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Mike Bloomberg is paying people to send their friends texts about him

Sanders has an organic internet army. Bloomberg’s paying for his.

A person with a sweatshirt that reads “Mike Bloomberg 2020” on the back.
Staffers and volunteers at Mike Bloomberg’s campaign headquarters in New York City in February 2020.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Bernie Sanders’s internet army is a driving force of his campaign. Mike Bloomberg appears to be trying to replicate it. But while the social media momentum behind Sanders is largely organic, much of Bloomberg’s is paid.

The former New York City mayor’s campaign is hiring hundreds of people in California to spread the pro-Bloomberg word on social media and via text message, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. His campaign is trying to bring on upward of 500 “deputy digital organizers” to promote Bloomberg to everyone in their phones’ contact lists and on their private social media accounts. And the pay isn’t bad: $2,500 a month for 20-30 hours per week of work.

The WSJ report lands just days after sponsored Bloomberg memes started popping up on big influencer accounts all over Instagram. It was part of a paid campaign the New York Times described as an effort to build a “self-aware ironic character” around Bloomberg.

Bloomberg’s presidential campaign is unprecedented in almost every way imaginable, including when it comes to the internet. And thanks to his more than $50 billion fortune, it’s turbocharged by what seems like an unlimited budget, at least when you compare its spending power to that of his Democratic rivals. According to the Washington Post, Bloomberg has already spent $50 million on digital ads, and he’s already spent an estimated $400 million on campaign ads overall. Bloomberg has said he’s prepared to spend up to $1 billion of his own money to defeat President Donald Trump in November, but if his candidacy continues at this rate, he’s on track to spend much more.

This isn’t entirely new, but Bloomberg’s budget makes it different

Anyone who is on a presidential campaign list is probably familiar with campaign text messages. Just last week, for example, someone representing the Sanders campaign sent me a fundraising text message, though it was addressed to “Spencer.” (Not sure how that happened.) And supporters of and volunteers for political campaigns post on social media about their preferred candidates all the time — the Trump campaign tries to influence voters through people they know instead of people they don’t.

As the WSJ notes, it’s common practice for campaigns to use volunteers and paid workers to run phone banks, knock on doors, and get out the word otherwise. Sometimes, groups promoting certain issues pay people to express support. In January, I wrote about a Democratic operative who was charging state parties and potentially others to get progressive celebrities to tweet about certain causes, though it’s unclear the celebrities knew the operative was being paid.

But Bloomberg paying people to leverage their social connections is unique. It’s one thing to pay someone to staff a phone bank and text phone numbers from voter files; it’s another to pay someone to access their personal contact list.

It also raises questions about disclosure rules around social media advertising. The Instagram memes Bloomberg is paying for are labeled as ads, but the rules around what counts as sponcon and what’s organic on this latest push are pretty blurry, per WSJ:

It is not clear if messages like those the Bloomberg campaign is suggesting would need to be labeled as sponsored content under Facebook’s disclosure rules. A Facebook spokeswoman said posts by outside “content creators” would require labels if a campaign paid for them, but that posts by campaign employees wouldn’t need to be labeled as ads. The company didn’t address how it would categorize posts by employees paid to promote content to their personal social networks.

A review of social media posts by some people being paid by the campaign found they aren’t labeled as sponsored content.

Federal regulators have said influencers who fail to disclose they’re being paid for ads might be breaking rules around deceptive marketing. A spokeswoman for Bloomberg told WSJ that the campaign doesn’t think the posts from the deputy field organizers require labels because it counts as political organizing and not paid influencer content. Spokespeople for the campaign did not return a request for comment from Recode.

Bloomberg’s spending makes everything bigger

Beyond paid digital advertising, political campaigns have a lot of ways of trying to get their message out on social media. Elizabeth Warren’s infamous selfie lines, for example, are a way for her to get thousands of pieces of organic content spread by her supporters online. Her practice of personally calling up supporters for a brief chat — which usually prompts these supporters to brag about it on social media — had a similar effect. And Sanders has an enormous organic online base behind him.

Bloomberg is trying to generate some of this buzz for his own campaign. On top of the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s spending on ads on television, the radio, and online, Bloomberg’s campaign has managed to do some organic social media work. The content has been weird but also kind of fun to watch.

But Bloomberg’s budget gives him the ability to basically do everything bigger and to try out strategies to see how they go without worrying about whether he’ll blow his budget. Is it fair? No. But the American political system, especially when it comes to money, isn’t fair.

It’s not clear whether paying influencers for awkward memes or compensating Californians for texting their friends will be an effective tactic for Bloomberg. But given how 2020 is going so far, it’s unlikely this is the last of Bloomberg’s unconventional campaign methods, on the internet or elsewhere.

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