Michael Bloomberg's “bomb carpet” on social networks

Michael Bloomberg faces rival Bernie Sanders in the February 19 debate between Democratic nomination contestants.
Michael Bloomberg faces rival Bernie Sanders in the February 19 debate between Democratic nomination contestants. David Becker / REUTERS

It's unprecedented, even for the United States: in just a few weeks, Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and candidate for the Democratic nomination for the American presidential election, spent more than $ 509 million in political, media and social media advertising to support his campaign. A drop in the comfortable fortune of the multi-billionaire, estimated by the magazine Forbes to $ 62 billion.

On the Internet, the amounts spent are astronomical: the candidate is the biggest buyer of political ads on Google ($ 41 million in a few months, against $ 12 million for the main committee supporting Donald Trump in more than a year). On Facebook, Bloomberg spent nearly $ 10 million on ads in his official account alone in the past week, and more than $ 53 million since the campaign began. Most commercials attack Donald Trump and his record, but also his Democratic rivals, starting with Bernie Sanders, the left wing candidate of the party who is currently running for the nomination in head. An average of 30,000 American Internet users see an advertisement for Mr. Bloomberg's campaign every minute, according to calculations by the American press.

A campaign financed by its own funds

These staggering budgets have attracted a lot of media attention in the United States, because candidate advertising spending has traditionally been one of the indicators of good health in an election campaign in the United States. But Mr. Bloomberg's case is special in more than one way: firstly because, unlike most candidates, his funding comes from his own funds, while his rivals depend on donations from individuals or companies . Unlike other candidates, Mr. Bloomberg's expenses therefore do not indicate the extent of popular support he enjoys.

Above all, these expenses are also a reflection of a particular campaign strategy, which bet everything on "Super Tuesday" – Tuesday March 3, 15 states will vote for the Democratic nomination, including the very populous California. The former New York husband therefore invested heavily in an advertising "bomb carpet" in the hope of coming out victorious from this key stage in the designation process.

Is this strategy effective? The numerous studies carried out in the United States on the effectiveness of political advertisements show that yes, these can play a role in an election, but that they are not a miracle recipe. They mobilize supporters and help convince the undecided, but they can only very rarely change the opinion of an elector who has already made his choice. Strangled by his rivals, on February 19, in a debate during which the questionable record of his three terms in mayor of New York was debated at length, the billionaire Democratic candidate is falling in the polls. Opinion poll after debate shows it is the first choice only for 17% of Democratic voters, compared to 30% for Bernie Sanders, and the proportion of Democrats with a "bad opinion" of it has increased ten points in a few days, from 25% to 35%.

Another candidacy shows that the amounts invested are not a guarantee of success: Tom Steyer, billionaire and philanthropist, capped at around 2% in voting intentions, despite spending on notable online advertising. He spent more than $ 7 million on Google ads, about the same amount spent by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Misleading messages

But even more than the amounts invested, it is the messages published by Mr. Bloomberg, and his methods, which raise many questions among some democratic activists. This Monday, his official campaign account posted on Twitter several quotes, presented as comments by Bernie Sanders on several authoritarian heads of state. "Look, we all know that Bashar Al-Assad has committed multiple war crimes against his own people, but let's not forget that he has put in place a paper recycling system to reduce waste! So when you think about it, he's a kind of hero. ", says for example one of these messages. Mr. Bloomberg's campaign presented them as obvious satires; his opponents denounce a large-scale attempt at disinformation.

Other posts posted online by Bloomberg also drew strong criticism, and drew comparisons with the techniques used by Donald Trump and his supporters online. A video extracted from the debate, whose soundtrack had been slightly modified to give the impression that his opponents had not been able to respond to a remark by Michael Bloomberg, thus played with the limits of legality – and rules of moderation social networks. Facebook has authorized this advertisement; Twitter said it would be in violation of its new rules, which are due to be implemented next month.

Use of "influencers"

Other advertisements, which were not presented as such, were the subject of different decisions by Facebook and Twitter. Posts published for a fee by "influencers" to promote Mr. Bloomberg were eventually accepted on Instagram and Facebook. Mr. Bloomberg has also hired people responsible for posting messages on his behalf on social media daily, sometimes in a coordinated fashion via a dedicated application; Twitter suspended 70 such accounts at the end of February, which the social network considered "manipulative".

The similarities between Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump's online campaigns don't surprise some observers. "These are just two wealthy New Yorkers who run democracy as they run their business", writes David Carroll, a data and online advertising specialist whose complaint against Cambridge Analytica played a major role in the scandal involving the 2016 campaign by Donald Trump. "This is what we get for wanting the government to be run more like a business. "


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