Instagram is the New Fireside Chat

Some politicians seem authentic on social media & others completely miss the mark. Should political advertising on social media be regulated?

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Politicians want their constituents to feel a sense of personal connection to them. Mass media makes those perceptions of intimacy and authenticity possible on a large scale, like FDR’s radio fireside chats, Ronald Reagan’s TV appearances, and Donald Trump’s tweets. But we are on the cusp of the political adoption of a new media form; it’s the age of livestreaming as an exercise in political branding, whether it’s Elizabeth Warren awkwardly taking a swig of beer, Beto O’Rourke carving a steak, or Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez wandering wide-eyed the corridors of Capitol Hill.

Yet the adoption of livestreaming, as well as the rise of crowdfunded political campaigns, is drawing the attention of campaign finance regulators. Radio and television broadcasting by political candidates has long been regulated, but the internet has traditionally not. John Samples joins Will Duffield and Paul Matzko to discuss the legal and political implications of these new trends in fundraising and advertising.

Are the social media accounts of politicians a more intimate way for voters to view them? Are politicians authentic on social media or do they try to hard to be seen as relatable? Do Americans have a right to view or hear Russian ads? 

Further Reading:

Who Should Moderate Content on Facebook, written by John Samples

Google Is a Tricky Case but Conservatives Please Stay Strong — Reject the Temptation to Regulate the Internet, written by John Samples

Related Content:

New Year, New Congress, New Tech, Building Tomorrow Podcast

Place Your Political Bets, Building Tomorrow Podcast

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00:05 Paul Matzko: Welcome back to Building Tomorrow, a podcast dedicated to ways that tech innovation in entrepreneurship are making the world a better, freer place, or at least are responsible for more videos of politicians pretending to be regular old folk. You maybe able to guess today’s topic from that tease. I’ll give you one more hint. It was Elizabeth Warren in the kitchen with a bottle of beer. Got it now? That’s right. We’re going to talk about the growing number of politicians using live feeds on Instagram, Facebook, and other social media to brand themselves as authentic to their constituents. It’s a grand tech-enabled transformation of political communication happening before our very eyes. And we’re going to discuss the regulatory political and cultural implications today. We’re also going to touch on the use of social media to spread political disinformation. We’re gonna do a little talk about the political campaign in Alabama, and Roy Moore and efforts to spread disinformation against Roy Moore as well as the use of crowdfunding to finance political campaigns. I’m joined here by my regular co-host, Will Duffield, editor of Prototype and we are joined by a special guest, host John Samples, the director of Cato Center for Representative Government and our go-to guy for campaign finance questions. Welcome to the show, John.

01:21 John Samples: Thanks for having me.

01:22 Paul Matzko: Now, to start off, Will, had you seen any of these ads prior to us planning this episode?

01:28 Will Duffield: I’ve tuned into a couple of dinner time live streams. It’s always good to see one of your favorite congressman or maybe presidential candidate to be, just relax like everybody else, crack a beer, cook a steak. But these are loaded with cultural signifiers. The fact that Beto was cooking a steak and wasn’t preparing himself a bowl of Quinoa means something. And in these videos, in inviting either potential donors or just voters into their homes, politicians attempt to create a personal relationship with these voters. It may be a mass medium of communication, but when you’re invited into an otherwise intimate setting, it can help to create a sense of community and belonging, and bring people who may have already been on board further on board than they might otherwise.

02:33 Paul Matzko: There’s this great line from Derek Thompson where he wrote an article for the Atlantic, where what you’re talking about he called it, “intimacy at scale,” which I think is a great way of phrasing mass media, but each constituent is supposed to have felt like, “Oh, it’s kinda like I was there getting that steak carved up for me by Beto.”

02:50 John Samples: But it’s also true that a lot of things we do online are direct to someone else. It’s not we’re aware that we’re not watching television, which is from a single point out a kind of hierarchical organization. Many things we’re aware that even if you’re watching these ads, I think the expectations are that it’s a more intimate, direct and personal undertaking. Now, the other thing is true though that I guess I’m the pushback person on everything, it’s not new. And the reason we have all of those campaigns with people walking around a town and greeting people or with their family, the television ads were like that, and they were trying to suggest that I’m a little like you, even though I may not be, right?

03:41 Paul Matzko: Yeah. Well, the contrast with, you look at early television ads from the ’60s, it’s often the candidates sitting in front of a desk talking about policy points, “I’m in favor of this, and here’s why.”

03:56 Will Duffield: Talking at you.

03:57 Paul Matzko: Talking at you. And it’s not this kind of, “Yeah, small town American, here I am with my shotgun out shooting wild turkey.” It’s a very different feel. And that pre-dates the digital era, that shift in advertising.

04:12 John Samples: But you’re an expert on radio and policy and politics. Wasn’t the fire shot side chats of Roosevelt, weren’t they in a way, what makes them memorable and breaking with the past is that the president was presenting himself in that way, rather like your uncle or something, or a patriarch setting around in the living room, speaking directly to you?

