. They know that much better than we do, but we're going to give them some fact-checked, accurate, validated material and give them space to ask questions and do follow-ups. And the key part of that is they're not presenting themselves as experts either. They're saying, "Hey, this is the thing. Here's the source of it, here's what's going on." And there's often a link that they embed somewhere, that kind of a thing. And it's not hiding the ball, right? If they want to identify that this was in partnership with- Yeah, they can do that. It's very above board in all ways.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:07:28] Yeah, that's super interesting. I want to come back to [the idea that] they're not presenting themselves as experts, because that hooks into one of the comm [communications] theories that we've been dealing with. But before we do that, one quick thing- Just because we've got a bunch of Canadian listeners where political speech and what counts as political speech in our elections is real different from the US. So in Canada, we have this thing where political speech can be election issue based during election campaigns [as defined by Elections Canada in their interpretation note on partisan and election advertising on the internet]. And if it is paid for in any way, it needs to get reported if it's an election issue, but we don't know what the election issues are until we're into the election. So there's this really weird, murky territory. Anyway, all that to say, it's an interesting and different scenario in Canada, and that's a whole other podcast. But getting into the legal components of it (which we don't need to do today), I think it's interesting how it's different across different borders.


Nate Lubin: [00:08:25] Absolutely. I think we got to know each other through connections to the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard Law School. I am not a lawyer. I will not pretend to be a lawyer. I have talked to enough lawyers to feel like I know this in an American context pretty well. I definitely do not have the Canadian context. Yeah, I think for us there's some bright lines to avoid. It's obviously- it was not obvious. It is also contextual in some cases to elections. Some things that are allowed at one point in a cycle are less allowed later. So we try to stay pretty far from those lines as best we can. There are political implications, to be sure of, to a lot of the stuff that these creators are engaging with, but it's genuinely not a political purpose that we're coming from. It is an educational purpose around helping put real information in front of people. Now, of course, we have intention with what we choose to focus on, and I'm not pretending otherwise on that. And we sort of have a national interest theory of that. But it's not talking about candidates. We're not talking about that kind of a thing.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:09:24] Yeah. Can you give a few examples of the kinds of topics that people are covering?


Nate Lubin: [00:09:29] Yeah. So it's pretty broad. We've done a bunch of work- So, just sticking with the election version for a second, we absolutely will do a bunch of material around nonpartisan voting information. So encouraging people to participate, talking about deadlines and rules, all that kind of stuff, just the importance of it. We're believers in democracy with this program. So [we try to] explain that. But the democracy pillar isn't just about elections. So we might do stuff that explains a Supreme Court case that happens, what that means, what the result of that is or if something changes. We've done- 


Nate Lubin: [00:09:59] Actually, the start of this program, the kind of pilot version was in 2020. As you can imagine, it was almost entirely a COVID education program at that juncture. For the first, probably- [pause] The pilot, certainly. And then the year after that, 2021, COVID was the most predominant subject we were dealing with. But we've covered a lot of issues. We've done work on climate change. We've done work on describing, in [the] American context, some social justice issues and economic issues. When people say the economy is happening, what does that actually mean? Again, not explaining the economy (as if we could), but here's some indicators that actually are validated by experts. Here's some ones that are less [valid], that kind of a thing.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:10:39] Yeah, that's really helpful to paint the picture. Let's come back to that idea of [creators] presenting themselves as experts or not. One of the core ideas under Katz and Lazarsfeld's two-step-flow hypothesis, (opinion leadership, which we've talked about in a few episodes this season already) is this idea that an opinion leader, somebody that you look to to help as you develop your opinions on whatever given topic, is somebody that you see as knowledgeable and that you see as an expert relative to yourself, but isn't necessarily the top expert of all experts [Consult our previous episode, The Two-Step Flow and Opinion Leaders with Nick Switalski]. Where do you think content creators fit in? You said they're explicitly not experts, but they clearly have knowledge. You all are sharing a lot of information.


