Former New York City mayor and billionaire oligarch Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign hasn’t had the best week since the Feb. 19 Democratic primary debate in Nevada, where he was more or less mechanically separated into meat byproducts by the rest of the field on everything from his support for stop-and-frisk policing to his namesake firm’s numerous sexual harassment lawsuits. Bloomberg’s favorability rating took a 20 percent hit among his own party (including a 30 point hit among moderates) in a Morning Consult poll, and he’s suspended public events in the meantime to prep for the next debate on Feb. 25.
But Team Bloomberg has continued its efforts to become the most insufferable campaign on social media—no small feat, mind you—where Bloomberg campaign-affiliated accounts have been converted into malevolent cringe factories and the campaign is reportedly doling out piles of cash to get someone, anyone to post nice things about him to little avail.
Much has been written about Bloomberg’s seeming “attention hacking” strategy, in which his campaign has hired Instagram influencers to post bad memes and tweeted torrents of egregiously stupid content like meatballs with his face superimposed on them (or videos of the Gingerbread Man from Shrek on Donald Trump’s shoulder). According to that line of thinking, Bloomberg has made a strategic decision to go full-throttle Extremely Online to generate a reaction, any reaction, in the hopes of dominating the digital attention economy in a zero-sum brawl over eyeballs. In other words, it’s using the same social media strategy as soulless brands trying to seem relatable, like Planters killing off Mr. Peanut or skin-care firms stealing viral Instagram memes.
There is, however, a major difference here, which is that Planters is marketing peanuts, a tasty food product, to people who actively want to consume peanuts. Bloomberg’s campaign is marketing Bloomberg, a relentlessly uncharismatic, conservative billionaire with a lengthy record of conspicuously racist and sexist behavior and who “jokes” to other rich people behind closed doors that his highest priority as president would be protecting bankers, to Democrats at a time the party is swinging left. Killing off Mr. Peanut is perfectly aligned with Planters’ brand priorities, whereas being as annoying as possible online just highlights the yawning disconnect between Bloomberg and most of the Democratic base (let alone voters in general).
It’s bad enough when Bloomberg taunts Trump on Twitter with cringey jabs about how his rich friends agree Trump is a financial failure. But it’s much worse when Bloomberg’s campaign goes after other Democrats. Take this bizarre (and later deleted) thread on Monday in which Team Bloomberg tweeted a video of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders noting that Communist Cuba had an effective literacy program and used it as an opportunity to spew aggressively unfunny fake quotes of Sanders justifying cannibalism, gulags, Syrian war crimes, and North Korean prison camps. It’s not clear who this is meant to appeal to; Sanders has overwhelming support among young Democrats, who are exactly the demographic most likely to spend the most time online and also read this for filth.
Elsewhere, Bloomberg tweeted out a video selectively edited to make it look like opponents including Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar were flummoxed by his debate performance. He’s also cut an ad consisting of supposedly threatening tweets from Sanders supporters, which could be charitably described as unlikely to convince anyone that random tweets are a big election issue. Some of the tweets appeared to actually be from pro-Trump accounts. (As Vox has noted, Bloomberg’s efforts to portray the nomination race as a two-person contest has mostly benefited Sanders so far, though on Monday CNBC reported Bloomberg was preparing to double down with blitz of negative ads against the senator.)
In addition to the transparent pandering, Bloomberg is trying to simply buy influence online. The Los Angeles Times reported this weekend that his campaign is hiring 500 people to post Bloomberg-friendly content targeting Californians at a rate of $2,500 a month, on top of the aforementioned payments to influencers with large audiences. This too has struggled to build any kind of organic audience. Many of those involved “often use the exact text, images and links provided to them by the campaign,” the Times wrote, with the extremely expensive effort resulting in little more than a “stiff outpouring of tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts with little to no engagement and sometimes half-hearted text messages.”
Twitter banned some of the accounts over the weekend for “platform manipulation,” possibly under the impression many of them were bots. And perhaps confirming suspicions that some Bloomberg campaign workers are there to lift from his wallet, four out of five contacted by the Times told the paper they were motivated by money, while one was a Sanders supporter. That individual followed up an official campaign text to a friend with a separate message reading “Please disregard, vote Bernie or Warren,” according to the Times. The paper added that while the team performed close to goals on mass texting, it only hit ten percent of its phone outreach goal and just six percent of engagement its engagement goal on an app that “facilitates texting personal contacts and posting on social media.”
“I told my students to sign up,” UCLA professor Tim Groeling told the L.A. Times. “It’s like free money—probably the easiest $2,500-a-month job they’re going to get.”
This all amounts to a relatively small element of Bloomberg’s strategy, which so far has involved $500 million ad spends and preparations to win a contested convention even if he lags behind in the vote. But Bloomberg’s immense resources means that anything his campaign collides with feels the impact. As the New York Times reported this weekend, Bloomberg’s spammy strategy has collided with platform rules at Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and elsewhere concerning artificial engagement-gaming techniques, paid political advertising disclosures, and disinformation. The response has gone down largely the same as it has before: the platforms don’t get involved in any political controversy that could lead to backlash, relying on the vagueness of their own rules.
So perhaps this is all accelerating the disintegration of the internet’s already paper-thin norms and pushing the limits of how platforms can be gamed during elections out of sheer self-funded inertia rather than any plausible strategy. But hey. Did you see the meatball that looks like Bloomberg?