04:36 Paul Matzko: Yeah, it seems strange to us now. We don’t view radio in quite the same way as it did to the first generation to have radio in their homes, the extent to which it felt transformational can’t really be understated. If you look back at what people were writing in their journals, how they describe that experience, it might seem ludicrous to us, but they did indeed feel like Roosevelt’s there with us in the room, he’s speaking to me. This builds a feeling of intimacy that I think is as a medium matures, so as radio matures, eventually as television matures, it loses some of that. Consumers get savvier when it comes to these mediums, they lose that ability to, in a sense it’s you’re forgetting the middle man, you’re forgetting the process that this is an artificial process that is connecting you. At first, it’s easy to ignore that or to miss that. Over time you get savvier. So as we have this new mass media forum, which is social media, it’s almost like a new experience, it’s easy for them to forget that this is not a natural thing. Yes, Will?

05:50 Will Duffield: It does feel inherently democratized from the get-go, in a way that radio and particularly the President’s fireside chats, which weren’t just broadcast locally because he happened to put an antenna on the White House roof but all over the country. They were syndicated. In that scenario, even within the political class, he has a leg up on everyone else because he can create these intimate moments in a way that others can’t. Now, you’ve got it from the get-go. You don’t have a need to be in Congress yet, you can be running for something, or even outside of mainstream politics and nonetheless, create these sorts of environments at will.

06:38 John Samples: So what that reminds me of is a visit in 2010 to the announcement for Rand Paul’s senate campaign at a thing called Fancy Farm in Western Kentucky. And what struck me about it that seemed very different to me was both candidates when they would pull up in a car and then go into a trailer or something they were mobbed by people, but they would also be mobbed by people from the opposition camp who had iPhones filming them, because there have been a case in Virginia where a video of a Republican Senator had essentially taken him down, taken him out. So, there is an authenticity to it in a sense that every moment, anything you say anywhere anytime is potentially up on YouTube within moments.

07:37 Paul Matzko: What’s been striking is the shift from, I mean you don’t have to go back that long ago and the base wisdom was because of that, because anything can go online and destroy your career, you should be careful and guarded about what you say and do online. At some point, it’s almost like a reach this flip where it’s, well because anything you say can go online, why not maximize the benefit? Yeah, there’s risk there but why not put as much of yourself, the self of you, that you think that you like the most, or you think has the most political benefit, put that out there first and use that to your advantage. And so, that transition’s only really happened over the last couple of years.

08:18 Will Duffield: Only it’s been tricky for many legacy political actors to gauge how to deal with that transition. I think we’ve seen a number of very foolish attack ads or attempts at political attacks on the basis of misjudgment surrounding this.

08:38 Paul Matzko: It’s the dancing?

08:39 Will Duffield: Well, most recently with this sort of pseudo-manufactured controversy concerning Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dancing video from her college years. But you can take it back to, I think particularly striking in 2016, right after the election, presidential election, there was a Georgia special election in which a young man named Jon Ossoff was running as a Democrat, and the RNC in opposing him, cut together a video of him drinking as a college student at a Star Wars themed party and he was dressed up as Han Solo and presenting himself as such. This was meant to make him seem un-serious, but to me as a viewer, it just made him seem like someone I’d like to go drinking with. So when you misjudge the impact of authenticity or even how it will be grasped by viewers, you can really do yourself in when you expect to get a good hit on someone.

09:41 Paul Matzko: Or Ted Cruz’s attempt to make Beto O’Rourke’s band days, now admittedly, it’s a terrible band here or in any other clubs of music. It was pretty bad. But again, it backfires because it’s just like, “Oh, so Beto O’Rourke tried to play in a garage band in college. That’s kind of cool.” I mean why is that disqualifying? Again, some of that’s about audience. Ted Cruz wasn’t really targeting the under 40 set, right?

10:06 Will Duffield: Yeah, so we haven’t seen much real tension between that impulse and contemporary mob outrage politics as well. Maybe the closest you get to that is with Matt Gaetz, a younger Republican congressman who seems to court 4chan as a constituency and therefore, what plays well for them will also get him raked in the mainstream media from time to time. Things like bringing Chuck Johnson to the State of the Union.

10:41 John Samples: So let me ask you a question that I think we’re supposed to ask here at the Cato Institute, which is, think about values and things like that. The understated element here is that the authenticity is a good thing. And that we should follow that. But I’m wondering if, Is that correct? It may be, it’s like many things. It’s connected to the value of transparency, ideas like that that you can know everything about everyone, but isn’t possible that a certain level of, if not… If you say it’s a certain level of being fake, it’s sort of you’ve lost the battle at that point. But maybe thinking of it as a kind of part of the politician that is kept away. This may seem unfair, but Clinton, Bill Clinton seems to be the issue, or it seems to be a person you could talk about it in this way. He might have been, given the circumstances, a decent politician, all things considered, but there may be this other part of him that if we knew the authentic person, we would be repelled by him. Now, that’s a strange thing for a libertarian to say that that might be, and maybe it is, but I’m just testing the waters here. But you see the difference, right?

12:02 Paul Matzko: Yeah, yeah.

12:02 John Samples: It could be that… I think standards like that were used really with Ted Kennedy, for example.