Nate Lubin: [00:11:26] So, this is [only] one [out] of a bunch of projects that I have started and worked on. So I have thoughts on this [question] more from other programs than from this one. But we've done lots and lots and lots of content creation of various kinds and then lots and lots of various randomized controlled trials of assessments of what is persuasive, what works. So I think the one sentence punchline of that is [that] it's very hard to predict what is actually going to be effective in advance, and that we tie ourselves in knots by assuming we know the answers before we actually do. Even experts are pretty bad at predicting. In practice, they might have good principles and good ideas about hypotheses about what will work, but the specific thing that does work in a particular case is pretty hard to know without actually trying. All to say that in the context of these creators, I don't think it's the case that every piece of content is effective at what it's trying to do. But I think they are just as capable in most cases as anyone else at doing that, and their transparency in terms of what they do and don't know may make them more credible. Right? So they say, "Hey, I talked to an expert, I have this access to this thing. They told me this, I checked it. It's cool. I'm sharing [it] with you because I think it's important." That can be more credible than saying, "I am myself an expert and I've proven that it's true. Trust me." Right? Maybe not in every case. Maybe if the person is independently credible because of something else, that might be effective. But it's not obvious that that is the case in advance. So I think the framing part of this idea is to take advantage of the distribution these people already have and the reach that they already have. 


Nate Lubin: [00:12:55] Say, if we want to combat misinformation that exists on the internet, if we want to try to raise the standard of discourse, [to make it] that the typical thing [i.e. online content] somebody sees is better, which is the broader goal of this. My view is there's two approaches to that, right? There's a more regulatory or product-oriented approach around limiting some existing things. Kind of a public health framing way of trying to make recommendation systems or other architecture things better. That's actually the project that was at Berkman Klein Centre[’s Project, Accountability Infrastructure in Public Health]. But if you're not going to do that, then your alternative is, "Hey, let's take the things that already are getting out there and try to make those things have more positive association." So you could take advertising dollars and try to do that. If you're a believer in a corporate version of that or a political campaign or nonprofit, maybe you think that's good. Maybe in many cases you don't. This is an alternative. This is saying, "These [creators] have organic reach. That reach is growing. Their centrality in these platforms is only growing. Can we try to change the culture around what it means to be the kind of person who does that?" And we're not going to get everybody to do it. No illusions of that. But the hope is that these creators will do it, and then they will also- People cycle through the program, some of them leave, they keep doing some of these things afterward, or their friends see it, or other creators see it. So it becomes more of an expectation that you're going to have this be part of the obligation. Part of the idea of having this reach is that you're going to take that power a bit more seriously.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:14:14] Yeah, that wider societal expectation that people who are creating content online and have particularly large followings, they're going to say things about socially important issues or politically important issues. There's definitely been that kind of bubbling up- Certainly in North America, at least. Obviously, the experience of the internet's different in a lot of different places. But I've seen that a lot, and it seems like you're then equipping people who are part of this fellowship to do that with facts and evidence behind them. So correct me if I'm wrong, but the program that you're talking about, there is a minimum threshold for number of followers. They have pretty large followings. Are there those smaller scale creators that are part of this? If not, are they part of the system in another way? You might have seen people talk about micro and nano influencers – these folks who have very small niche audiences, but they know those audiences really, really well.


Nate Lubin: [00:15:13] Yeah. So for our sake, because we can't have too many people in the program at once, just for our own logistics and time purposes, we are trying to have the biggest impact we can. So we do tend to try to get bigger influencers or bigger creators. That said, there are definitely smaller profiles. "Small" may vary, right? So, if a person with 50,000 subscribers on YouTube, by the standards of what we're doing, is small, that might be big by most people's consideration. So yeah, we have some of these folks who- One way to think about it is maybe they're not making a career out of it. They might be successful on some standard, but this is not their job. Maybe they want it to be their job. There's cases like that. And oftentimes, part of our theory is helping them grow their channels, helping them make it more successful. If we're doing a good job in helping them, we're not taking responsibility for what they do, but they're going to see this as part of their growth and do more of it over time. So that's definitely a section of the overall portfolio of any given year. And then part of it is just, "How do we make the impact as large as we can and support people who are interested in this at that scale?" 


Nate Lubin: [00:16:14] I think on your question about micro influencers or nano influencers, that [was] a big thing in the advertising side of this a few years ago. There's still versions of that that are important out there, so I don't mean to minimize it as a tactic. It's just sort of different. I think the more folks see themselves as consumers of this stuff as well as producers of this, the implication is that while there can be more monetization more broadly, I'm not sure that is the same purpose of what we're trying to do with this [program].


