The 2012 presidential election was dubbed “The Social Media Election”. Each candidate took advantage of social media in order to get-out-the-vote, organize local voters, raise money and spur awareness of the candidates and the election as was impossible in earlier elections due to the absence of the technology. Much of the success and elections of President Obama in 2008 and 2012 has been credited to the ability of his campaign to effectively utilize new technologies to organize the campaign efforts. Efforts which were certainly more successful than those of his respective opponents, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Some analysts attribute the failing of virtually every public opinion poll to accurately predict the 2012 election outcome on the inability to adequately account for the effect of social media on voting. In fact, research has demonstrated that Twitter discussions are an unusually good predictor of U.S. House elections and using social media to predict presidential primary results instead of traditional polling techniques is feasible.
The 2016 presidential election has once again demonstrated that importance of social media. Tweets from the presidential candidates’ offical Twitter accounts are news in and of themselves. Many media outlets have noted how Donald Trump has perfectly crafted his campaign to fit into 140 characters or less. Trump utilizes his Twitter account to craft powerful messages and to spur support among his followers. Social media is method by which Donald Trump has the ability to instantly communicate with over 12 million people several times a day. Almost 4 out of 10 Americans get their news online, including via social media. And social media is changing not just how Americans view the news but also how they consume that news, with filters on social media sites dictating that most consumers only see news with which they agree. Therefore, when Donald Trump tweets he is not simply relying news, he is perpetuating a narrative. Tweets create news.
Social media also gives regular citizens the ability to generate support for or against the candidates. For example, the repealthe19th hashtag which emerged on Twitter following an electoral map breakdown that showed Donal Trump would win the election if only males voted. This trending hashtag was either the product of pro-Trump Twitter users or an effort by supporters of Hillary Clinton to protray Trump supporters in a negative light. Unscientific polls which showed Donald Trump winning the presidential debates were also the product of savvy social media users effectively gaming those polls. Social media thereby has the ability to not only demonstrate actual support for candidates but to also create a false reality of that support.
These messages expressed via social media has also contributed to the contentiousness of this election. Spurred on by the relative anonymity of social media as well as their “filter bubbles” social media users communicate their support for a candidate through increasingly negative messaging. Below is a brief breakdown of trending hashtags relating to the candidates. As may be seen by these hashtags social media is being used to perpetuate stereotypes of the candidates and to depict them in a negative light.
Hillary Clinton hashtags:
Donald Trump hashtags:
These are only a few examples. There are many, many more. Social media is redefining what elections can be, but also what they probably should not be. And while social media may have a positive effect on political participation and civic engagement it also hampers political judgement, decreases political knowledge and increases partisan polarization.
For those so inclined social media can make you a better citizen and help you make a more informed vote. Conversely, in many other cases social media only creates the perception of a more informed vote. But it is a vote informed solely by information which simply conforms to prior expectations. The result is not a more informed electorate but rather a more divided one.