Campaign Press Aides Move From the Shadows to Stars on Social Media

From a New York Times story by Michael C. Bender headlined “Campaign Press Aides Move From the Shadows to Stars on Social Media”:

MINDEN, Nev. — As Adam Laxalt, the Republican candidate for Senate in Nevada, ambled along a throng of Trump supporters at a recent rally and posed for pictures, it was his campaign’s communications director, Courtney Holland, who was really working the crowd.

With an iPhone in her left hand, Ms. Holland used her right one to whip up more enthusiasm from the red-capped Republicans gathered behind her boss. As the crowd took the cue, Ms. Holland framed her shot and blasted the footage out onto the campaign’s various social media channels — as well as her own.

With more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 70,000 others on Instagram, Ms. Holland reflects a new breed of campaign aides — those whose online profiles more closely resemble social media influencers than traditional behind-the-scenes press operatives.

The shift seizes on the transformation in how American voters receive information about their candidates, and is changing the way campaign press shops function. Both parties are increasingly using social media to build loyalty to a particular political brand, and targeting critics and journalists to energize supporters and drive online contributions. Instead of drafting political positions for their candidates, these staff members take to social media to make their own statements.

Working her first political campaign, Ms. Holland has shown little interest in dealing with mainstream reporters to shape stories about Nevada’s closely watched Senate race — and she didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article. She has used her Twitter account, however, to repeatedly post negative information about Hunter Biden, President Biden’s son, and criticize Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic incumbent in the race, for not participating in more TV interviews.

Ms. Holland’s posts on Instagram — posing with fellow conservatives or modeling Republican merchandise — have regularly drawn hundreds or even thousands of likes. Several of her memes attacking Mr. Biden have been viewed more than 100,000 times.

“Influencers are being subsumed into the political apparatus on the right and the left,” said Samuel C. Woolley, who has studied social media and politics as the project director of the propaganda research team at the University of Texas at Austin. “There has been a blurring of the line between influencers and their positions as staffers that has historically been behind the camera.”

In Florida, Christina Pushaw had about 2,000 Twitter followers before Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed her as his press secretary in May 2021. She now has more than 220,000 followers — far more than Lt. Gov Jeanette Nuñez and nearly as many as Casey DeSantis, Florida’s first lady.

Ms. Pushaw built her following with an aggressive social media persona that sometimes includes five or six dozen postings a day, often attacking Democrats and the mainstream media. She has called the president a “seemingly senile 79-year-old aspiring dictator” and suggested that a neo-Nazi rally in Orlando had been staged by Democrats, although she later deleted that tweet.

Last summer, Twitter locked her account for 12 hours for violating rules on “abusive behavior” after The Associated Press said her conduct led to a reporter receiving threats and other online abuse.

Ms. Pushaw, who is now the DeSantis campaign’s rapid response director, has recently urged her fellow Republicans to stop engaging at all with the mainstream media, which she often refers to as “liberal,” “corporate” or “legacy media.”

“My working theory is that if ALL conservatives simply stop talking to them, the legacy media will lose any shred of credibility or interest to Americans who follow politics,” Ms. Pushaw wrote in August.

Ms. Pushaw didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Mr. DeSantis has defended his aide, saying he views the criticism of her as a sign of her success.

“You can try to smear me or anyone in my administration all you want to,” he told reporters in June. “All that’s going to do is embolden us to continue moving forward for the people of Florida.”

The pugnacity from Ms. Pushaw and other Republicans has been deeply influenced by former President Donald J. Trump, whose combative political style has been defined by both his aggressiveness on social media and his sparring with the media. Mr. Trump bestowed his top social media aide in the White House, Dan Scavino, with the title of “assistant to the president,” while former President Barack Obama’s digital director, Jason Goldman, was a deputy assistant.

Still, Mr. Obama and his team helped pave the way for turning press teams into content creators. The Obama White House regularly produced photos and videos packaged specifically for direct consumption among their own followers on social media.

More recently, some of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaigns were loosely linked to armies of fanatical social media followers who teamed up to bully critics, fellow Democrats and reporters.

During that race, a relentless group of superfans for Vice President Kamala Harris, known as #KHive, targeted Senator Bernie Sanders, her rival in that campaign, and numerous reporters.

Reecie Colbert, one of the group’s more outspoken members, issued a warning during the campaign to Ms. Harris’s critics in a podcast about the group, saying, “I wanted them to know I will stomp a hole in you if you come for Kamala.” She later told The Los Angeles Times that she was speaking for herself, not the group.

Ms. Harris has thanked KHive for its support of her on Twitter, and her husband, Doug Emhoff, regularly interacts with them.

Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist, has long maintained an active social media profile. In 2012, when she was working on Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign as the rapid response director, Twitter temporarily locked her profile after she sent so many tweets during a presidential debate that she set off an internal alarm at the company designed to identify bots.

But Ms. Smith warned that campaigns can go too far in letting their social media presence define them.

“Social media is an increasingly big part of the job, but not in a good way,” she said. “Candidates who use social media in an authentic way can reinforce their strengths. But if you let Twitter supplant the hard work of dealing with reporters, you’re essentially breaking down a legitimate line of communications with the public.”

Ryan James Girdusky, a conservative activist with over 110,000 followers on Twitter, said having staff members whose agility on social media could drive attention to a candidate’s message could be a significant advantage during a campaign.

“When you have a new social media account, you have to build followers,” said Mr. Girdusky, a co-author of the book, “They’re Not Listening: How the Elites Created the National Populist Revolution.”

“When you’re behind the eight ball, it’s definitely a major plus to have people who are known in the conservative movement and bring that level of credibility,” he added.

Michael C. Bender is a political correspondent and the author of “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost.”

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