Snapchat decision could have implications for Donald Trump's young voter outreach
Snap's decision to limit President Donald Trump's reach could hamper his reelection campaign's strategy to reach young voters online.
The Snapchat parent company announced yesterday that it would no longer feature Trump's account in the app's "Discover" tab, which suggests stories and accounts from politicians and celebrities to users who don't yet subscribe to them, after a week of controversy between social media companies and the president. Trump will continue to have a public account, which anyone can follow, but users will have to actively search for it.
It's a blow to the Trump camp, which has been using the popular ephemeral photo-sharing service to broadcast memes and news about the president to an audience that Bloomberg News reported includes more than 1.5 million followers. The campaign has even made custom augmented-reality lenses for Trump supporters to share, which add red "Keep America Great" or "Black Voices for Trump" hats to their photos.
The decision could put greater pressure on other major tech companies to limit the president's reach on their platforms.
Snap's move is a reminder that companies have more options than just deciding whether to remove or label a post or account that violates its terms of service. They can direct their products and algorithms not to further amplify it.
Snap is the latest battleground in Trump's ongoing feud with tech titans over their handling of his social media presence. Last week, Twitter appended a warning to one of Trump's posts that it said violated its policies against glorifying violence, which read, "When the looting starts the shooting starts." Facebook so far has not acted. Snap's decision was particularly notable because the company said it reached its own decision over the weekend not because of activity on its own service, but because of some of the president's tweets.
Particularly, the company took issue with the president's tweets that threatened protestors at the White House would be "greeted with the most vicious dogs and ominous weapons, I have ever seen." Twitter did not take action against that tweet.
"I'm astonished at the decision for Snapchat to make policy about its platform based on activity on another social media platform," said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist.
Recently, the company has been emerging as a greater force in the political arena.
Snap's influence on the political debate doesn't get as much attention as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but the social network has a significant share of users. Snap reported that it had 229 million daily active users in the first quarter of 2020, significantly more than Twitter, which reported 166 million daily active users in the same period. The company has said it reaches 90% of all 13- to 24-year-olds and 75% of all 13- to 34-year-olds in the United States, underscoring the significant role it can play with young voters.
Axios recently reported that Snap was able to register 450,000 people through its app during the 2018 midterms. New data from the non-partisan non-profit DemocracyWorks shows that 57% of Snapchat users last cycle that registered on the platform did indeed cast a ballot. Of those that registered, 57% were between the ages of 18 and 24, a demographic that usually has lower voting turnaround rates.
The Trump campaign quickly lashed out at the company's decision.
The campaign claims that Snap was trying to "rig the election" in favor of former vice president Joe Biden and that the company was biased against conservative users.
"Snapchat hates that so many of their users watch the President's content and so they are actively engaging in voter suppression," Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement. "If you're a conservative, they do not want to hear from you, they do not want you to vote. They view you as a deplorable and they do not want you to exist on their platform."
Trump has threatened Twitter, the other company that has taken significant steps to limit the reach of his rhetoric, with greater regulation. After Twitter took the unprecedented step of labeling two of the president's tweets that made misleading comments about mail-in voting, Trump last week signed an executive order that could pave the way for federal regulators to reconsider the scope of Section 230, a key legal provision that gives social media companies legal immunity for the photos and videos people share on their services. Already, a group backed by major tech companies has brought a legal challenge against the order.
Biden has been making a bigger push on Snapchat, too.
Biden's campaign has also been escalating its use of Snapchat. The campaign wouldn't say how many followers it has, but it has been used the service to conduct Q&A sessions with young voters. Biden recently did an interview with journalist Peter Hamby on his Snapchat news program "Good Luck America." It has its own augmented-reality lens, too, which allows people to superimpose the former senator's signature aviators on their photos.
Republicans believe this move is giving Biden an unfair advantage.
Wilson, the Republican digital strategist, told me he believes that Snap's decision to promote one presidential candidate's account but not another could be viewed as an illegal "in-kind" political donation. The Trump campaign also suggested in its statement that Snap's move was illegal.
But the company maintains that no account has the right to the additional promotion that comes with being on the Discover tab. Snapchat continues to feature politicians from both parties in the Discover tab. The company features accounts from Republican Reps. Will Hurd of Texas, Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Kevin McCarthy of California, as well as Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Democrats include New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
"Racial violence and justice for all are non-partisan issues," said Snap spokeswoman Rachel Racusen. "We will happily promote accounts from both sides of the aisle that reflect the need for peace, love and positive change."
Snap chief executive Evan Spiegel has gone further than most tech titans in his calls to address racial injustice this week, saying the United States needs a reparations Commission and taxes to address racial injustice.
"We may continue to allow divisive people to maintain an account on Snapchat, as long as the content that is published on Snapchat is consistent with our community guidelines, but we will not promote that account or content in any way.... we will make it clear with our actions that there is no grey area when it comes to racism, violence, and injustice - and we will not promote it, nor those who support it, on our platform," Spiegel wrote in a memo to employees this week.The Washington Post