12:08 Paul Matzko: Well, there’s that tension between authenticity and truth, right? The two don’t necessarily overlap or even correlate. And we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that with the current president, right? So we have someone who, when you ask median Republican voter, is Trump authentic? You get very high scores. They feel like he says what he thinks. He shoots from the hip. I do not doubt that is true. I think he does say what he thinks on Twitter, whether or not that’s a good thing, I think, is open to question. And, of course, when it comes to dissembling and lying this administration is, well, that’s… Right, so the difference between being authentic and being a good politician or being a good person, you can be authentically bad, authentically deceptive, authentically… Right? So as we fetishized authenticity in our political rhetoric, that doesn’t mean we’ve become more transparent, we’ve become more truth telling, we’ve gotten better at politics.

13:14 Will Duffield: And authenticity, in of itself does not necessarily lead to good policy outcomes. However, beyond that, I think that when we’re thinking about the value of authenticity, or what a privileging of authenticity does to our political system, it can also exacerbate partisanship, because whatever may make you authentically likeable to your base makes you authentically loathsome to the other side. And the more that’s out there, the more it can be made into grist for the rest of…

13:52 John Samples: I guess, a question I wanted to raise was, and I don’t actually don’t know how to continue this question or how to answer it, but is… So authenticity as a value is associated above all with Rousseau. And Rousseau is at the same time, the great anti-liberal. His thinking is, in many ways, is against social contract thinking, against rights thinking, it’s for a bunch of things. And even losing yourself in the whole, in the social whole, the general will, and that being authentic, all of which suggests to me, that I can’t really make the connection, but suggests to me that we liberals and libertarians and people like that should have some doubts about the value of authenticity. But I can’t put an exact thing on it where… And it could be that maybe Rousseau was talking about authenticity for the individual, but not in the political sphere. I’m not sure about that.

14:51 Will Duffield: On public authenticity is always a tricky business because while on one hand, it can be seen as, I suppose, a true self, it can also speak to a perception of simply well-done, stage management. You are authentic because you’ve managed yourself in all of the right ways.

15:12 John Samples: Well, this is actually brings us back to Rousseau in a weird sort of way, which is, he had great doubts that life in a republic and a republic dominated by actors and actresses, the letter to D’Alembert is one that states that civic virtue is incompatible with these kinds of people having a strong prominent role in public life. But this is the other odd thing about authenticity. We live in a world dominated by actors and actresses really, and possibly, and it spreads to some degree to elected officials. Social media might be the actual way that it spreads completely in which everyone becomes, in some sense, an actor.

16:01 Paul Matzko: Well, literally, not just metaphorically, actors and actresses. We have Donald Trump, The Apprentice, “You’re Fired.” Ronald Reagan, a B list celebrity, right?

16:10 Will Duffield: And in a certain way, reality television and social media are more similar in the incentive structures they create than we might give them credit for, meaning that someone can leverage effectiveness in one realm into success in the other.

16:28 Paul Matzko: Are we that far away from 2036 Logan Paul running for president? That’s a very far scale there. [chuckle]

16:34 Paul Matzko: I kid but just sweet.

16:35 Will Duffield: That’s suicide forest video, great [16:38] ____.

16:38 Paul Matzko: Yeah, okay. Okay, maybe not. Maybe not Logan but it’s only a matter of time before some Twitch streamer or someone runs for an office and surprises everyone a decade or so down the line, but where we’re going with that, Will?

16:51 Will Duffield: Well, I was gonna bring it back to the age-old libertarian question of, but what does the state have to do with any of this? How exactly did this intersect with how we attempt to at least publicly manage our political process?

17:08 Paul Matzko: So this is why we brought you on, John ‘cause there’s kind of a campaign finance angle here where you have in the past, if you were a politician, you had to purchase ads frequently on television and radio saying, “I love my wife and my children, I walk through my small town. Why don’t you vote for me?” Oh, and some maybe they reference the policy, but you had to pay money to do that. And all of that is pretty tightly regulated by the FEC, the Federal Election, which is…

17:37 John Samples: Spending. Yeah.

17:38 Paul Matzko: Spending is. How they spend it.

17:40 John Samples: Spending is not regulated for 40 years. The rule has been spending is not regulated, fundraising is. Spending on ads is disclosed. It was also regulated in other ways and that it had to be disclosed if you’ve reached a certain kind of audience at a certain time period. So in that sense, it was watched over very carefully. However, the other side of this is, is that fairly quickly after the last major campaign finance law, the fairly quickly been a couple of years, the Federal Election Commission decided that essentially the internet was free of these restrictions or limits on ads. And so, you have had, as the internet has developed, you’ve had a kind of bifurcation of the political sphere. And so now there have been talking since Trump’s election about, it’s often talked about extending the same sort of regulations that are in the so-called real world. I think I have to stop doing that actually because the two are intermingled.

18:55 Will Duffield: Talking about that old MTV show?

18:56 Paul Matzko: In real life, yeah. [chuckle]

19:00 John Samples: That too is another reason. But they started talking about essentially, as it were, bringing the same over into the internet. But I have to say the internet, that was a real uprising. And if you look back now about 2006 when the FEC decided not to extend regulations to internet you find that the founder of daily cause, he was one of the people celebrating that decision, which was a limitation on campaign finance laws. You don’t get that very often, right?

19:34 Will Duffield: It’s quite right, yeah.

