- Posted by Tim Thiel
- On April 5, 2016
The Election of 2016 is certain to go down as one of the defining elections of the 21st century, as both the Democratic and Republican parties struggle to maintain unity in the face of an evolving electorate. While there is considerable coverage of the political turmoil in the parties, one aspect of the election process is going relatively unnoticed by traditional media outlets and that is the growing role of social media.
In this election, social media will have a direct impact on the outcome. In fact, it already has. Some candidates have been able to use the power of social media to their advantage, while others have found the minefield too hazardous to navigate.
Trump’s background as an entertainer and television personality enabled him to wield the power of social media unlike another other candidate. Trump entered the race with more than 4.7 million followers on Twitter, 500,000 on Instagram and 4.1 million on Facebook. This broad presence allowed Trump to spread his message far and wide, easily surpassing the reach of traditional media outlets. Trump’s online savvy is clear.
What People Want
No candidate posts more material online than Donald Trump. His Twitter feed is active almost 24 hours a day, with a steady stream of statements and reactions from the candidate. Millennials and young voters see his frequent postings as an authentic attempt to engage with them on their level. Many of his followers thrive on controversy, and feed off his often outrageous statements. Trump’s social media accounts give his followers exactly what they want to see and hear from their candidate, and they are mobilized to fight for his vision of America.
In politics, mudslinging is an art form. Negative attack ads can sink a competitor’s campaign, and defending yourself against attacks consumes a large part of the day-to-day operations for any candidate. Donald Trump uses Twitter as his chosen platform for negative attacks on his rivals, and the strategy has worked better than anyone could have predicted. Trump’s followers regularly like, share, and retweet his messages, giving those messages a viral reach that spreads to every corner of the internet. Even Trump’s detractors reference or share his statements, serving only to make those postings more powerful and visible.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the last of the major candidates to join social media, but she has made large gains in a very short period of time. By the beginning of 2016, Clinton had almost as many Twitter followers as Trump (4.6 million), as well as a sizeable presence on Instagram and Facebook. Clinton’s social media strategy, however, followed a far different trajectory than Trump’s.
The cornerstone of the Clinton online strategy is creating a sense of belonging among her followers. They want to believe they are part of something larger than themselves, and latch onto the idea that they are important members of the campaign. To accomplish this goal, Clinton’s campaign launched #ImWithHer on Twitter. The hashtag enables Clinton’s followers to easily share information about the candidate, and reach out to others with the same political leanings.
Though Donald Trump has made more posts than any other candidate, Clinton is the undisputed queen of social media content. Her staff modeled their online strategy after popular content sites like BuzzFeed to provide followers with easily digestible and shareable content items on social media. The result is a viral spread of the Clinton message that is both engaging and entertaining for the most active social media users.
This election has seen the improbable rise of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist. His entire campaign is fueled by his online presence, with over 1.75 million Twitter followers, 300,000 on Instagram and close to 3.6 million followers on Facebook. Sanders’ social media success is largely two-fold.
Sanders’ entire campaign is predicated on the idea that he is beholden to no one but the average American. He receives no money from Super PACs and has very few large money contributors to his campaign. Instead, Sanders’ campaign is driven by small contributions from millions of individual Americans, each of whom feels a sense of ownership in the process. Sanders’ digital strategy encourages this sense of personal ownership. Supporters constantly use the hashtag #FeelTheBern to interact with each other, and form a nationwide political movement.
A Voice Outside of Mainstream Media
Bernie Sanders has received less coverage from traditional media outlets than any other candidate thus far. The small number of Democratic debates further limited his ability to secure free media exposure. To combat these problems, Sanders took to social media during the Republican debates. Sanders’ posts soon became the most talked about during the debates, giving Sanders’ campaign a voice to reach out to potential voters when other outlets were unavailable.
Tech CEO and former candidate Carly Fiorina is the poster child for poor use of social media during this current presidential election campaign. Her almost insignificant presence on Twitter and Facebook was a fraction of that of the leading candidates, and she never made serious inroads to close the gap. On top of that, Fiorina’s social media missteps destroyed her online strategy.
Surging after the first Republican debate, Fiorina became a legitimate contender for the GOP nomination. Then she attacked Trump on Twitter. Fiorina’s campaign scored well with GOP voters because she appeared to be above the fray, not someone who would get down in the mud and wallow like Trump. Her attacks on Trump came across as petty and un-presidential, contributing to her collapse in the polls.
Fiorina’s biggest online failure was her inability to capitalize on momentum in traditional media outlets. Her strong debate performances were never followed by a wave of social media postings, leaving her message to be drowned out by the more popular campaigns. Instead of providing followers with new, interesting, and sharable content, Fiorina’s campaign relied on retweets and shares from other news sources, limiting her exposure.
V Digital Services
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