Distributed Social: @ More than One Place at a Time

Donald Trump was “deplatformed,” but his message is still able to reach millions.

Analysis: James Owens; writing by Stephen Levinson; editing by Charlotte Platt; data visualization by Alessia García.

This post was adapted from our More Data newsletter, a regular update on the tactics and trends shaping the political landscape, authored by Hawkfish’s James Owens. Sign up for More Data here.

People on their phones. Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash.
Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

Donald Trump left the White House for the final time last Wednesday. But in many ways, it felt as if his tumultuous term ended two weeks earlier with his banishment from Twitter, Facebook and other major social media platforms.

Trump used social media like no leader before him — circumventing his communications department and the media, and blasting everything from firings, policy announcements, disinformation and typos — directly to tens of millions of followers.

Trump’s social media ban was a major hit to his ability to message quickly and broadly, but it hasn’t been as complete as it seems. In fact, Trump has maintained multiple distinct social channels, including on platforms his main account was supposedly banned from. This “distributed social” strategy has allowed the former president to maintain access to a broad audience.

Distributed social allows you to be “@” more than one place

A strong social presence with great, accurately targeted content, is essential — but it’s not always enough. Distributed social takes reach and engagement to the next level by coordinating networks, memers, digital volunteers and others to expand audiences and drive messages. Whether it’s through multiple Facebook pages, high-profile digital surrogates, or an army of micro-influencers, distributed social is growing in importance as candidates, causes and brands look for ways to break through in a crowded digital ecosystem.

Trump’s network of Facebook pages is an illustration of the power of distributed social — but it’s certainly not the only example. Indeed, Joe Biden expanded his reach on Facebook through a network of pages including Kamala Harris (4.4 million followers), Michelle Obama (18.2 million followers) and Barack Obama (56 million followers), among others.

This kind of decentralized messaging infrastructure creates multiple opportunities. You can amplify reach, while improving targeting and enhancing your ability to optimize creative. It also opens up space to build authenticity through non-branded properties, reduce reliance on paid advertising, and better understand audience behaviors.

Trump has a network of 26 unique Facebook pages

Although Facebook blocked Trump from posting direct messages to the 35 million followers of his main page, the ban does not apply to more than two dozen other pages that make up his network on the platform. Trump’s distributed influence still extends to 26 unique Facebook pages — with a total follower count of more than five million. These include groups and branded coalitions such as Team Trump and Women for Trump. Both pages have continued to post after the ban on his primary page, variously beating up on “Big Tech” and amplifying pro-Trump defenders during his impeachment.

The Trump Campaign’s distributed channels across Facebook put Trump’s message in front of more than 5.2 million followers.
The Trump Campaign’s distributed channels across Facebook put Trump’s message in front of more than 5.2 million followers.
Channels that ran paid Trump ads on Facebook. Trump’s message also benefited from the support of unofficial allies like the page of Donald Trump Jr., with its 4.1 million followers.

The network also includes other constituency groups like Evangelicals, state-based pages, and pages of surrogates that share the campaign’s paid advertising disclaimer, such as Katrina Pierson and Lara Trump. While not all of Trump’s affiliated pages have posted since the ban (and pages like Mike Pence might eventually separate from Trump’s network), they remain tools for Trump to extend the reach of his message. And that’s just Trump’s official network. The extended reach doesn’t include the Facebook pages of close allies that aren’t maintained by the campaign — like the page of Donald Trump, Jr., which itself reaches 4.1 million followers and has reliably posted pro-Trump messages in recent weeks.

Social strategy is best when it’s actually social

Social media was built for conversations among networks and trusted groups — not broadcasts from single sources. The digital deplatforming of a president will hopefully be a once-in-a-generation necessity. But the multi-channel, distributed social approach is here to stay.

For political campaigns, advocacy groups, and organizations that want to put the right messages in front of the right people at the right time, distributed social strategies should be part of any broader media and engagement plans.

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