19:34 John Samples: And of course, the Republican Party was celebrating too. As I recall that time was, there was the reason we got that decision, and it was by the way a unified decision from the FEC, which is also unusual. So both parties in a sense, supported it. There was an uprising and there was just no one was thinking that this was a good idea after about a week. It was kind of like cutting Social Security benefits or something. You might propose that, but after two days of having your head handed to you, you stop. And so, in a sense it’s taken the Russian events that, whatever they were, to…

20:14 Will Duffield: You mean Donald Trump winning?

20:17 John Samples: Donald Trump, yeah. Whatever, however you think what happened happened, it’s taken a pretty big thing to overturn that. And I’m still not… And it’s been two years now of trying to enact this legislation, and it still isn’t there. I think the internet is remarkably resilient against regulation of this sort compared to what we’ve seen in the past.

20:48 Paul Matzko: Now, so, as libertarians, we’re typically going to be suspicious of extensions of regulatory authority into new areas. My default when I hear people are considering treating internet regulation when it comes to election spending, campaign finance spending like they do TV or radio, and my skin kind of naturally crawls. Now, this perhaps gets us to the disinformation question where you’ve taken this, John, which is as libertarians can we though be comfortable with saying, “Hmm Maybe hostile foreign actors, their use of the internet to spread disinformation while that is rightly the interest of national security to be concerned about that?” But is there some way of parsing that apart? Can we have the effective tools to limit that without giving broad authority to the FEC to regulate spending on online to ads?

21:47 John Samples: Let’s try a way of thinking about this and then maybe it’s wrong, and you’ll tell me if it is and we’ll go off in another direction. 1965, a what I assume was probably a college professor in California received a copy of Peking Daily, which was a Maoist China publication and because of the laws of the United States, he had to go down the Post Office and sign for it. He thought that it chilled his speech, which you can imagine it probably did.

22:19 Paul Matzko: Yeah, yeah.

22:19 John Samples: They probably limited the number of the Peking Review being sold.

22:23 Will Duffield: Making me go to the Post Office for anything today would limit my speech. [chuckle]

22:27 John Samples: Well, I wouldn’t go to the Post Office today. So when that case went to Supreme Court, Supreme Court ruled that you couldn’t do that, that making him sign was a bad idea which seemed to establish the idea, not that someone in China had a right to speak to Americans but rather that Americans had a right to hear someone in China which tends to suggest to me that Supreme Court decision and indeed free speech theory would suggest this would be that Americans have a right to hear those Russian ads and also, just Russian speech in general or Swedish speech. And the only thing that has changed is, you don’t have to go through the mails and have someone bring it to you, or I guess you do, but there’s lots of it. And what I think has changed is the idea that these countries have access to Americans worries people because it’s divisive speech or disinformation. But the free speech theories really says, “So what? We always worked on the idea, the reason we had the First Amendment and the reason we had free speech was because we thought people could work it out, we thought people could deal with this situation.”

23:51 Will Duffield: I think there’s also sort of accident of history and path dependency in getting us to a relatively unregulated internet environment with regard to foreign speech. In the, during the Cold War, if you wanted to get something from abroad, it needed to come through the mails, and we had fairly well-developed systems of mail censorship, particularly earlier in the Cold War in the ’50s and ’60s. Now, when the internet was coming on to the scene as a commercial force in the early ’90s, we’d just won the Cold War, we were at the end of history and we didn’t really have any real rival powers around the world. So there was never an effort made to redevelop those sorts of mail censorship systems for the internet, there wasn’t a perceived need for it. And as a result 20 years down the road, we still have a relatively open internet.

24:47 Paul Matzko: And the irony is that there was an attempt to erect a certain kind of, well, it was obscenity censorship. But the Communications Decency Act in the ’90s, the irony is, is it was intended to resurrect certain kinds of censorship control over internet activity. But most of that got struck down or became dead letter. And what the most enduring legacy of that is this little bit called Section 230, which we referenced in our last episode with Will Rinehart, which actually gives greater protections to online speech from lawsuits and criminal liability than IRL speech, newspaper. So it’s kind of ironic how that… So it wasn’t for lack of attempt in a sense. But you’re right.

25:31 Will Duffield: Well, with regard to foreign speech.

25:33 Paul Matzko: Yeah, with regard to foreign speech.

25:34 John Samples: There is another aspect of foreign speech that I didn’t mention because that, and it explains the whole Muller investigation. And so and the Russian… Why the Russian element has I think more legs than you might expect, which is that it is in fact illegal for foreign nationals to spend money on campaigns. Now what that in practice, it’s somewhat unclear but for sure means that a foreign national cannot buy an ad, and it’s all tied up with ads in the past, in the sense of the doctrines and of law and doctrines of the court, which is that ads in a way both contributions and ads are not direct speech, even though both of them end up being speech, but both seemed to have a little less than the way, certainly contributions have less protection than direct speech. And the same is true of ads even though ads are… I mean, what’s the point of an ad is, it’s about speech, but the final thing I would say is, it’s not at all clear though that a Russian or a foreign speaker could not spend money on just general discussion of the issues. I think what we are in a situation that is what we have a new kind of media, we have technological change. The technological change is rapid, it seems rapid and is not well-understood, its implications are not well understood.