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:16:41] Yeah, that makes sense. Different sized audiences, different relationships to those audiences. It allows different kinds of next steps in terms of engaging in politics and creating political content or commercial content, or just for fun, no politics, no money involved whatsoever. It makes sense that the different relationships you have to different audiences would shift that. I want to take a second to map out what we're talking about here. So we've talked about this fellowship model that you have put forward. Then there's the fairly well established social media influencer marketing approach, which has been around for many years at this point, is a pretty clear pipeline [Consult: Social Media Influencers and the 2020 U.S. Election: Paying ‘Regular People’ for Digital Campaign Communication]. Are there other ways that you see content creators getting engaged in politics?


Nate Lubin: [00:17:30] Yeah. I think there's a kind of spectrum of opportunities there. Increasingly it's not coordinated, [for] starters. [What] you just described still sounds mostly coordinated directly with an organization. At least in America, that's increasingly not the case- At least on the official side. And so there's truly independent organic work, there's sort of semi-coordinated stuff, there's other kinds of non-candidate organizations that might be paying people to do various things. Hopefully in the law, not always in the law.


Nate Lubin: [00:17:59] And then I think there [is] increasingly some crossover between more traditional kinds of content creation and what we might consider influencer creation. So making a 30 second video as an ad is increasingly connected to what you might consider a creator's or influencer's kind of content. So there's still a separation there, but it's blurrier than it used to be. So there can be more integration there. I think you're going to see a lot more of that even than you see now. I don't know if there's another answer you're thinking about or another direction you're thinking about.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:18:31] No, not necessarily. I'm just trying to broaden the way we think about when an influencer is involved in politics, because in my research, I've been finding a lot of people just default to that social media influencer marketing side of things. And then when I heard about the Better Internet Initiative, I was like, "Oh, a really interesting different model from what I had been hearing." And then, of course, there's the people whose channels are about politics or about a particular social issue or cause. And so for them, it's very clear how they're engaging in politics. But there's this whole chunk of content creation that sometimes gets political. Isn't necessarily [created] through one of those coordinated campaigns or a formal fellowship, but also isn't, "Now my channel is a political channel." And that's the weird array of things that I'm interested in, because I think that they're getting missed when we're thinking about, "Is this being done in a way that serves democracy? Is this all above board? Are we sure that spending limits are being respected?" Those kinds of things. 


Nate Lubin: [00:19:38] I totally agree. I think that's an astute way to frame it, and also a tip of the iceberg of the way that that kind of thing manifests in terms of public interest content. I mean, just look at the stuff happening about Israel and Gaza right now [here is an article that provides examples of online disinformation regarding the Israel-Gaza conflict]. People who are making material have a right to make material. But also, there's a lot of people making material that don't know what they're talking about. And it's not necessarily coming from a place of trying to bring facts and accurate reporting and maybe solution-oriented narratives here, as opposed to efforts to incite. And again, there could be cases where that's legitimate. But the macro framing of it is a challenge when you're not coming at this from a [position of] trying to make things have more truth and less speculation with nonsense tied to it.


Nate Lubin: [00:20:25] So I think the other part we haven't talked about here is- Coming with the barrier to creating material going down with many of the gen AI [generative artificial intelligence] and other kinds of tools that are coming, the volume of stuff that is produced is going to only grow. And the number of eyeballs or ears that are out there to consume it is not going to change. Right? So the gatekeeping function in terms of intermediating between who are those people who are speculating but don't know what they're talking about versus the ones who are legitimate, more fact-checked, more real is only going to be more important. So I think there's a belief that these things will be democratizing forces. I'm a little less confident in that. I think they're actually going to make these preexisting divisions more important. And those architecture questions [are] more important, not less important.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:21:09] Yeah, I agree with you. I think that our information environment is only going to get messier and more confusing, but we also have opportunities to restructure and reframe what we think counts as credible, how we make those assessments. I really liked how you were describing the creators working with your program. In their videos, they're going to be saying, "This is who I've talked to. This is what I found. This is what I did to check up on that." Because even beyond delivering the information on that particular issue, that's also helping teach media and digital literacy skills as you're going through that real example. And so I think regardless of whether it's part of a political ad campaign or a fellowship campaign or whatever, having that kind of media literacy embedded in the way content is being put out seems really helpful.


