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Why the Trump campaign is going all-in on YouTube

YouTube memes are a big part of the president’s Election Day push.

President Donald Trump throws hats to supporters during a Make America Great Again rally at Wilkes-Barre Scranton International Airport on November 2, 2020, in Avoca, Pennsylvania.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
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For all of Election Day, the Trump campaign will dominate the homepage of YouTube. If you click through to the campaign’s channel, you’ll find featured videos with clickbait-styled titles like “Trigger Warning” and “Prevent a Zombie Uprising.” The thumbnail of the latter video, which is the same 10-second ad on loop for more than 30 minutes, features Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s face turned green and flanked by the zombie emoji.

Since it was published a few days before Halloween, the Joe Biden zombie video has been viewed more than 7 million times. The homepage takeover ad — which sometimes features a video of Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Jorge Masvidal expressing support for Trump — was seen by millions in the days leading up to the election. The Masvidal ad was targeted to voters in Florida.

The prime advertising slot is one that the Trump campaign secured months ago, before the Democratic Party had even settled on a nominee. It’s just one part of an aggressive YouTube strategy from the Trump campaign, one that has used tactics like colorful ombre thumbnails and bombastic headlines. Many of the videos seem to be targeted toward the younger audience on the platform, and the strategy has helped Trump land some of the most-viewed political videos on YouTube.

A screenshot of a Donald Trump ad.
One of the most popular videos on Trump’s YouTube channel suggests that Joe Biden is a zombie.

These ads represent the finale of the Trump campaign’s months-long effort to capture the attention of YouTube users. It’s difficult to know how effective his strategy has been and whether the barrage of YouTube content is a useful way to mobilize support for a potential second term, or whether it is yet another sign of the Trump campaign being Extremely Online. At the same time, the extensive focus on the platform is a reminder that Trump originally built his following on television and is reportedly interested in building his own media empire if he’s defeated in this election.

By several measures, the Trump campaign has succeeded in establishing a dominant presence on YouTube, having collected hundreds of millions of views. Ten of the top 20 viewed political videos from the past week came from Donald Trump’s account, and data collected over the past month reveals a similar trend, according to the independent tracker Transparency Tube. On November 2 alone, the Trump campaign posted more than 50 videos to the platform, many of them cut-ups of his campaign rallies. Biden, in comparison, posted 15.

YouTube is a powerful platform. It’s where lots of Americans, often young Americans, go for entertainment. Just over one-quarter of Americans get their news from YouTube. Overall, the company claims that just the mobile version of YouTube reaches more people in the United States than any television network. It’s also a place where conspiracy theorists and far-right influencers have been able to find audiences and flourish. Political strategists are increasingly turning to the platform to reach niche audiences.

“The YouTube recommendation algorithm is a vortex of attention, and so the campaign that’s better at tapping into that is really just reaping free mindshare from voters,” Eric Wilson, a political technologist who has worked with Republican campaigns, told Recode. “The Trump campaign is being efficient with their resources and tapping into their strength.”

Biden and Trump have overall spent just about the same — between about $70 million and $80 million each — on Google platform advertisements since May 2018, according to the company’s ad library. When looking at YouTube specifically, it’s clear that Trump has aimed to prime the platform with his content, publishing everything from hyperbolic ads to misleading information. There are also recycled Fox News segments and at least one 16-second clip of first lady Melania Trump insulting Biden.

Whether this barrage of video content will help Trump win the election, we don’t know. Trump was still down in the polls on the eve of Election Day, but it was clear that his campaign was winning attention on YouTube. Even if Trump doesn’t prevail, his tactics stand to inspire future conservative campaigns in search of new and younger conservative-leaning online audiences.

The fight over the YouTube homepage

For the Trump campaign, the homepage takeover on Election Day is a big prize, one the campaign won thanks to an early-access program YouTube created for large advertisers. That clearly frustrated Democrats.

“At best, the process lacked transparency and clarity,” DNC spokesman Chris Meagher told the New York Times last week. “At worst, it intentionally cut Democrats out of the process.”

Election Day isn’t the first time the Trump campaign has commandeered the YouTube homepage. The campaign secured the same spot in advance of the first presidential debate and during the Democratic National Convention, as well as to feature Trump’s Oval Office speech to announce that he’d be traveling to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to be treated for Covid-19 (this is currently the Trump page’s most popular video). Biden has also seized the opportunity to take over over the YouTube homepage, including one big ad buy on the Friday before Election Day.

A screenshot of the YouTube homepage with a Trump ad.
One of the videos on Trump’s Election Day takeover of the YouTube homepage features mixed martial arts fighter Jorge Masvidal, who is from Miami, Florida.

YouTube homepage takeovers aren’t just run-of-the-mill ad campaigns. When the takeover is live, anyone who visits the YouTube homepage will see whichever ad copy and video the advertiser wants them to see. Such a big audience also comes with a big price tag. A homepage takeover can reportedly cost $2 million, though it’s unclear if the Election Day buy cost more or less. (YouTube did not comment on these prices, when Recode asked.) This expensive and possibly scattershot tack represents a markedly different approach for the Trump campaign, which built a strategy that involved highly targeted ads on Facebook in 2016.