27:07 John Samples: There’s a lot of uncertainty about many things in foreign policy, and so the people are thinking, “Well, the Russians could do anything,” or something like that. The other thing that strikes me about all of this that I think is… And it’s about the ads too, is we sort of look at Russians and say, “Look, they’re trying to undermine the country and so on, so forth.” That it’s real harms associated with this. Frequently in these cases, what gets completely missed is having foreign national speak, having foreign national have ads and those kinds of things. In this context, has value too, right? As libertarians, we would recognize it would be… I think it would be great if we had some people and that they can’t do it now is, can make clear the consequences of protectionism in the United States, or maybe made clear the problem, the [28:08] ____ wall or the sort of non-liberal immigration policies. These kinds of core libertarian ideas, we would like foreigners to speak about them, right?

28:19 Will Duffield: Yes, especially in the alternative to messaging through speech is often on the protectionism question, messaging through tariffs that hurt Americans and take their jobs away. We’d like to know about that beforehand.

28:35 Paul Matzko: I think your answer here is quite apt for what I know from radio history in 1920s and ’30s, there was a lot of concern. I think this is true at the outset of any kind of new mass media form, whether radio, television, or social media. There’s often hyperbolic concerns about the outsized influence that new media has and the assumption it will continue to have this kind of brainwashing ability. So in the early days of radio, there was concern that, “Oh, no, there are these radical antisemitic, anti-new deal voices, people like Father Charles Coughlin who are swaying gullible listeners, they’re under their spell. There’s almost a magical component to this, and they can’t think for themselves, they’re being swayed. Therefore, we should basically use government power. In Coughlin ‘s case it wasn’t, it was the Catholic Church.

29:31 Paul Matzko: But there were attempts to push some of these voices off the radio by governmental pressure on the big radio networks. But here’s the thing, and that there are all kinds of unintended ill consequences from a libertarian perspective, that kind of heavy-handed response is that people wise up. At first, sure. The first time the Russians ran a disinformation campaign in 2016, yeah, there are some folks, you all know the ones on Facebook who are most likely to share credulous-looking ads that were financed by a Russian troll farm. Their uncle so and so, older boomers who were not quite as internet savvy. No offense, John I’m not, I don’t have you in mind here.

30:13 John Samples: It’s very interesting that you would say that though, but one of the findings of people who have looked at this is that, it’s amazing how small the number of people who re-send ads and they do tend to be older people in the 2016 election.

30:30 Paul Matzko: ‘Cause they’re not, and I think what it is, it’s not about age versus youth per se. What is, it’s about who has more fluency in the media form, who is in a sense a native, in these days we’d say a digital native, and that comes across in all these different ways. So, whether it’s, why is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, why does she feel more authentic on Instagram? It’s ‘cause she’s been using it most of her adult life. Elizabeth Warren seems artificial. Well, because she’s only just trying to do it as a pale imitation of something she’s not as fluent in, because she’s right.

31:04 Will Duffield: And somehow at the other end of the spectrum, John Dingle is great on Twitter.

31:09 Paul Matzko: Yeah, you never know, yeah. Well, and Trump, he has a lot of followers on Twitter.

31:11 Will Duffield: How did that happen?

31:14 Paul Matzko: It’s worked for him, right? So, it’s no guarantee but maybe we should push this. So we’ve talked about Russian disinformation, but that’s I think in the future a relatively small part of the disinformation question. A bigger part’s gonna be us doing it to ourselves. And Will, I was gonna ask you, you’ve shared an article with us about what happened in Alabama with Roy Moore campaign disinformation.

31:37 Will Duffield: Yeah. So there have been, there were a couple attempts during that special election to run Russian style in a sense, or that’s what it’s called, but efforts to keep Republican voters home and divide them. There is one group that posed as a pro-prohibitionist group.

32:04 Paul Matzko: Dry Alabama.

32:05 Will Duffield: Yeah. And then the aim was to split Evangelicals in dry counties away from pro-business wet county Republicans. In another effort, a group followed Roy Moore with faux Russian bots in order to then seed stories that he was the favored candidate of the Russians.

32:30 Paul Matzko: So, fake progressive bots imitating fake Russian bots imitating actually… This is wow, we’re… [chuckle]

32:36 Will Duffield: Yes, and this exists in a universe in which we’re also attempting to, or there are proposals, we’ll see whether any of them get passed to regulate how bots, and particularly foreign bots are used. Now, legislation always lags behind implementation, how people are making use of these technologies in the real world such that were either the Honest Ads Act, or perhaps one of these bot disclosure bills to go through, I think it’s quite likely that it’s first victims would be domestic actors confused for foreign actors.

33:14 Paul Matzko: So John, is this currently… I mean, so there’s legislation being proposed, but is what we’re describing here a fake prohibition group meant to… Funded and created by progressive activists meant to confuse and divide, posing as conservative Republicans and meant to divide Republican voters in Alabama. Is that currently legal? Would it be legal if it wasn’t online? Or is this just like digital swift voting?