Nate Lubin: [00:22:02] Yeah. Thank you for saying that. I think this model is one that we are hoping will expand. I think there are other kinds of organizations and groups for which this kind of a model could be applicable. So universities, absolutely. Right? And there's lots of creators on these channels who are basically doing university classes or Khan Academy or whatever. That's awesome, right? But it's still branded as what it is, which [will] appeal more to people who are looking for it. Which is great for what it is. And then there's going to be another opportunity to try to tap into some of those networks. And we did a project with- I won't say the name, but a big nonprofit that does economic messaging, nonprofit work and we did a matchmaking project with them. We said, "Hey, here's a cohort of existing creators in the fellowship who are really interested in this topic and would be able to speak to it." And rather than having it be a one off, "Make a single thing." It was like, "No, we're going to do this over a period of months." And so that may not show up in the actual video that they make. It may or may not, but even if it doesn't, they're more comfortable. They have the context more right. That relationship is stronger. I think that kind of thing is, over the long-term, what we need to do more of. Because they are going to be more able to ask the harder questions, they'll be more able to engage with harder topics, and they'll be more credible when they talk about them.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:23:16] Yeah, and that makes sense, especially when we contrast it to a typical influencer marketing campaign where it's a lot more transactional. It's like, "Here's the content I want you to say, for my brand or for my party or whatever. You go say it, and then we're done with that." When it's more of a relationship over time, the creator might actually also be building content over time. They are getting to learn, but also their audience is not suddenly being like, "Why are you talking about voting? You've never talked about voting before. Why are you talking about climate change? You've never talked about climate change before." When there's a longer term engagement as the base plan, that shifts the way that a creator can actually engage with their audience, and I would guess, shifts the likelihood of their audience being like, "Okay, I don't trust you anymore."


Nate Lubin: [00:24:07] Yeah, absolutely. And this is sort of up to the participants in the program to decide how to do that. They're going to know better what will and won't do that. They don't always do it right. But over time, they hopefully get better at it. But I actually think that's right.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:24:19] I want to zoom out for a second, thinking about content creators and influencers in politics more broadly. One of the things that you hear a lot is [that] many creators don't want to get political at all, because it really reduces their ability to make brand deals, and it can mean that they can only connect with particular brands or particular campaigns, or they're going to be delegitimized in the eyes of some of their audience [Consult: the perceived pros and cons of influencers getting political (PDF, 399 KB)]. Is that something that you are seeing still? Is that kind of an old version of what creators think? The data in academia is always a few years behind because we go through peer review. So what are you seeing?


Nate Lubin: [00:25:02] I think it's true in some cases and not true in others, which is an unsatisfying answer but is the reality. There are absolutely many cases of creators who won't touch certain topics, or don't want to talk about certain things. In some ways, that's true for almost everybody, of course. I think there's a self-selection here. If you're wanting to participate in a program like this, it's because you believe in some version of the topics that you want to engage with. We don't tell people what to say, right? They're selecting what topics to actually make material about. It has to be within a universe of applicability to the program, it has to be fact-checked and accurate, but there is a lot, a lot, a lot of deference within that in terms of what they choose. So, that's intentional so that they avoid the harder parts of that. But that said, they're going to sometimes cross lines, they're sometimes going to annoy people in their materials. That's happened occasionally and that's part of the territory. I mean, I think there's a reality of trying to do educational material as opposed to brand material. So if you say, "Go buy Coke," people know what that is. It sort of flashes by on the screen and it is what it is. If you're saying, "This is an accurate description of COVID education in the height of COVID, and here's what doctors are saying. What you may have heard is don't eat horse medicine." Whatever it is. My view is that you oftentimes actually want to have a little bit of friction, right? If there's no friction, that's a sign that what you're saying is not actually educating people enough, because there's a challenge that's kind of inherent in that. You don't want to do too much and annoy people for the sake of it. But if it's going down that easy, you're probably not engaging them enough. And this is not really a point about creators necessarily, this profile, although it is applicable to them. I think it's broader. We've seen this in many other cases.


Nate Lubin: [00:26:41] There's a study that I was a part of a few years ago where we were comparing the persuasion effects and engagement effects of the same pieces of content. In a prior age, people were saying, "Oh, if it has high engagement, it must be more effective." And that's just not true. If it's higher engagement, it's higher engagement. Maybe people see it. It doesn't mean it's actually persuading you of anything. And if anything, the data was showing that at the margins, it was the opposite. The things that were more engaging tended to be less persuasive. And I think that's a reflection of this. If it's more engaging with many, many, many caveats about maybe polarizing, maybe you're having different extremes picking up the baton. But generally speaking, that's a reflection of at least for some segment of the population, they're in strong agreement and you're getting them to agree with you as opposed to [getting them to think], "Oh, I need to think about that. I need to kind of grapple with that a little bit more." That's more the place where it's easier to be informing somebody rather than just light up the thing they already agree with.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:27:36] Yeah, I mean, there's definitely value in reinforcing ideas and reinforcing beliefs. That is a type of influence also. But in terms of changing opinions or changing behaviors, there needs to be enough of a change in what's being said for it to actually lead to something different.


