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The App Fueling Twitter’s Most Powerful Political Campaigns

If you thought luck was any part of these viral moments, you were wrong

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On September 27, there was a brief moment when 1,685,719 people’s Twitter feeds were flooded with an adorable emoticon rabbit urging them to vote.

This was not the first time the charming text art has graced Twitter. Back in 2014, Amber Discko, then a creative strategist at Tumblr, briefly popularized the meme for the hell of it. But this time, she was using it for something far more important. Recently hired to coordinate digital organizing and social strategy at Hillary for America, she wanted to mobilize people online for National Voter Registration Day. And rather than tweet the emoticon from her account and pray for virality, she ensured its mass exposure ahead of time using a program called Thunderclap. Via email and social media, she was able to convince more than 500 people to hand over their social media logins to the site ahead of time, so that at noon ET that day, the network would be flooded with bunnies all at once. Discko’s campaign was, for a brief moment, able to rise above that static and grab a signal.

And that is exactly what Thunderclap wants, as Chelsea Orcutt, head of strategy and outreach at the company told me. “There’s so much noise on the internet; we’re a lot more powerful when we speak together.”

For anyone who has closely followed the 2016 campaign online, describing it as “noise” is an understatement. More than ever before, presidential candidates and their supporters have driven the national conversation about the election via social media. It’s created a landscape where it’s difficult for individuals or organizations with modest followings who have something to say about the election to earn any attention from regular users or the media. As a result, people are turning to programs like Thunderclap to amplify their messages. If organized lobbying once came in the form of a steak dinner at a restaurant off of K Street or volunteer phone calls, its future lies in flooding people’s social media feeds until they can’t possibly ignore you any longer.

Thunderclap is a five-year-old company that was started after its founder, David Cascino, visited the Occupy Wall Street movement in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in 2011. There, he noticed that protesters had taken to using a technique called the human megaphone, a call-and-answer chant in which one person would say something, and everyone within earshot would repeat it until it echoed throughout the crowd. He decided to replicate this system for the internet.

It works like this: Organizers can enter a call to action on the Thunderclap website, then set a deadline for when they’d like to see it blasted out, as well as a goal for the number of people they’d like to participate. It’s then up to the organizers to promote the campaign. If the campaign meets the organizers’ goal, Thunderclap will automatically carry out the campaign. The company makes a profit by offering premium options, including the guarantee that your campaign will carry through even if you don’t meet your goal.

Though the tool has been used for everything from raising awareness for charities to campaigning for Wall Street reform, it has played an especially important role during the 2016 election. During the primaries, Bernie Sanders supporters used the website regularly to organize fundraising surges, the most significant of which occurred on the Vermont senator’s birthday, reaching more than 3 million timelines. On February 1, the day of the Iowa primary election, a group named Hillary for Iowa blasted out a message to more than 6 million social feeds, urging people to vote for the former secretary of state. (Though Thunderclap accepts messages from groups of all political affiliations as long as their messages aren’t hateful, Orcutt said the majority of the campaigns for this election have come from Democrats.)

Thunderclap has also proved helpful ahead of the debates for organizations looking to lobby the moderators or candidates to breach certain subjects. AARP, for instance, lobbied moderator Jake Tapper via email petitions to ask a question about preserving Social Security during the March 10 Republican primary debate in Miami. This week, ahead of the second general election debate, it launched a 9,420-person campaign urging Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper to do the same.

“You can’t just do the old-fashioned door-to-door and TV advertising,” John Hishta, the senior vice president of campaigns at AARP, said. “You have to do organizing on all levels, and this is an extremely important level.”

Though Hishta’s issues might feel like they carry less weight than the overall election, he says his group will continue to voice its message via Thunderclap long after November.

“We’re certainly going to figure out how to continue to pursue this app beyond the election,” he said. “We’re going to continue to push the issue of Social Security with whoever is elected the new president, and who the new Congress is, too.”

On top of more organized efforts, Orcutt says there are constant grassroots campaigns from supporters, in addition to brands and celebrities who want to spread the word about their own products and causes.

“We’ve had a ton of ordinary people running campaigns and getting their friends to jump onboard because they see the value in speaking together, sharing a message,” Orcutt said. “People actually take notice, people outside of their immediate friend group.” And that is, perhaps, the most revolutionary thing about Thunderclap — it’s managed to get the internet to do one of things it’s worst at: listening.