In May, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard put out a rallying cry on Facebook to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for the opioid epidemic.

“Tulsi and Bernie are taking on Big Pharma. Will you?”

It was a digital ad paid for by Gabbard’s campaign, and it showed a split-image photo of the congresswoman with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who she endorsed in the 2016 presidential primary against Hillary Clinton.

Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has harnessed digital advertising better than most in the state. Nick Grube/CIvil Beat

According to the targeting information obtained by ProPublica, Gabbard wanted to reach people all across the U.S. who had indicated an interest in Sanders either by clicking an ad or liking a Facebook page.

The popular Hawaii congresswoman is particularly savvy when it comes to boosting her national profile, but it’s also resulted in a flood of campaign donations from all across the country.

This year more Hawaii politicians — and particularly those running for federal office — are trying to seize on her tactics and build a base that can reach beyond the islands.

“Almost all forms of digital advertising are significantly less expensive,” Hawaii state Rep. Beth Fukumoto said. “It’s a cheap tool for name ID.”

Fukumoto is running in the Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, which represents urban Oahu. While she gained national attention for abandoning the Republican Party after the election of Donald Trump, she has a ways to go before she can consider herself a frontrunner in her race.

Among those she’s competing against are former Hawaii Congressman Ed Case, state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin and Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, who’s perhaps best known for challenging Trump on his travel ban that targeted Muslim-majority countries.

Fukumoto’s online ads have focused on national issues, such as net neutrality, pushing back against Trump’s tariffs and calling on Congress to stop the president from launching a “nuclear first strike.”

A Facebook ad from Beth Fukumoto. Screen shot

“I think digital has opened up a space for more candidates to get their message out directly to the population without having to raise big money to do it,” Fukumoto said.

“It’s providing better access for candidates who would normally not be able to raise institutional money or special interest money, and I think that’s ultimately a good thing.”

State Rep. Kaniela Ing, who’s also running in the crowded CD1 race, also sees social as a way of leveling the playing field.

Ing has put a lot of emphasis into his social messaging and digital advertising. Not only does it allow him to target potential donors outside the state, but it gives him the opportunity to brand himself as he sees fit.

Ing has faced a barrage of criticism and scandal, including a $15,000 fine in part for using his state campaign funds to pay personal expenses.

But he’s also boosted his national image by painting himself as a working class progressive who believes in Democratic socialist ideals, such as federal jobs guarantees, student loan cancellation and a universal housing program.

“It’s really important not just to be good on the issues, but also stand up to corporate power,” Ing said in one of his Facebook ads targeting a national audience. 

“That’s why I’m the only candidate in this race who does not accept a dollar from corporate PACs or their lobbyists. That means that I rely entirely on grassroots support and donations from people like you.”

Ing’s message has resonated across the Pacific. He’s already received the endorsement of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upset U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent in New York, in a race that sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Ing said digital advertising and outreach allows him to disconnect himself from the “old boy machine” that pushes candidates to rely on old school forms of fundraising. He also doesn’t have to spend his limited cash on expensive TV ads.

“It just seems pointless, and people are over that,” Ing said. “We rely 100 percent on working people, and the best way to reach them is online.”

CD1 Rep Kaniela Ing debates with Beth Ann Fukumoto Kamehameha Schools.
State Reps. Beth Fukumoto and Kaniela Ing are both looking to digital ads to help make up ground on their competitors in the race for Congress. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He said that he’s already working on a new video with Means of Production, the same group that produced Ocasio-Cortez’s viral campaign video that generated both millions of views and national press.

And while he’s still down in the polls, Ing said he hopes his on-the-ground efforts combined with his online onslaught will turn the tide in his favor.

“It’s a new landscape,” Ing said. “I don’t know why Democrats didn’t learn that from the last election.”

Political spending on digital ads, such as on Facebook and Google, has spiked in recent years as it allows buyers to target specific audiences and get a greater return on investment.

But antiquated rules and regulations provide little transparency regarding the content of the ads, where they might be running and who’s paying for them.

That’s not the case with more traditional mediums, such as TV, radio and print, where the Federal Election Commission and Federal Communications Commission keep closer tabs on how the money is being spent.

The shortcomings in oversight exploded in 2016 when it was discovered that Russia used digital ads, particularly on social media sites like Facebook, to spread misinformation and influence the presidential election.

ProPublica’s digital ad tracker isn’t comprehensive, but it provides users with targeting information. Screen shot

Since then both Facebook and ProPublica have launched tools to allow people to search for political advertising on the social media platform.

Those databases allow people to see who paid for a specific digital ad, and in the case of ProPublica’s search engine, allows users to see the targeting information that campaigns and political groups use to direct their messages.

For instance, in February U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who’s running for governor against incumbent David Ige, sponsored a political ad about protecting Medicaid funding from the Trump administration.

According to the data collected by ProPublica, Hanabusa’s campaign wanted to reach people of voting age who lived in Hawaii and who had indicated they had an interest in Planned Parenthood.

Ige’s campaign, meanwhile, filed paperwork Wednesday with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission indicating he plans to spend $10,000 on Facebook ads in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 11 primary.

To Tim Lim, a Washington, D.C., political strategist and fundraising consultant who worked for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, digital advertising is the new normal.

“The importance of digital today can’t be overstated — it’s part of our lives” Lim said.

“It’s the way that we’re communicating, doing commerce, getting information and sharing information. By not spending time on digital communications and marketing, campaigns are missing out on a huge swath of voters.”

He said Republicans have done a good job of harnessing the power of Facebook and other digital messaging while Democrats have struggled in recent years. One of the problems, Lim said, is that they just look at it as an ATM.

Many of the political ads on Facebook are considered “acquisition ads,” Lim said, meaning that the campaign is simply trying to get someone to click through so they can sign up for an email list and get bombarded with fundraising emails.

Lim said that can lead to exhaustion, especially as the November election nears and the 2020 presidential campaigns ramp up shortly afterward.

But it also doesn’t take full advantage of a platform, Facebook or otherwise, that can be used to persuade potential voters and tell them about who a candidate truly is.

A more fundamental problem, Lim said, comes when politicians put too much focus on raising money through digital ads.

For example, swearing off PAC donations is a great talking point that can get a candidate press and pull in grassroots donations, he said, but there is a flipside to such tactics.

“The primary way most campaigns are able to get a lot of people into their email list and get people to donate is by throwing red meat and riling up the base and talking about very divisive and angry things,” Lim said.

“From a fundraising standpoint that works very well, but from a political discourse standpoint that’s a totally different topic. I’m not entirely sure that it’s healthy or helping the stability of America.”

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