The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010 changed the landscape for political giving, making it easier for corporations, unions, and individuals to contribute unlimited amounts of money to specific political and nonprofit organizations. In retrospect, it is no surprise that 78 percent of Americans wish to see the ruling overturned. However, although academics, voters, and progressive elected officials acknowledge that political inequality is a problem in our country, things are not all that bad when it comes to campaign finance. With a growing number of political and issue advocacy campaigns relying on celebrities to crowdfund, a more diverse subset of Americans are making political contributions and therefore participating in our democracy.
Crowdfunding has reinvigorated parts of the electorate and increased opportunities for Americans who would otherwise be on the sidelines (young, low-education, or low-income). Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a venture by raising multiple small money contributions. In an era where 62% of Americans digest the news via social media, fundraising professionals are increasingly relying on digital channels, like Facebook and Twitter, to target donors and amass small money contributions. Eventually, these donations add up to make a serious difference in close elections.
Former President Obama’s 2012 campaign pioneered strategies for effective crowdfunding at the national level. The campaign raised $631 million in individual donations, $214 million of which came from small donors. Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign carried the torch in 2016, raising $218 million online and his famously reported average individual contribution of $27.
In addition to political candidates, crowdfunding has encouraged more diverse issue advocacy organizations to formulate, as it is now easier to “go viral,” as long as the organization’s message is compelling. In the last few years, several effective crowdfunding platforms have been launched, including: CrowdPAC, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and many others. Often, these platforms offer assistance to amplify the campaign’s outreach by sending updates to anyone who has ever contributed through their platform. Thus, if a campaign can organically build grassroots momentum, crowdfunding platforms can uniquely and legally expand their target audience to maximize their outreach potential. Fundamentally, the ability to crowdfund has become an honest metric to assess whether or not an initiative has popular support, and ironically, it is increasing the amount of money in politics while simultaneously spurring political participation.
So who cares? It is hard to remember, but before employing digital grassroots fundraising strategies, political campaigns, political organizations, and non-profits depended mostly on large individual contributions. Naturally, one can only assume that this made it less likely for candidates and interest groups to acknowledge concerns at the grassroots level.
Crowdfunding is about building community, and our social and civic communities are becoming increasingly intertwined. Further, effective campaigns attempt to meet potential donors at their preferred social channels through their favorite methods of communication. That’s why campaigns are investing more energy into engaging social influencers to amplify their crowdfunding efforts on social media. Social influencers can be anyone from a celebrity to a civic leader who has a strong “influence” over a particular community. This is especially effective for initiatives where supporters are less likely to be engaged, including local elections or issue campaigns void of partisan affiliation.
Alyssa Milano is a perfect example of an effective celebrity influencer, and has 3.15 million followers on her personal twitter account. Each time Ms. Milano blasted a tweet in support of Jon Ossoff, the former candidate in the recent special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District who raised $23.6 million, 5-10 percent of her followers likely viewed it. In other words, Ms. Milano had the capacity to reach hundreds of thousands of potential supporters with the click of a button. Naturally, many of her followers were also influencers with considerable networks of their own, and when they re-tweeted her tweets, the campaign’s platform was displayed before thousands of more prospective supporters. In an age where social media content goes viral for no more than a few days, if not hours, it is easy to understand why campaigns invest considerable time and energy into building coalitions of social influencers and are methodical about when and where they post fundraising links online.
This is an important distinction for progressives in particular. Many view the election of Donald Trump as an uprising against the mainstream media and “Hollywood elite.” As such, one can’t help but wonder - should celebrities stay out of politics in general?
The simple answer is no: celebrities, and other social influencers, should remain politically engaged with their followers on social media. Their efforts can serve as the crux to effective crowdfunding, which inherently encourages a more diverse group of supporters to contribute and make their voices heard. Quite frankly, without sweeping campaign finance reform (which isn’t happening soon) our collective pursuit of political equality must be executed organically by engaging more Americans in the political process.