New York (AFP)
Paid influencers, memes, billionaire Michael Bloomberg uses all the tools to promote his candidacy for the Democratic primary on social networks, testing the ability of platforms to supervise these practices.
They have flourished everywhere on Instagram for a few weeks, these screenshots of private conversations on online messaging: exchanges - assembled from scratch - between an influencer and the official account of Michael Bloomberg.
Each time, the candidate uses an offbeat tone to ask these well-attended users to give him visibility, while appearing to be in the know.
Even if everyone points out at the top of the message that the Democratic candidate paid them, "the Bloomberg campaign team is taking us into unknown territory," said Emerson Brooking, a researcher at the Atlantic Council think tank.
Facebook encourages users, paid by the ex-mayor of New York to participate in these montages and relay them, not to hide this remuneration, but can not ensure that this is systematically the case.
In addition, even when identified, these messages are not counted by the world's leading social network in its inventory of candidate advertisements, created in 2019 and freely available for consultation.
All of this "is done to create the appearance of spontaneous internet support that may not exist," says Emerson Brooking.
"Bloomberg highlights the vulnerability" of social networks, says Eric Wilson, specialist in digital strategy for Republican candidates.
Even more difficult to unmask, "memes", these viral comic images that Michael Bloomberg creates for reference accounts paid by the candidate, who breaks all records for advertising spending with $ 500 million spent since the launch of his countryside.
Once the image begins to circulate, many no longer know that it was made with money from a political campaign. Again, social networks are struggling to frame these tactics.
"Platforms react and adapt in real time", observes Lindsay Gorman, researcher at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an organization fighting against manipulations of the democratic process.
Many are asking the American Federal Election Commission (FEC) to clarify its rules to avoid ambiguities as much as possible, even if the institution believes that its texts are sufficiently clear as they stand.
In mid-February, FEC official Ellen Weintraub publicly asked Facebook to be more proactive on the subject.
The techniques complained of had "never been used by a candidate, but have been used successfully by brands", notes Mark Jablonowski, of the digital campaign company DSPolitical.
On television too, Michael Bloomberg dares more than the other Democratic candidates.
He notably stood out this week with an advertisement which wrongly led to believe that his rivals in the last Democratic debate had remained unanswered, for more than 15 seconds, to one of his questions.
"Bloomberg pushes the limits of what is possible because it can do anything" financially, analyzes Ken Goldstein, professor of political science at the University of San Francisco. "But I'm not sure it goes beyond the limits of ethics."
- "No substance" -
There remains the question of the effectiveness of this strategy on voters.
"The candidates worry a lot about the efficiency, the optimization of their expenses," analyzes Ken Goldstein, professor of political science at the University of San Francisco.
But not Michael Bloomberg, 9th fortune in the world according to Forbes, ready to spend money on "absolutely everything that could have a positive impact".
Brian Freeman, CEO of Heartbeat, a company that connects brands and influencers, said that if the campaign with them was brilliant, the candidate Bloomberg did not transform the essay.
"It was a blow to get attention, but without any substance," he said.
After these "posts", "we never saw him again on our sons" of topicality, estimates Mr. Freeman. "He did not start a conversation with this audience" of which he had drawn attention on social networks.
Some influencers who participated in his campaign have even been harshly criticized.
In the future, "how many of them will take the risk of being sold?" wonders Travis Nelson Ridout, professor at the University of Washington State.
"They risk losing part of their audience", which should encourage them not to repeat, says Brian Freeman.
However, and even if the historically high budget of candidate Bloomberg makes it a special case, he believes that this will not prevent other candidates from investing in similar campaigns.
For Ken Goldstein, "this is not the last time we talk about candidates who pay influencers".
© 2020 AFP