33:44 John Samples: I think the issue, there’s probably a difference between online and not online, that if you’re in not online, probably you could find yourself pretty quickly involved in disclosure problems, ‘cause you have to be… You really the disclosure, you can’t fake that. And indeed, as part of the response we think we haven’t mentioned here, is a lot of the response to this has been private, it hasn’t been public, and actually, the Facebook response to this is most of these things get stopped because they’re fake accounts and they take down millions of fake accounts everyday. So, that’s part of the story. I think the whole issue though is, the sort of issue, there’s disinformation, there’s misinformation, etcetera. Can we make any distinction that could hold up between false speech and whether false speech can be made illegal in the United States? And my inclination would be to say it cannot be.

34:44 Will Duffield: Un-seemingly not under Alvarez. In thinking about how private action ameliorates some of these expected harms. There’s been real concern with social media advertising that because ads can be micro-targeted and modified essentially in real-time, then campaigns can target specific population with certain sorts of messages that then they won’t show to others and they can hide some of their beliefs or proposals only showing them to their base. Now, Facebook has an ad archive that they’ve rolled out last year which allows anyone to go on and see every ad that a given campaign has run, even those that haven’t been targeted to you. You can even use certain targeting criteria to look through it. So, okay, I as a young person I’m getting this, but what are they saying to the older folks about Social Security?

35:45 Paul Matzko: Yeah.

35:46 Will Duffield: I can see that, and it’s because Facebook has given me the option to do so.

35:50 John Samples: It struck me though, that I recalled from the 2004 campaign, the President Bush at the time, even then, I say even but it was probably also well along the path at that point, being for the president to be directly against same sex marriage was becoming increasingly a problem. So they address two audiences in different ways. One was that there was a group of ministers and people who are against same sex marriage and they told them, look, you can speak out about this, you can say the president is on your side if he’s elected,” and so on, but he’s not gonna talk about it, because there was an alienation problem of some voters, so they distinguished the two. Now, it’s certainly true that you can do much more of that with the Internet. I think that’s the thing, it’s the lack of understanding, we don’t know where this is going. The technology seems so incredibly adaptable and so data-driven that a lot of people I think are worried about the possibilities.

37:03 Paul Matzko: We had John Aristotle Phillips, he has a campaign platform called Aristotle, where they do that micro-targeting. He came on the show and you can target someone who is… Well, the old categories, the bigger categories from the ’90s were like soccer mom. But these days, it’s, yes, mom of three children or more who drives a minivan, who lives within a five miles of this exact congressional district who has an income between $38,000 and $39,000 who tends to buy… I mean, you can get this micro-micro targeting of constituents because of big data and you don’t need an actual human being to do that parsing for you anymore.

37:48 John Samples: But does it make any difference? I mean, in the sense of the general rule is on campaign ads that political scientists have come up with is that you can have some effects, negative ads are often make people more likely to turn out. They have been shown in the past to increase the knowledge of people who were running against incumbents, that is challengers. But generally, particularly in presidential elections, the rule is that you have to have a lot of them and the actual effects are quite limited, which is why political scientists said at the time of the Russian revelations, and I think they told Mark Zuckerberg this, and he said it’s crazy to think that it had an effect on the outcome, which he later regretted that, but still I think that would be something that a political scientist would say. ‘Cause there was a small amount of spending I’m pretty sure at that time, and the other thing was, they were saying things that were very similar to what Americans were saying.

38:54 John Samples: So, I guess the argument has to be that the micro-targeting and the data and everything means that these ads and one’s accessible to foreign nations are gonna be much more effective than they were in the old media. And we have to say, I think that that’s possible ‘cause we don’t know.

39:15 Will Duffield: It’s possible though those the most loudly concerned about micro-targeting and social media in general are also those with an incentive to be. If you look at how legacy media which has had both its general readership and political ad revenue hurt the most by this new social media, they’re the ones most loudly clamoring to limit it somehow, to play up its ill effects, and it also it can provide a valuable narrative MacGuffin as it were. I was watching a BBC Channel Four film about the Brexit vote in which rather than really getting into perhaps failed past policies that alienated voters from Europe, they were able to turn to this secretive micro-targeting operation in order to present a narrative of how Brexit inexplicably occurred.

40:21 Paul Matzko: Well, it allows you to frame Brexit as actually anti-democratic because it was all gened up by the shadowy cabal or…

[overlapping conversation]

40:27 Will Duffield: Yes, and here with Trump when Obama was running micro-targeting operations that drew friends of friends’ data on Facebook, the folks who did it for him were hailed as heroes. It’s only when Trump gets in on the back of that sort of thing that it becomes bad.

40:45 Paul Matzko: So it’s a politically useful narrative, and I think what you know that earlier Will is a good point which is that as long as it’s AOC or Beto, it’s people that progressive campaign finance activists like are doing it, they don’t seem to have a problem with it as much. But if it’s Matt Gets or Donald Trump himself or a new generation, eventually there’ll be a generation of just as social media savvy Republican and conservative politicians that might change, right?