But big expensive ad efforts don’t necessarily win political campaigns. Tegan O’Neill, the digital communications director at the liberal political group NextGen America, questions whether YouTube’s base will be motivated by these ads — especially since the platform is so popular with young people, who don’t particularly lean toward Trump.

“A kind of last-minute ad blitz on YouTube, when this administration really has no legs to stand on with this audience? I’m not worried about it,” O’Neill told Recode, arguing that the Trump approach to YouTube is a sign of a campaign “throwing anything at the wall because what they’ve been doing hasn’t been working.”

YouTube video ads are powerful and more comparable to ads on services like Roku and Hulu than those on Facebook and other social media platforms, several strategists told Recode. People go to YouTube specifically to watch videos, so they can’t aimlessly scroll past ads like they might on Facebook or Twitter. It’s also worth noting that users can’t always block ads on YouTube, so if the Trump campaign pays for visibility, it can get it.

“The homepage of YouTube is some of the most valuable real estate on the internet,” Wilson, the Republican technologist, said. “Being able to capture that, that level of attention is tremendously valuable for a campaign.”

“The value of an asset like that is that it’s zero-sum, right?” Wilson added. “If I have it, you can’t have it.”

Both Google and the Trump campaign have argued it won the slot fair and square.

“Both presidential campaigns have used and continue to use YouTube to successfully engage with voters, both seeing hundreds of millions of views on their respective channels,” YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi told Recode regarding each candidate’s overall performance on the platform. “We’ll continue our work to make YouTube a platform for healthy political discourse.”

The peculiar popularity of Trump’s YouTube videos

If you’re watching Trump on YouTube in any given minute, you’re not watching Joe Biden. Through advertisements and organic views, the campaign has adopted a certain style for some videos that it’s promoting heavily with ads targeted to specific locations.

Like on Twitter and Facebook, Trump has a much bigger following on YouTube than Biden does. Trump has nearly 1.9 million subscribers on YouTube; Biden has just over half a million. In the last 30 days, Donald Trump’s channel has captured nearly 350 million views compared to just over 30 million on Biden’s channel, according to data collected by Social Blade. Importantly, those views include both organic and paid promotions.

Ads from Trump and Biden strike a markedly different tone; Trump’s have resorted to hyperbole, misinformation, and almost cartoonish editing. In recent weeks, the Trump campaign has paid to promote a series of ads that, like the aforementioned zombie video, feature bright colors, emoji, and meme-inspired text on the thumbnails. One could argue the videos are designed to look like they came from a young YouTube creator rather than something that might air on Fox News:

An illustration of Joe Biden with the words “Despacito (Gone Wrong)” and three emoji
The thumbnail for the Masvidal video, like those on many other videos Trump’s campaign is promoting, features emoji and clickbait-y test.

“That clicky-style headline is definitely based on the YouTube aesthetic [or] they’re at least trying to meet YouTube consumers where they are,” said Penn State political scientist Kevin Munger. “I guess that makes sense for Trump’s somewhat more anarchic, internet-based, anti-establishment aesthetic. It would be harder to pull off for Democrats and Joe Biden, who are currently running on stability, legitimacy, and professionalism.”

Like other social media platforms, YouTube has adjusted its rules in advance of the election. The platform has also established rules against certain election-related misinformation, like spreading false information about when to vote and promoting the racist birtherism conspiracy. (Over the summer, Google took down hundreds of Trump ads for violating its policies.) The platform also will warn viewers that election results may not be available right away, and no political ads will be allowed after Election Day.

But there’s a catch. Google, which owns YouTube, announced last year that it would limit the ability of campaigns to target political advertisements this election cycle, meaning that users couldn’t be shown ads based on their presumed political leanings or prospective voter lists. Instead, YouTube now allows people to advertise to people based on their age, gender, and zip code, as well as on particular video topics. That diverges from the approach of other tech companies: Facebook has allowed users to turn off targeted political ads, while some platforms, like Twitter, Nextdoor, and TikTok, have opted out of offering them altogether.

A collection of thumbnails from Donald Trump’s YouTube page
With the exception of his video announcement about traveling to Walter Reed to be treated for Covid-19, Donald Trump’s most popular video on YouTube is the one featuring Masvidal.

But the Trump campaign has largely accepted YouTube’s limitations on ad targeting. Even some of the more extreme Trump ads are seen by a wide range of people, as they’re not targeted by age or gender. Of course, some of the most-viewed videos do target specific swing states. For instance, the “Trigger Warning” video that features fighter Jorge Masvidal has been targeted to users in Florida. “You know what else is not going to work for them?” Masvidal says in the video, “Playing ‘Despacito’ on your cellphone to pander to us.”

We’ll soon know whether heavily promoting ads like these — which also include boisterous animations declaring that Donald Trump is still president and meme-y, conspiratorial videos floating that Biden is senile — in the final days of a campaign will help Trump win a second term.

But regardless of whether he wins or loses the 2020 election, Trump’s YouTube channel reflects an aggressive media strategy that’s designed to attract attention, perhaps at the expense of adding substance to conversations about politics. And while YouTube is pausing election ads after November 3, there’s no reason to think that Trump will be gone from the platform for good. We’ll also have to wait and see if upcoming conservative campaigns won’t try to mimic his approach with emoji-laced memes of their own.

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