The digital age has become a heyday for opponents. You can bring down a dictator or a local ballot measure with a laptop computer and cell phone. You can embarrass a political candidate by digging up obscure speeches, photographs and video stored on the Web.
Lately, nobody has been better at humbling the mighty than BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed launched nine years ago to track and share “contagious news.” By 2011, BuzzFeed graduated from a social media and entertainment Internet company into a full-fledged news operation that retained its “clickbait headlines."
Based in New York City, BuzzFeed produces content daily from its staff reporters, regular contributors, syndicated cartoonists and its community of readers. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, which seems like it has gone on forever, BuzzFeed has become the journalistic equivalent of what political pros call “oppo research.”
Andrew Kaczynski, 26, is in charge of BuzzFeed’s 4-person political research unit, called the K-File. He is referred to as the unit’s “old man."
Kaczynski is a journalist who earned his spurs by posting clips on YouTube that contradicted what politicians said on the stump. BuzzFeed hired him in 2011 and his reputation has continued to grow. One admirer called Kaczynski the “Oppenheimer of archival video research.” He was called the most influential opposition researcher in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, where he posted footage of Mitt Romney running for governor of Massachusetts as a “progressive.” It was Kaczynski who exposed Rand Paul for plagiarizing lines from the movie Stand and Deliver for a Senate floor speech about immigration.
BuzzFeed has vexed most of the candidates in this cycle by finding material from their shadowy pasts that causes them present-day heartburn. A piece this week by NPR credited BuzzFeed for discovering the video in which Ben Carson said the pyramids of Egypt were built as grain silos and the records showing Hillary Clinton’s claim was false that all four of her grandparents were immigrants.
It was BuzzFeed that found the C-SPAN clip from 1996 when Clinton referred to some children as “superpredators” and the dusty 1985 video of Bernie Sanders speaking admiringly about the Sandinistas and Fidel Castro. It also was BuzzFeed that produced audio indicating Donald Trump wasn’t opposed to invading Iraq from the beginning after all.
Having potent material on BuzzFeed’s popular channels would be bad enough for candidates, but its posts are now routinely picked up by more traditional news organizations. It was CNN that pinned down Clinton on her “superpredator” remark and got her apology.
The BuzzFeed model conforms perfectly to digital media. It relies on deep dives into long forgotten data pools. It thrives on shareable, attention-grabbing content. It produces contagious news that spreads virally through and beyond social channels.
The cautionary tale of BuzzFeed is that all it takes to be good at opposition research is the patience to keep searching for contradictions, misstatements and hypocrisies. The caution in the tale extends beyond running for political office to any kind of public statement, proclamation or claim. Make sure what you say is true and consistent with what you have said. If you’ve changed your view, own it. If you have dirt swept under the rug, be prepared to deal with it.
Andrew Kaczynski isn't a digital one-off. His clone may be your next-door neighbor.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.