41:20 John Samples: Well, I think on both sides, judging from my experience, is that both sides have deep fears about the American people. Going back to the 1970s, I can recall people on the left who had fears that they were outnumbered and that… And you go back to the texts, right? If you think about 1955 and you begin to get this idea that social science shows that there’s an incipient fascism on the American worker and those kinds of arguments. There’s a literature like that, right? So there’s an expectation that this kind of speech by people like Donald Trump or foreign helpers could really put us over the edge. And then I think on the other side, on the right, there’s a fear too that actually, the American people could actually go for some kind of left strategy or something like that, a left wing politics, left wing economics. So, again, the uncertainty in a particular situation we’re in is I think a lot of the reason but this is… We’ve been here before, and television was… The problem is government responded to television in 1969 by essentially banning all spending on broadcast.

42:44 John Samples: Above a certain level, right? My concern would be it’s taken a while for the Internet to mature as a political matter, but my concern would be that the people in government would want to go well beyond the Honest Ads Act and attempt to try to deal with their fears by government action in an area where this is really… I mean, there’s things that cut against this, one is that this is the medium that is now really coming to a head of the vaunted small donors. It’s empowered small donors, it makes it easy through PayPal or whatever to simply give $10 or $20 to somebody, and it’s a viable way of raising money in a way that small donors never have been before.

43:35 Paul Matzko: I think, John, you’ve brought us to a kind of crowdfunding in the digital era, whether it’s Patreon which isn’t quite tweaked for political uses, but there are kind of political versions of Patreon like ActBlue or Crowdpac. That are very effective at taking enough small donors and cheaply processing their money and generating reports for FEC compliance, that actually makes a small donor-focused campaign finance strategy viable. You can actually run a campaign off of that money and not take big PAC money or corporate money in the way that was much harder to do a decade or so ago.

44:18 Will Duffield: And you’re also looking at small donors nationally, it’s not just small donors within your district, but the sorts of small donors who may have tuned in to watch you cook a steak the night before from across the country, feel empowered by what you’re talking about and yeah, give you 20-30 bucks.

44:38 John Samples: Let me give you an example of how this all could change. I have a friend who knows a lot about electoral politics and a donor came to him before the last election who said, “Look, I wanna stop Donald Trump but I don’t know who to give the money to.” Now, this guy had lots of money so my friend looked around at the various races and advised him about where to get it but that was a real elite undertaking, right?

45:02 Paul Matzko: Mm-hmm.

45:03 John Samples: So let’s say you’re a guy sort of sitting on a desk and you don’t like Donald Trump or you don’t like Elizabeth Warren or whomever, the internet makes it easier to find out information about these candidates than you would otherwise and you can get involved in the Georgia race for 100 bucks or 50 bucks or whatever, or the Texas race. And you don’t have to be, it sort of levels the playing field in some measure. You don’t have to have my friend with all of his experience and your hundreds of thousands of dollars, you can be involved.

45:35 Paul Matzko: And a lot of folks on the right are concerned about these crowdfunding effort so far, because they do skew blue, so like ActBlue, it’s in the title for a reason. These are progressives have done a much better job at using crowdfunding as a source of political small donations. Eventually though, you’d expect that to even out. It’s an arms race and eventually you’d expect Republicans, Conservatives to catch up. But one thing that I think it’s not on a lot of people’s minds in regards to this is that this is a further impulse, a further push away from kind of effective modern party control of the political process. So we’ve already seen this in the Republican Party, which is the unintended consequences of new forms of mass media dissolving party establishment control. Probably it’s a story about cable news. Fox News arguably has more power over the selection process of presidential nominees for the Republican Party as the Republican Party apprise itself.

46:35 Will Duffield: Yeah, is that decentralization? Or just a transfer?

46:38 Paul Matzko: Well, yeah, whether it’s decentralization or not it took everyone by surprise. If Fox News wants to have four additional presidential debates, they’re gonna get it regardless of what the party wants. Now, the Democratic Party up until this point has had less dissolution of party control of the process. But where do you start to see that? You started to see it with Bernie Sanders in 2016. The Democrat Party establishment was not a big fan of them running. How does the party establishment usually prevent challengers like that who are not… They don’t want to run against the accepted establishment nominee? Well, you can use the donor pool. So, traditionally, what you would do is you’d go to all the big wig donors to your political party and say, “Okay, let’s all kind of agree. We wanna select someone quickly with a minimal fuss. We don’t want our primary candidates to beat each other up too much. So let’s all agree to not donate to X candidates who are not realistic general election candidates.” But that becomes harder to do in the era of crowdfunding. And the number one politician on ActBlue is Bernie Sanders, right? He still loses in 2016, but that would have been unthinkable in a previous generation.

47:50 John Samples: So let me pose a to me, an interesting, difficult question. What you’re talking about is a kind of filter. The party’s acted as a kind of filter on the… And that actually had the invisible primary was run by donors and opinion makers and party leaders, and that’s Hillary Clinton possibly was the last successful candidate who won the invisible primary quite early. As libertarians, and this I will pose this for our listeners too. Do you think we’re better off for a policy and political perspective with the invisible primary or without it?

48:33 Paul Matzko: That’s a really interesting question. I think first, we have to set aside the short-term implications. So, weaker major political parties creates political chaos and you can see some of that going on right now. Trump would not win invisible primary, he wins because of the dissolution of the modern party system on the Republican side.

