Campaigns & Elections is the top non-partisan publication for political consultants. They also host a range of conferences and events for political strategists and Republican and Democratic political consulting firms.

This past April, they hosted CampaignTech East 2018 in Washington D.C. They brought together a who’s who of political consultants from all sides of the spectrum with expertise in everything from digital campaigns to cyber security.

I hemmed and hawed about attending myself. The conference was expensive. However, I thought it would be worth it for the networking opportunity with such a wide variety of experts present. My expectations were blown out of the water. The sessions were truly a firehose of information, and I was hanging on every word of it. Here are my key takeaways from the event.

Top 6 Takeaways From CampaignTech 2018 For Political Consultants

Oh yes, that’s right. I’m doing a listicle. Buckle up.

1) The Love Affair Between Political Strategists and Facebook Is Over

In panel after panel, the frustration with Facebook as a platform was palpable. It wasn’t just how it was manipulated in 2016. It wasn’t even about its late, weak, and ham-handed response. No, the frustration is entirely practical.

Nobody is happy with the current platform for running ads. Everyone is cynical about Facebook’s effectiveness from here on out. Yet they all expect to still be plugging away at it because that is where the people are and their candidate clients are wanting to be engaged on the platform.

When all is said and done, I definitely got the sense that most political consultants would be happy if Facebook just disappeared.

In my view, all of the cynicism above goes a bit too far. Things may look dark now, but Facebook is working out the kinks. It’s billion-dollar business model is built entirely on its advertising platform. That are going to get it figured out in a way that is effective for everyone.

2) Political Consultants (Still) Love Email

-But they can’t agree on anything else about it. I’m not kidding.

One panel couldn’t stop talking about how long-form email is the next big thing in fundraising. Then another panel said the exact opposite.

At the end of the day, do what works congruently or your campaign. If your candidate has a reputation for being a nerdy policy wonk, and voters LIKE that about them, then a longer email with techno-babble sprinkled in would definitely be the way to go. On the other hand, if they’re a straight-shooter that cuts through the bull, then short and to the point is the way to stay on message.

It seems like an obvious point, but it was discussed at the conference as if it was a compromise position between the two extremes.

3) Twitter Bots Are Completely Under The Radar

While the conference was buzzing with talk of Facebook and Fake Video (I’ll get to that in a minute), the role of Twitter and, specifically, Twitter bots in 2016 was only mentioned when I brought it up in a Q & A.

Its true that Twitter was not used in exactly the same way as Facebook was. Twitter was a major part of the Russian Op though.

4) Republicans Are Willfully Unconcerned About Countering Fake News

The Mic-Drop moment of the conference, for me, was during the previously mentioned panel. It was in exchange between moderator Paul Sherman and Daria Grastara, a political advisor for several Republican digital campaigns. Sherman asked. “Is the GOP side concerned about Russian influence?”
Grastara seemed momentarily surprised by the question. Then she smiled and leaned into the mic like the answer was obvious: “No.”

In the context of the rest of the conference, the moment was jarring. Consider the following:

  • Russian influence in the 2016 election was taken for granted by the bipartisan experts at the conference.
  • There was wide consensus that the technology used (Facebook aside) has only improved since 2016.
  • Russia expert Nina Jankowicz gave a show-stopping talk about Russia’s history of disinformation tactics. In it, she made the case that if there are no consequences for bad behavior, they’ll double-down.
  • She also made the case that they could care less about Trump or Sanders. What they want is to sow doubt and distrust in our democratic institutions.
  • Oh, and, by the way, trust in our institutions decreased by 37% in one year.

Failure to see Russian social media manipulation as an immediate existential threat and be looking at countermeasures can only be interpreted as grossly negligent.

5) Nobody Is Concerned About Campaign Information Security (CampSec?)

A candidate hires a political advisor out of trust. They trust them to take care of their blindspots. Sure, different political consultants have different specialties, but they should at least make an effort to have a perfunctory understanding of as many areas as possible.

The conference organizers were clearly concerned about cybersecurity, as they scheduled workshops and keynotes around it. Yet those were the sessions with the smallest crowds.

Google had representatives posted right next to the doors to the main room of the conference handing out free USB security keys for their “Advanced Protection Program,” yet those guys looked bored the whole time with nobody talking to them.

With all of the talk the past couple years about hacking and cyber war, it seems like people aren’t listening. Not the attendees of this conference any way.

6) 2016 Was Just a Warm Up

You probably saw this one coming.
For the most part the political consulting world has not learned how to make the process any better moving forward. To top it off, we have to get ready for this:

2016’s “Fake news” problem is going to look cute compared to what’s on the horizon. Fake audio is getting awful close to this as well.

The reality is, though, that the tech is already good enough to fool people. We see what we are told to see. There’s abundant research out there on how unreliable eyewitness testimony in a courtroom is. In short, the brain fills in gaps around the edges when we are focused on observing (or remembering) something in a particular way.

At the conference the consencus was that education and awareness is the only way to confront the spread of fake video paired with fake audio. I fear it may be too late for that. I have some ideas of my own, but will save those for a later blog post.

Wrapping It Up:

I’ll be really interested to attend the event in the lead up to 2020 and see how the discussion has changed. Hopefully I will look back at this blog post and be able to say that all of the concerns have been addressed.