Still, there are ways that the digital task force could help Clinton. To start, it might activate existing support. “It could be a way of mobilizing support and trying to get people to be more vocal about their support for Clinton online,” said Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, a professor of new media at Fordham University. If the effort inspires supporters to express support for Clinton online, they may be more likely to volunteer, donate or help out the campaign in other ways. It could even help bring new converts into the fold: If people who lack deeply-held political beliefs see pro-Clinton messages shared by someone they know and trust on social media, they might be persuaded to give the candidate a second look.
Candy Kirby, a devoted Clinton supporter living in Los Angeles, California, told me she appreciated the fact that Correct the Record thanked her for her support on its Twitter account as part of the Barrier Breakers project. “They are highlighting Hillary’s most ardent online supporters, which is smart, and trying to unite her supporters on Twitter,” Kirby, who tweets at @SayHillYes, said, adding that she feels frustrated by the amount of times she has been accused of being a “paid shill” for Clinton online. “It’s so insulting. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called that I could probably fund my own presidential campaign! I don’t work for Hillary’s campaign or anyone associated with it, and I think that’s the biggest stereotype: that because we are such passionate Hillary supporters, we must be paid.”
At least some Sanders supporters say that just knowing the effort exists makes it harder to have civil conversation online. “I think the most dangerous part was that after it was announced so many of our users started being very cynical and suspicious of people,” David Fredrick, a co-founder and moderator of Sanders for President, a pro-Sanders group on Reddit with nearly a quarter of a million subscribers. “If anyone criticizes a Sanders supporter online now there’s doubt over whether it’s a genuine exchange or if it’s something that Correct the Record is behind.” Fredrick added while “there’s no evidence that anyone from Correct the Record” has tried to infiltrate his Reddit group, he believes the effort will only serve to tear people apart. “They might say it’s positive messaging, but it’s really set people on edge, and that’s divisive.” (“Barrier Breakers accounts are always identified as Correct the Record,” spokesperson Elizabeth Shappell said, adding: “We are focused on breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of progress, like Donald Trump’s agenda.”)
Misinformation can easily take hold online, and spread quickly in the echo chambers of social media. There is certainly no shortage of false information circulating about Clinton online. It’s not hard to see why sinking money into an effort to seek out online attacks and “correct them” might appeal to Clinton allies. The effort to play social media defense could inspire similar initiatives, and might even set precedent. Yet while it may seem satisfying on a visceral level for supporters to counter attacks against their favorite candidate online that doesn’t mean the effort will be effective. “A lot of digital campaign strategy is experimental and run for fear of losing,” Phil Howard, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute said. “No one wants to be the team who lost because they didn’t try a particular strategy, but that alone is no guarantee any of it will work.”