48:58 Paul Matzko: But if you set aside the short-term partisan considerations, I think on a medium-term or long-term if you support a radical party, the libertarian party itself or even if you’re a member of… I don’t know the DSA, or some other, any kind of third or radical party member should actually see this as a moment of opportunity. It’s the dissolution of major party control provides opportunities for less heterodox candidates from third parties to have more of a voice. So like Bernie Sanders back in the day, arguably, you can make a pretty good case. He’s not really a Democrat. He’s independent so he’s a democratic socialist. In previous generations, he would have had to run, he would have been a third party nominee of the DSA or some [49:47] ____ group or whatnot, and he would have had very little exposure and very little input into the political rhetorical mainstream. But because of, again, this little bit, the crowdfunding ability of things like ActBlue, he’s able to break into the mainstream rhetorical discourse and have an outsized influence. You can make a pretty good argument that because of Bernie Sanders, it has now become the median democratic position to support a single payer health insurance for everyone. Before Bernie, that’s not…

50:24 John Samples: It a libertarian position. Yeah, I guess the systematic question I would ask is this: Do you believe that those elites we’re talking about, that filtering group, whatever you call it, parties or whatever it is, the hated Washington elites. Do you believe on average going down through history, they are a lot more going to be more libertarian, more liberal, more limited government than the people who are filtered?

50:54 Paul Matzko: That’s a tough question.

50:54 Will Duffield: Hey, you gotta pick your issue there, almost. I can point to taxes for instance, and think that they might wanna keep my taxes down, but you looked to war and defense spending and it may be very different there.

51:07 John Samples: The reason I say that is, I sort of grew up on this some political science which was the idea that if you look at why do we have free speech, why do we have freedom of religion, why do we have all these things? And the answer that this textbook gave that was so surprising to generations of political science students was, we have it because the elites are much more liberal, much more libertarian, much more protective of these rights than the average voter. If you don’t have the filter, you’ll end up with illiberalism, right? And Bernie suggests that, but it’s not just Bernie and it’s not just Democrats. I think this is an open question, we’ve overdone… The elites have failed in some profound way in America obviously, right? They’re in ill repute, but it’s not clear that they deserve that even from a libertarian point of view. If you’re just making choices from what’s really the possibilities are.

52:16 Paul Matzko: It’s the way I would put it. We did an episode on alternative voting systems using Maine’s first congressional district use of ranked choice voting as an illustration, as a launching point is that I don’t think the dissolution of, or not the dis… The weakening of the bonds of the modern party systems of Republicans and Democrats is enough. But if you combine that with some kind of electoral or voting reform, it can actually make a huge difference. I mean, I never thought it would be possible for… Well, that’s a whole another conversation. Go listen to that episode dear listener about rank choice voting. The way I put it is, is that it’s a moment of possibility. Who takes advantage of that possibility is open, it’s uncertain, this is all contingent. So yes, Bernie Sanders tried to take advantage of it and arguably shifted the political conversation, did a better job taking advantage of it than our radical libertarian option that was offered who was supposed to be Johnson and…

53:27 Will Duffield: Radical? [chuckle]

53:29 Paul Matzko: Back in 2015, everyone was talking about this being a libertarian moment, this is the moment of possibility is open, radicals of any stripe have a shot.

53:39 John Samples: But…

53:39 Paul Matzko: They did a better job in part I would argue because this use of…

53:44 John Samples: The other issue is single-member district first passed the post, which is generally assumed to produce a two-party system so that the problems of the libertarian… The libertarian party’s problems are endogenous because once you’re in a two-party system, everyone knows you’re in a two-party system so all the libertarian talent has gone into that system, that would be a much better candidate than he was. In fact, he was libertarian talent that didn’t go in, that was in the system and then went outside of it, and should have been much better than he was.

54:20 Paul Matzko: But you can imagine an alternate universe in which for whatever reason, tech did not have a progressive political bend at this moment, and so that progressive causes and candidates didn’t have this advantage in terms of the use of social media in terms of online crowdfunding, and instead that energy in this moment of disruption of major party realignment, the fifth or sixth major party realignment in American history, it instead could have been a libertarian moment. But that we were not… I mean, for, again, a variety of reasons in this historic moment we weren’t ready for that. But I think we can actually be encouraged even if we don’t like someone like Bernie Sander’s politics. The fact that a radical was able to have influence on the political mainstream to a remarkable extent, should be inspiring to libertarians. That could have been us, it wasn’t. It could still be us in the future, and that’s possible precisely because we have the bonds of the modern party system have freed.

55:24 John Samples: I take your point, and it’s an interesting point. What I would add to it is though, my concern was is we’re going through a regime change where the New Deal and the Great Society, those institutions are kind of wearing out, which could be a good thing, but it also could be that we’re headed into an era of populism. And for me, populism is [55:47] ____ and William Riker and all that stuff, how to political science, it’s populism and liberalism are two different things. And you really don’t want populism.

55:57 Paul Matzko: We’ll have to do a follow-up episode here, where we dig into that a little bit more.

56:00 John Samples: That’d be great.

56:01 Paul Matzko: But John, thank you so much for coming on the show.

56:03 John Samples: Thanks for having me. Paul.

56:03 Paul Matzko: Will, a pleasure as always. And until next week. Be well.

[music]

56:11 Paul Matzko: Thanks for listening. Building Tomorrow is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Building Tomorrow, please subscribe to us on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.