Trump, Clinton apps make games of politics | Follow the Hashtag | DW | 25.08.2016
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Trump, Clinton apps make games of politics

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have released mobile apps in their bid to win the White House. Both have turned to a form of "gamification" to attract more supporters.

With the American presidential election a mere three months away, both candidates are pulling out all the stops to snag voters - and their smartphones.

Both the Hillary Clinton and Dondald Trump campaigns have now released mobile apps meant to target their supporters and the treasure trove of data their smartphones provide.

The first smartphone salvo was fired by Hillary Clinton. In late July, her app "Hillary 2016" hit the Apple Store - but has not reached Android users.

Aside of standard features like receiving updates or calls for donations, the app offers users a touch of "gamification" turning small in-app tasks into a game by using a system of rewards in the form of a point system.

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Hillary Clinton's 'gamified' campaign app

Supporters are given golden stars for undertaking tasks that turn them into active Hillary campaigners, whether that's filling out quizzes lambasting Donald Trump's campaign promises, synchronizing their calendars with those of the campaign or tweeting out messages of support.

Users can then spend these stars on an in-game feature reminiscent of social media hits like FarmVille, where they decorate a virtual campaign office with various objects such as lamps, artworks or plants. More zealous users can even hope for real-life rewards, such as campaign memorabilia signed by the Democratic candidate.

Trump goes... Trump

The Trump/Pence campaign duly followed suit in mid-August, releasing their own app on both IOS and Android. The launch was uncharacteristically discreet, going virtually unadvertised.

Named "America First," it curiously omits the known brand power of the "Trump" surname, which likely would have made the app easier to find in the various app stores.

"America First" reflects the language and general tone of Donald Trump's campaign, with evocative features such as a newsfeed consisting entirely of Trump's social media accounts or a countdown to the campaign's presumed defeat of "crooked Hillary Clinton."

"America First" users also experience a measure of gamification - through collecting "Action Points," by promoting the app to their contacts, sharing their activity online, donating to the campaign or answering quizzes on Trump trivia. Here, though, the questions are centered on the candidate's biography and not on policy or news, as in Hillary's app.

Though critical reviews have said the purpose of the point system is somewhat unclear, it does come into play in a special feature: Points can be used to earn ‘"badges" with evocative names meant to measure your degree of involvement in the campaign.

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Among the eight levels are Patriot, TeamTrump, TrumpForce1 and "MAGA," the "official" abbreviation of the Trump campaign's trademarked slogan, "Make America great Again."

This app was developed by self-defined "stealth startup" uCampaign, which has previously developed online tools for other conservative-affiliated groups and individuals such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Pushing the mobile frontier

Mobile apps are not new in the political landscape. Politicians have included them in their campaign trails in the US for some time now, most notably in 2012, when both Barack Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney rolled out their own programs.

Romney's app was mostly a photo-sharing tool and made headlines for having misspelled the word America, while Obama's 2012 app was also clearly different from those of today's candidates: It was not a game.

The objective of the Obama app was clearly to encourage and simplify grassroots campaigning, offering tools such as phone banks and other data for supporters and volunteers to engage with voters.

What it did have in common with "Hillary 2016" or "America First" was that allowed direct contact with supporters. And this is perhaps what is most important about a campaign app.

"You can communicate with [voters] directly through push messages," says Manuel Starber, CEO of be!columbus, a German startup that developed an app for German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the 2013 electoral campaign, which ended in a victory for her CDU party.

"You can only do that with an app, not a website. That's the biggest advantage," he told DW.

Like all social media platforms, apps allow for parties and candidates to circumvent traditional means of communication, like the mainstream media, and to establish an unfiltered line of communication with their bases - all while keeping full control of their message.

So, can this type of software win you any new voters? Manuel Starber thinks not. "I don't buy a CD from a musician I don't like," he jokes.

But he does say that downloading the app could help galvanize existing supporters, and this is where gamification can play a role. Merkel's 2013 app included a "live ticker" tool that allowed users to see how much time they had spent "campaigning" for her.

In this way, Merkel supporters could feel involved in the process (one that would eventually lead to her reelection for a third term) through a reward system that is not so far removed from the point-based rewards Trump and Hillary fans can get from their respective apps.

But it's not only users that are being rewarded, as both Trump and Clinton are also seemingly scoring their own points with the apps.

A quick look through customer reviews of both the Trump and Clinton app shows that the comments are not so much about the quality of the product as they are raving reviews of the candidates themselves.

So while campaign apps might not win over new voters, they may strengthen a voter's loyalty to a particular candidate. And it gives these voters a tool tailor-made for them, by their party, whom they then reward with free publicity as they spread the app's messages into social media.

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