WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Should President Donald Trump and Twitter ultimately part ways, his campaign has a backup plan at the ready to get his voice out.
Tensions between Trump and the messaging platform escalated last week after Twitter began to label some of his tweets with a fact-check. Trump responded with an executive order that threatens to curtail some legal protections enjoyed by social media companies.
Trump’s campaign has been building an alternative channel for him for months, a smartphone app that aims to become a one-stop news, information and entertainment platform for his supporters, in part because of concerns that the president would lose access to the Twitter platform, said his campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
The Trump app, which was launched in April, has since often placed among the Top 10 in Apple’s rankings of news apps, sometimes above those of individual news organizations such as CNN, the New York Times and Reuters.
“We have always been worried about Twitter and Facebook taking us offline and this serves as a backup,” Parscale told Reuters.
He spoke before Twitter for the first time prompted readers to check the facts in Trump’s tweets last week, warning that his claims about mail-in ballots were false and had been debunked by fact checkers.
For supporters, the new app is where they can get the latest campaign news, watch campaign-produced, prime-time shows hosted by Trump allies and earn reward points for making phone calls or signing people up for the app.
For the campaign, it is a pandemic-proof substitute to Trump’s signature rallies, and a key tool to collect crucial data that can help micro-target voters ahead of November’s election. Trump will face presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 contest.
With millions of Americans stuck at home and campaign rallies paused due to the coronavirus, successful digital organizing can make a difference, digital strategists in both parties say.
Signing into the app requires a cellphone number, which then allows the campaign to send the user regular text messages lauding Trump or asking for donations.
“The most important, golden thing in politics is a cellphone number,” said Parscale, who ran Trump’s digital efforts in 2016 before leading the 2020 campaign. “When we receive cellphone numbers, it really allows us to identify them across the databases. Who are they, voting history, everything.”
Reward points that users can earn by getting other people to sign up for the app can be used to buy campaign gear or even score a meeting with Trump himself, the campaign said.
Biden’s campaign has a phone app as well, where supporters can donate or volunteer, and text people directly with campaign messaging.
But unlike Trump’s app, it provides little information, such as social media streams or news releases. Nor does it connect to the virtual campaign events Biden has been holding nearly daily during the coronavirus pandemic. The app is not ranked by Apple as among its 200 most popular for news.
The Biden campaign said it uses its app almost solely for organizing supporters, not for pushing content.
By contrast, according to Stefan Smith, a Democratic digital strategist who worked for Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign, the Trump app has created a “walled garden” or “digital mousetrap” where voters ideally stay as long as possible, interacting with the app’s steady stream of content.
“The Trump campaign is a media company with an electoral component,” Smith said.
The Trump campaign hired Texas-based company Phunware (PHUN.O) to build the app.
If they so choose, users can rely on the app as a primary, if heavily filtered, information source, one where Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is championed and the economy is poised for a quick recovery and the federal probe into Trump’s collusion with Russia was a politically motivated hoax.
Not included is less favorable coverage of the president. On Monday, the app contained a campaign statement framed like a news article that said Trump had been working to unite the county in the wake of nationwide protests over the police shooting of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
There was no mention of a combative conference call Trump had with U.S. governors in which he urged them to act more aggressively toward the protesters.
Bill Bigby, a Trump supporter in Scranton, Pennsylvania, said the app has now become his go-to source for the latest news.
“We have learned that you can’t trust anything the media says about Trump,” Bigby, 56, said. “They just don’t like him.”
Parscale said that was exactly the goal the campaign had in mind.
“I think everything we do is to counter the media,” Parscale said. “This is another tool in the tool shed to fight that fight, and it’s a big tool.”
Editing by Soyoung Kim and Tom Brown