Imagine a society in which everyone more or less agrees with you.
You wake up in the morning to online greetings from people who share your views on guns, religion and country. Your news feed contains only posts from like-minded politicians or articles from like-minded news outlets. You can safely post your own comments without fear of vitriol from trolls or challenges from naysayers.
This is the insular world in which tens of thousands of Americans who use conservative political apps are experiencing the midterm election season.
Amid a chorus of conservative complaints that Facebook and YouTube have become hostile to right-leaning views — and as those social media giants take steps to limit what they see as abusive or misleading viral content — a few Republican consultants have begun building a parallel digital universe where their political clients set the rules.
One start-up has built an app for the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association that has been downloaded more than 150,000 times. Supporters of President Trump can download an app from Great America, a big-spending pro-Trump political action committee, or America First, Mr. Trump’s official 2016 campaign app, which has some features that remain active. Many backers of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas use Cruz Crew, an app built for his re-election campaign.
The apps deliver curated partisan news feeds on what are effectively private social media platforms, free from the strictures and content guidelines imposed by Silicon Valley giants. Some allow supporters to comment on posts or contribute their own, with less risk that their posts will be flagged as offensive or abusive.
Many apps have video-game-like features where users can earn points for making campaign donations or contacting their legislators. Amass enough points and a supporter can attain increasing status levels — like “BigLeague” or “Patriot” — or even gain a spot on the app’s leader board.
Crucially, these mini-platforms harness the powerful reach of platforms like Facebook and Twitter even while competing with them. Some apps give users the option of posting on Twitter or Facebook messages that are scripted by the campaigns, combining the seeming authenticity of organic social media posts with the message discipline of paid advertising.
Proponents are positioning these apps as durable communities that offer conservatives viable alternatives to mainstream social networks.
“People with center-right views feel like the big social platforms, Facebook and Twitter, are not sympathetic to their views,” said Thomas Peters, the chief executive of uCampaign, a start-up in Washington that developed the N.R.A., Great America and Trump campaign apps. “It’s creating a safe space for people who share a viewpoint, who feel like the open social networks are not fun places for them.”
Sheltered from the broader public, however, the platforms can intensify political polarization and social divisiveness, or circulate disinformation.
Anyone in the United States may download uCampaign apps, Mr. Peters said, but they give a campaign the ability to bar interlopers who post messages challenging the campaign’s positions.
The Great America app juxtaposes a mix of enthusiastic posts about Mr. Trump and photos of puppies with anti-immigrant memes like “Today’s illegals, tomorrow’s Democrats.” One recent post, with an image depicting nooses, read: “Noose flash: Treason still punishable by death.”
The Great America app also hosts a ritual called “Fake News Friday,” in which it awards “Trump points” to users who post liberal-bashing, mainstream-media-trashing memes.
“Is this the beginning of the political Balkanization of digital engagement technologies?” asked Michael Slaby, a communications strategist who oversaw technology for President Barack Obama’s national campaigns. “Given the tribalism of current American politics, it’s possible.”
Dan Backer, general counsel for the Great America PAC, said the app was a place for like-minded Trump supporters to socialize and entertain themselves. It has also enabled the campaign to quickly and inexpensively engage supporters. Since 2017, the Great America PAC has paid uCampaign about $ 108,000 for development and monthly service fees.
Mr. Backer added that the app’s user policy prohibits abusive comments and those that incite criminal activity. But, he said, “I don’t think we want to be in the business of trying to censor people’s political views.”
Democratic candidates have also used consumer-facing apps to promote their political campaigns and advocacy. But the main election apps currently used on the left — such as MiniVAN, built by NGP VAN, a leading technology provider to Democrats — are geared more narrowly for campaign volunteers engaging in door-to-door canvassing, an activity where they can woo and record details on individual voters. Many are not designed to create lasting social communities.
This year, Democratic campaigns are also embracing peer-to-peer text messaging, a technology that may engage younger voters more than stand-alone candidate apps do. Not to be outdone, uCampaign recently started its own peer-to-peer texting platform, RumbleUp, for conservative campaigns.
Mr. Peters, a Catholic blogger and former web developer, said he hadn’t set out to become the go-to app maker for conservatives. In 2012, he was working as a conservative activist in Washington and grew frustrated with the success of the Obama campaign’s digital outreach efforts.
The Obama campaign had a smartphone app that supporters could use to follow campaign news, volunteer, canvas voters and promote campaign messages on social media. Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, had an app whose central feature was a photo filter allowing supporters to take selfies with the slogan “I’m with Mitt.” Mr. Peters was not impressed.
“It did not do the one thing I wanted it to do,” he said, which was to “help win the election for Mitt Romney by asking me to donate money to them, to post things to social media, to invite my friends and family to register to vote — to do all of the things, basically, that the Obama app did.”