Nate Lubin: [00:27:53] Yeah.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:27:54] One of the other main ways that I've heard the use of influencers talked about in campaigns and in politics is thinking about influencers as almost a replacement for microtargeting, in a weird way. The idea is basically these content creators build their business on knowing their audience really, really well, and they have a very targeted segment of the population that they can connect with. And so, you can send messages to that particular targeted segment via those influencers, and you might send slightly different messages via different creators. What are your thoughts on that?


Nate Lubin: [00:28:32] That would be a different thing. I don't have a direct stake in that game at the moment. I think I'm a little skeptical is the truthful answer. I think that assumes that campaigns are able to do that. To have that level of knowledge is probably hard for most organizations. I think the version that would just be like- If they were willing to give these partners more deference in the way they talk about things, then maybe that could happen, but that's probably not in the interest of most direct advocacy content. And so, I think it's much more about the reach than the specification for that kind of a thing. And most creators are not going to want the responsibility to do that. They're going to say, "Tell me what to say and I'm going to say it. You're going to pay me and that's going to be that." Hopefully within the law.


Nate Lubin: [00:29:16] I think the microtargeting side has really always been much more about reaching the right people than it has been about catering a very, very specific, different message. At least the part that's real, right? There's the whole Cambridge Analytica [scandal] thing. It's like, that's always been overblown. There's not to say that targeted advertising can't be effective. It obviously can be, but it's less about, "We're going to have materially different topics that we're talking about," and much more of, "Okay, they're going to be some nuances to make this thing be more effective and having some deployment here." That's more what it's about.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:29:49] Yeah, that's a really helpful way to start to pick apart that, because especially with Cambridge Analytica, you hear micro-targeting and people get really afraid. But the idea of finding the people who are likely voters, [who] might be swing voters, [and] figuring out how to get them to the polls is pretty fundamental to campaigning and has been for a very long time.


Nate Lubin: [00:30:09] Yeah, absolutely. And another thing that I do is a survey research company called Survey 160, which does text message polling. And you see the same thing there, which is [that] you're not trying to deviate in what you're telling people. That would undermine the research value. But you're able to reach different people than you could with a different method and maybe that helps you understand. If you're a government that's trying to understand a constituency, you have to have a broad profile of people that you reach. Or if you are a political group or a nonprofit, right? There's going to be data that would come back from something like that that might help you understand subgroups and more meaningful ways for deployment. But again, it's not going to, for the most part, change the input side of it. It's going to be the output side of it.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:30:51] Super interesting and we could talk for so much longer, but we are coming up on time. So I will end with my usual pop quiz. How would you define what constitutes a political influencer?


Nate Lubin: [00:31:03] My immediate reaction is that is a much broader category than what we've been talking about for this conversation. And I think most everybody is a political influencer in some way.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:31:14] I think that's one of the big problems with the terms political influencer. Do you have a term that you like better for describing these content creators who get political or are engaged in politics in some way? What terms do you like to use?


Nate Lubin: [00:31:28] Well, what I said before I think is still what I would say, [which] is "creators." Yeah, the noun you want doesn't really exist, I think. But in the sense that you mean, a political influencer is somebody who is spending time on their channel with an intention to advocate for a political outcome or policy outcome of some kind. And I think that is increasingly common. I think you've seen the incentives of these platforms and products have shifted that much more. And particularly, as the world becomes increasingly divided by political lines, as opposed to other kinds of lines, those cleavages mean people are going to want to make material about that. So, I think that is the primary description of these folks, [which] is people who are making that part of the identity of their platforms.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:32:13] All right. That was our episode looking at political influencers, political content creators, whatever term you want to use. As always, we've got a bunch of links to different resources in the show notes, and you can head over to polcommtech.com for annotated transcripts available in English and French, that link out to a ton more resources and further reading. This season of Wonks and War Rooms is supported in part by the University of Ottawa's University Research Chair in Politics, Communication and Technology. I also want to acknowledge that I am recording from the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people, and I want to pay respect to the Algonquin people, acknowledging their long standing relationship with this unceded territory.




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