The country’s most valuable and visible tech companies are making their presence felt in the 2016 presidential election.
Their efforts — some public, others less obvious to voters — are an aggressive play to make their brands an even bigger part of the political process and cement their position in American life.
It’s a marked shift from 2008, the last election with nomination contests on both sides. That year technology was decisive in President Obama’s win but the companies weren’t nearly as dominant as they are today.
“To the extent that platforms like Facebook and Twitter position themselves, or [are] capitalizing or raising their profile, as sort of being central to democratic processes, I think they gain a legitimacy as being core information providers and information conduits in democracy,” said Daniel Kreiss, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism.
Tech companies are now regularly co-sponsors of primary debates, their logos visible behind candidates during broadcasts that are breaking ratings records.
More than half of the sanctioned primary debates this cycle have been co-sponsored by tech companies. That’s more than in 2012 and in 2008, when the only tech-network partnership, between CNN and YouTube, was treated as a novelty.
The companies are also influencing what gets onscreen. Google has has YouTube stars ask candidates questions and Facebook’s data is regularly referenced by debate moderators as a barometer of the public mood.
Sometimes, what’s happening on social networks affects, in real time, the questions asked on stage.
Social media exploded when Hillary Clinton defended raking in millions in Wall Street donations by saying she represented New York state on 9/11 during a November CBS debate co-sponsored by Twitter.
CBS producers with the help of an embedded Twitter team used new social tools to find a critical tweet. Moderators referenced it in a follow-up question.
“Fifty years of televised presidential debates and [it was] the first time that people yelling at the screen had their voice heard on the stage,” said Adam Sharp, the head of news, government and elections at Twitter.
The companies have also rolled out more features voters can use to learn about the candidates.
It’s now possible to read through a candidate’s positions on the issues without ever leaving Google’s search results page. The tech giant now allows campaigns to post content directly into results. Microsoft’s Bing search engine has a similar feature.
And new tools are making it easier for voters to interact with what’s onscreen. During Thursday night’s GOP debate, Facebook users could share their reactions to what they were watching — with the results reflected in a real-time graph.
Web companies even have a presence right up to the moment voters pull the lever for their candidate. Facebook now reminds users to vote in local primaries, an expansion of a feature first used ingeneral elections.
For all the public efforts, tech companies are also increasingly inserting themselves behind-the-scenes, targeting influential campaign operatives and political journalists in ways voters rarely see.
Google, Facebook and Twitter have built lush lounges that host journalists covering the events and also act as embassies for their brands.
Google’s spin room, which has been used at several debates, hasdisplaysshowing the company’s data in real-time and allowing journalists to use it in their coverage.
Facebook does something similar in its debate lounges. Reporters can learn how to use Facebook professionally from company staffers and browse data related to the events on touchscreens.
“The lounge is just a great spot because you have hundreds of journalists all in one spot that we can kind of do that sort of training and outreach,” said Katie Harbath, who leads the Facebook team handling engagement around elections.
But the debate lounges and spin rooms are also opportunities for the companies to make a good impression on debate attendees.
Google offers visitors to the spin room breakfast, lunch and dinner, for example, and has had a barista on site. And there are party favors: Google-branded headphones or gloves and blankets in New Hampshire.
Facebook’s debate lounges have featured branded Rubik’s Cubes, selfie sticks and, in at least one case, a teal carpet brought in just for the event.
And Microsoft spent more than a year working on smartphone applications that state party volunteers used in Iowa to run the caucuses. They also provided a media-filing center in Des Moines on the night of the vote.
Stan Freck, Microsoft’s senior director for campaign technology services, said that it was part of a larger effort to increase the company’s civic engagement.
This is not the first election cycle where large tech companies have made a play for a seat at the political table. Social media companies have long been thrust into election season because of the political conversation on their platforms.
But the flurry of activity this year is taking place as the companies try to increase their influence in Washington.
Tech has spent years beefing up its presence in Washington’s corridors of power. Google and Facebook are both big spenders on federal lobbying. Twitter announced at the end of last year that they were hiring outside lobbying firms for the first time.
Also at play: the desire to get a piece of the political online ad spending that analysts predict will hit hundreds of millions of dollars this cycle.
All four major companies sell ads — Microsoft and Google for their search products and Facebook and Twitter on their social platforms — to campaigns of all sizes. They tout the ability they give advertisers to target potential voters based on a wide range of demographic factors.
But public interest advocates are raising concerns about tech’s high profile on the campaign trail.
“The more engaged in Washington [a company is], the more difficult it can be to draw clear lines between what you might call corporate social responsibility, and benevolent, well-intentioned programs, and efforts that are designed to influence political outcomes,” said Todd O’Boyle, the director of the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause.
Microsoft’s Freck said his company, which has a significant government contracting business, certainly sees a business upside to its involvement in politics — but it’s far from a quid pro quo.
“This isn’t going to be the next multi-billion dollar business for the company,” he said. “On the other hand, the people who are involved in this process and will see the technology — and use it and touch it and smell it and try it and do something that to them is very important, which is get elected — eventually end up in office as well and do think, ‘Who can help me with tough problems the next time something shows up?’
“So sure, we want to have consideration, but it’s not a direct line of, if we do this for you while you’re getting elected, we expect these contracts at some point once you’re in office.”
Former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), who leads Google’s D.C. office and its lobbying, has attended debates co-sponsored by the company. But the company says the spin rooms are meant to provide journalists access to data, and not be a venue for lobbying.
Sharp said that his team is separated from the company’s policy and sales operations.
Most of the companies say that they are ultimately investing in election activities to promote civic engagement.
“Everything that we’re doing is always centered around that and we think we have a unique ability, given our platform and the reach of our platform, in which to do that in a way whether you are a candidate, a journalist or a voter to participate,” said Facebook’s Harbath.
“It’s not about face time with our executives.”