Mike Bloomberg is Hacking Your Attention (essay-30)
Today, after the Las Vegas Democratic debate, the media stupids are tripping over themselves to tell us how badly Bloomberg did at last night’s debate. FOOLS every single one of them – they’ve leaned nothing in the last three years.
Shamelessness and conflict equal attention. Attention equals power.
By Charlie Warzel
Mr. Warzel is an Opinion writer at large
February 13, 2020
Mike Bloomberg and his presidential campaign respect the fundamental equation governing the modern internet: Shamelessness and conflict equal attention. And attention equals power.
Since declaring his campaign late last fall, the former New York City mayor has used his billions to outspend his competition in an attempt to hack the country’s attention. It seems to be working — this column is yet more proof.
There are his ubiquitous television, YouTube and Facebook ads. There are his tweets, many of which are weird enough to generate the right amount of viral confusion or are pugnacious enough toward Donald Trump to provoke the ire of the presidential Twitter feed. Then there are the influencers. Starting this week the Bloomberg campaign enlisted the help of a number of popular meme-makers to create sponsored Instagram content for the candidate. The rollout was extremely effective, generating substantial praise and disdain. The ratio doesn’t really matter — what matters is that people were talking about Mr. Bloomberg, a candidate who skipped Iowa and New Hampshire and is nonetheless a top-tier contender for the Democratic nomination.
These Extremely Online tactics fit the larger ethos of the Bloomberg campaign, which feels like a control group experiment for a study positing, “What if you ran a presidential campaign so optimized for efficiency and reach that you cut the human element of campaigning altogether?” As my newsroom colleague Matt Flegenheimer wrote in January, Mr. Bloomberg is not really playing chess, “he is more accurately working to bury the board with a gusher of cash so overpowering that everyone forgets how the game was always played in the first place.”This is certainly true from a media buying standpoint. Mr. Bloomberg has blanketed the airwaves with television and radio ads, spending over $250 million since beginning his campaign in November. Online, his campaign is even more prolific — NBC News calculated that he’s spent more than $1 million a day on average during the past two weeks on Facebook. He’s spent so much that marketers suggest the flood of ads might be driving up prices for the Trump campaign and taking eyeballs away from the president’s own buckshot campaign to own voters’ news feeds.
At the heart of these tactics is a genuine shamelessness that fits perfectly not just with politics but also the internet at large. Mr. Bloomberg is unapologetic about — and unafraid to hide — the money he’s spending. That transactional approach is an excellent match for online influencer culture, where young internet celebrities aren’t often overly particular about accepting good money to endorse suspect products. In the Instagram meme influencers, the former mayor seems to have found a kindred spirit of attention economy capitalists. “I would be down — bread is bread,” a teenager who runs the meme page @BigDadWhip, told the Time’s Taylor Lorenz when asked about posting sponsored content on behalf of the candidate.
On Twitter, where some Democratic hopefuls have adopted a “they go low, we go high” mentality, Bloombergians have instead opted to wade into the mud and wrestle with Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed. The strategy plays up controversy at every available opportunity to generate attention.
After news broke that the president mocked Mr. Bloomberg’s height in a Super Bowl interview with Sean Hannity, the Bloomberg campaign spokeswoman Julie Wood fired back with a Trumpian line of her own: “The president is lying. He is a pathological liar who lies about everything: his fake hair, his obesity, and his spray-on tan.”
The back and forth generated a medium-size controversy and news cycle of its own, the subtext of which was Mr. Bloomberg as a worthy sparring partner for Mr. Trump. Tweets and cable chyrons flashed with the former mayor’s name. Earned media. Mission accomplished.
What the Bloomberg campaign seems to have bought into is that, when you lean into the potent combination of content creation and shamelessness, any reaction it provokes is a good reaction. This strategy provides a certain amount of freedom to a candidate when you don’t care what people think of you — as long as they’re thinking of you.
Take Mr. Bloomberg’s brazen spending, which has prompted claims that he’s an oligarch trying to bypass democracy by buying the presidency. Plenty of candidates would get defensive at such speculation. Mr. Bloomberg is unfazed. Who cares?! At least he’s in the conversation. More than that, the conversation is now centered around the idea that he could very well win.
The whole thing sounds Trumpian because it is. The Trump campaign was unabashed in 2016 and beyond about its plan to “flood the zone” with garbage or ragebait. The strategy worked in part because it engaged and energized his base. And, as Sean Illing detailed recently at Vox, it exploited a media ecosystem that is built to give attention to lies (in order to debunk them) and outlandishness (because it’s entertaining or newsworthy).
What remains to be seen is how Mr. Bloomberg will handle criticism in the fight for attention. The president could punch back at critics — high or low — since he’s unencumbered by either shame or decency. Trump supporters love him because cruelty is the point. But Mr. Bloomberg won’t be able to mock critics of his beloved stop-and-frisk policies (for which he recently apologized), for instance. Unlike Mr. Trump, there are lines Mr. Bloomberg will most likely not cross.
Other Democratic candidates have tried to apply Mr. Trump’s media hacking lessons — “I would be lying if I said I hadn’t studied some of his approach with the media and what worked, what didn’t work,” Lis Smith, a top adviser to Pete Buttigieg, recently admitted. But few are able to replicate the tactics. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez runs a similar playbook online, but hers is far more genuine — the product of being a millennial who is innately very good at social media and who also happens to be a congresswoman.
The Bloomberg campaign is far less organic. This week’s Instagram meme campaign is a great example. Though it was a shameless attempt on behalf of the 77-year-old billionaire to buy off teenage influencers, the campaign perfectly exploited attention by being inscrutable. “It’s the most successful ad that I’ve ever posted,” one of the influencers told the Times. “I think a lot of it came from people being confused whether or not it was real.”Release some memes. Sow some light chaos in the timeline. Send reporters on a wild-goose chase. Meanwhile, this happens:
Who cares about inorganic motives if the attention they generate is very organic?
The strategy is, as we’re seeing, politically effective. Just ask Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor. Mr. Patrick and Mr. Bloomberg announced their campaigns around the same time. They have fairly comparable records of governing. One struggled to raise money, chose not to engage and faded into the depths of obscurity. The other, the one with the war chest and shamelessness, is still in the race.
Attention is like television airtime in a battleground state: There’s a finite amount of it. For Democrats whose prime interest is defeating Donald Trump at all costs, this is exciting. But the strategy is also deeply cynical, exhausting and potentially damaging for those of us left to consume it. For citizens looking for a movement or big, structural change or even just a genuine vision for the future of the country, the strategy is disheartening — just another brazen attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator instincts of the internet that leaves a sinking feeling that shameless memes, Twitter dunks and toxic screaming into the algorithmic void have become politics as usual.
Or maybe it’s always been this way. After all, what is politics if not a long, well-funded attempt at hacking people’s attention?