Coronavirus, campaigns, and connectivity

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at an event at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport, Iowa, U.S. June 11, 2019.  REUTERS/Jordan Gale - RC1849B52340
Editor's note:

Tom Wheeler served as the 31st Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013-2017.

All the presidential candidates are of an age of acute vulnerability for the COVID-19 virus. How much longer can they work rope lines, kiss babies, and shake hands?

Schools and offices are closing while members of Congress self-quarantine. How long can a responsible campaign continue to hold huge rallies where one sneeze can multiply the spread of the virus?

When both the Biden and Sanders campaigns cancelled rallies in Michigan they gave the early warning that we need to start planning how we protect the electoral process if coronavirus becomes worse.

If we can’t gather together physically, the alternative is to gather virtually, either online or via television. A recent Pew Research study found television and the internet in a close race for how Americans get their news. Forty-nine percent of adults relied on television and 43 percent on either web news sites or social media.

Internet technology such as tweets and targeted media have already reshaped political campaigning. Broadcasters remain the leader in the wide distribution of political information, as illustrated by how they receive the most political advertising expenditures.

Relying on the internet to close the communications gap is a mixed blessing, however. Unfortunately, the early hope that the internet would help bring us together has been undone by a social media business plan that relies on driving us apart. Whether such a construction can help protect the democratic electoral process is questionable.

Democracy works best when we trade our tribalism for the belief that by working together we can achieve something that benefits all. The revenue plans of social media, however, are built on tribalism. Social media platforms siphon our personal information, load it into algorithms and target messages that reinforce our tribal traits. Dividing us by delivering messages based on the information gathered about each of us undermines the coming together that democracy requires.

Worse yet, the targeting and the messages social media delivers are done in secret. When my neighbor receives a political message targeted to her proclivities, I receive a different message targeted to mine, and neither of us know about the message sent to the other, the ability to engage in dialog to try and understand each other’s position is nonexistent.

If we have to suspend or otherwise modify political campaigning because of coronavirus, social media will become even more important and the fissures it creates even more painful. We should expect the platform companies such as Facebook and Google to step up to this national emergency—but can we? Will they step up?

One alternative would be for platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp (all owned by Facebook), as well as video platforms such as YouTube (owned by Google), to quit exploiting our differences and deliver political messages just as broadcasters do: the same message to all. The social media companies could also offer free time to the major candidates for broadcast-to-all messages.

Looking to social media to confront coronavirus’ impact on political discourse would require the companies to walk away from the formula that has made them rich. Since social media is largely unregulated, there is no government body that can require them to act in the public interest.

The likelihood of social media companies walking away from their “make money by dividing us” machine is probably a very long shot. That means we need to go back to the tried and trusted: television broadcasters.

Should coronavirus alter the nature of political campaigns, the ability of television broadcasters to deliver a common message on a broad scale will become more important. As the National Association of Broadcasters recently told Congress, broadcasters have always been the first source of information in a crisis.

Broadcasters are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to serve the public interest. If COVID-19 reaches crisis proportions and threatens political campaigning, the FCC should be prepared to tell broadcasters their public interest obligation extends to providing free airtime to the major candidates. In anticipation, the FCC should already be working with broadcasters on contingency plans to implement such an order.

Unlike social media, there is government oversight of broadcasting. The courts have upheld this oversight on the grounds that  broadcasters using the people’s airwaves can be required to advance the public interest. Clearly, enabling the ultimate expression of democracy—political campaigns—is in the public interest.

Let’s get ahead of this one. The FCC should exercise its authority over broadcasting while also using the bully pulpit to encourage social media platforms to follow that lead. Experts tell us coronavirus was made worse because we waited too long to take action. Let’s not wait too long before the FCC steps up to protect the democratic process.