In 2014, Mr. Peters started uCampaign with $ 150,000 in start-up capital. The money came from Sean Fieler, the president of the hedge fund Equinox Partners and a well-known donor to conservative groups.
Since then, uCampaign has developed dozens of campaign apps, including for Republicans like Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, the Republican National Committee and organizations like the Family Research Council, a Christian group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. Campaigns pay the company a one-time fee to develop an app and then monthly service fees.
In the United States, apps developed by uCampaign have been downloaded more than 500,000 times. A Republican polling company, WPA Intelligence, is behind Senator Cruz’s campaign app.
The N.R.A. and Great America apps, which enable users to friend and message one another, have developed cultures with their own parlance and rituals.
In their posts, users sometimes greet one another as “deplorables” or “fellow patriots” and refer to liberals as enemies, “libtards” or traitors. Conspiracy theories — including memes against the financier George Soros — abound. The midterm elections are not about Democrats vs. Republicans but, as one N.R.A. app poster put it, “socialism vs. freedom.”
Outsiders, for their part, can keep out.
Soon after a reporter for The New York Times contacted 10 users via the apps, a person with the user name Deplorable Dee posted on the Great America news feed: “Troll Alert!!! New York Times asking for interviews, do not communicate with these libtards.”
Only one user, Ken Kumerle, a car rental agent in South Carolina who has earned more than 366,000 points on the N.R.A. app, agreed to be interviewed for this article.
“They all seem very patriotic to me,” Mr. Kumerle said of the members of the N.R.A. app community. “I go in every day and try to do something, post or send a tweet.”
The apps are being deployed as larger tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, are under scrutiny over how they share and secure their users’ data. Facebook, which is under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for allowing third-party apps to obtain personal information about users’ friends, has taken steps to restrict what user data can be pulled off the platform.
By tracking their users’ activities, political apps can collect a wealth of data about them and their social circles outside Facebook’s control. Apps from uCampaign and WPA Intelligence, for instance, ask users for their name, address, phone number and email address. The apps from uCampaign may also collect user names and other details when users post campaign messages from the apps on Twitter or connect their Facebook accounts.
Both uCampaign and WPA have ties to AggregateIQ, a political technology company based in Canada. AggregateIQ is under investigation by the British government over its handling of voters’ personal data and connections to the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, a voter profiling company that improperly harvested the information of millions of Facebook users.
In 2016, AggregateIQ paid uCampaign to create the campaign app for Vote Leave, the secessionist side of the British referendum on leaving the European Union. More recently, WPA hired the Canadian company to develop the underlying software used in the Cruz app.
The Times tested several of the apps’ privacy practices and found that, when a user invited a friend to join uCampaign’s N.R.A. app, the app did not send the friend’s information to itself or to other companies. But The Times found that a similar feature on WPA’s Cruz app sent a friend’s contact details to an AggregateIQ domain.
Chris Wilson, the chief executive of WPA Intelligence, said his company, not AggregateIQ, received and controlled app users’ information.
Some political apps, including from uCampaign, also ask users who want to send friends campaign messages to share their contacts. If a user agrees, the app can try to match the contacts to profiles of likely voters, using information provided by a political campaign. As an example, Mr. Peters, the chief executive, described how the Trump app in 2016 was able to match 68 of his 900 contacts to voters in swing states.
“It asked me to send a text to my mom in Michigan saying, ‘Only Trump has a plan to repeal Obamacare,’” Mr. Peters said. “But it asked me to send an email to a friend in Florida saying that ‘only Trump has a plan to build the wall.’”
Mr. Peters turned some of those features, like inviting friends, into a way for users to collect points and gain status within the group. He began incorporating gamelike features into his company’s apps in 2014 as a way to get supporters to participate in political activities.
In July, for instance, the N.R.A. app began offering users 100 points for tweeting a slogan urging their senators to support Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. The messages have since been have tweeted more than 13,300 times.
The Cruz app similarly awards points to users for tweeting campaign messages, volunteering and taking part in other activities.
“The Obama campaign proved, and Democrats continue to prove, the value of continuously engaging supporters via an app like this,” said Mr. Wilson of WPA Intelligence, the company behind the Cruz app. “It is critical Republicans keep up with tools of our own.”
- Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider
- Opinion: A Saudi Prince’s Fairy Tale
- This Is the Front Line of Saudi Arabia’s Invisible War
- Opinion: My Year as a Trump Ambassador
- Opinion: Donald Trump’s Perverse Advantage
- Saudi Explanation of Jamal Khashoggi’s Killing Fails to Squelch Skepticism
- Mount Athos, a Male-Only Holy Retreat, Is Ruffled by Tourists and Russia
- Opinion: Step Away From the Orb
- The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail
- G.O.P. Candidates Struggling in Key Battlegrounds, With House at Stake