Let’s start this post with a fairy tale. Once upon time, we believed that social media would have a democratizing effect on our world, our nation, and our local communities. Social media provided a venue for political expression, it opened the door to greater democratic participation, and it provided a vehicle for organizing political campaigns, protests, and social movements.
The reality has been far less sanguine. Social media has provided new venues for political expression but these venues have been dominated by our partisan voices. The political conversations on social media—if conversation is the right word—are mostly driven by partisan ideologues who use social media to confirm rather than challenge existing viewpoints. When we happen to accidentally stumble across different political opinions we quickly ignore the post and move on or we unfollow, hide, or unfriend the offender. Consider the following data from the Pew Research Center:
- 83 percent said they ignored content they disagreed with; only 15 percent said they typically respond, comment, or engage with the original post.
- 59 percent said they found it “stressful and frustrating” as opposed to “interesting and informative” to talk with people on social media they disagree with. (A more detailed discussion can be found here).
- 39 percent changed their settings to see fewer posts or blocked or unfriended someone “because of something related to politics” including posting something offensive (60 percent), posting too much political content (43 percent), or for posting something they disagree with (39 percent).
- And, only 3 percent follow a political figure they disagree with.
The very real potential for social media to enhance democratic deliberation and dialogue has clearly not been realized. The reason is relatively simple. By providing nearly unlimited choice in content, social media allows highly engaged partisans to become even more engaged and more intensely partisan and the less engaged and not-nearly-so partisan to disengage. As a result, social media simultaneously contributes to the political polarization of American politics (though it is not necessarily the cause of this polarization) while also contributing to a growing frustration and fatigue with politics. Social media has had an especially pronounced effect on what political scientists call “affective polarization,” meaning a deep and abiding dislike of the other side. This means we increasingly see our partisan opponents—not as well-intended or misguided but as a threat to the nation. And, we now worry more that our children will marry someone from the other political party than from a different race or religion. Part of the reason for this is that our political conversations online—because they are online—are at once more uncivil and angrier than the conversations we might have in person.
Before moving forward, we should make an important point. The voices on social media—at least in the aggregate—do matter, at least if they are real voices. Elected officials and candidates for public office respond to these voices. The news media increasingly incorporates social media posts and trends into news stories about the campaign, political issues, or attitudes toward government and politics as representative of the public more generally. The problem is that these voices are not more representative of the broader population. When it is an actual human posting (and not a campaign bot), the most intense and most partisan ideologues are driving online conversations. Voices of moderation and uncertainty are mostly missing. As an aside and a testament to the importance of social media, campaigns, especially the Trump campaign, are rigging social media analysis by using bots, software designed to automatically tweet, retweet, like and reply to social media posts. During the third presidential debate, it is estimated that Trump bots outnumbered Clinton by a factor of about 7-1.
Within this context, Donald Trump has emerged as our first full-fledged twitter candidate, specializing in the 140 character tweet. Trump himself has, by the way, declared himself “the best 140 character writer in the world.” In terms of social media activity, he certainly dominates the race. For example, Trump leads in:
- Facebook likes, 12m to 7.8m.
- Twitter followers, 12.9m to 10.2m
- Tweets: More than 33,000 to 9,500.
There is much to learn—good and bad—from his use of social media, and campaigns of the future will likely emulate at least part of his model.
Respond immediately. In 1992, the Clinton campaign created the “war room” based on the premise of responding to any attack or negative story before the next news cycle began. They learned from Michael Dukakis’ failed campaign in 1988 that—absent an immediate response—attacks from a negative campaign tended to stick. In 1992, candidates typically had hours to formulate a response for the next day’s news cycle. In a digital age, candidates can respond within minutes (even seconds). Doing so serves several purposes. First, it gives supporters and followers the ammunition they need to resist unfavorable news stories or to challenge partisan attacks. Second, the news media will also cover the response (most often tweets), thus expending your social media reach.
Responding immediately does come with an associated risk: The response may later prove to be incorrect or poorly thought-out. It may even backfire (think Khizr Khan or Alicia Machado). Luckily, however, we live in a post-fact society where being factually accurate is less important than speaking in angry and loud broadsides that sound like the truth. Plus, there is always an opportunity for new social media posts, allowing the cycle of responses to continue endlessly.
Stay negative to rise above the noise. Trump has famously insulted nearly everyone on twitter, including members of his own party. His favorite insults involve the words like loser, dumb (or dummy), stupid, or terrible. The use of negativity helps Trump rise above the noise, assuring that his social media activity is attracting public and media attention. His willingness to violate Ronald Reagan’s commandment—thou shall not speak ill of other Republicans—further assures media attention. He is, at once, violating the social norms for political campaigns while also providing the news media with something other than boring partisan talking points. While he might have been able to rise above the noise by being clever or funny, being negative is the most straightforward and easiest path to garnering social media attention.
Know your audience. Perhaps most importantly Trump shows that he understands his social media audience. His social media activity reflects their anger and frustration, and their abiding sense that no one in Washington is hearing their concerns. Trump not only hears their concerns he is expressing them both with the tenor and the content of his social media posts. The problem Trump faces, both on social media and more generally, has been his difficulty to expand into new audiences.
Hillary Clinton, in contrast, is a traditional candidate who has adopted her traditional campaign strategies to the social media world. While she doesn’t have the presence Trump has on Twitter or Facebook, she has more effectively used YouTube for her commercials, LinkedIn, and Snapchat. It might be surprising to learn that she has a higher Klout score (95) than Trump (89). Unlike Trump, who responds constantly and often personally, Clinton’s posts are largely extensions of her campaign messaging with perhaps one notable exception. On occasion, either she (or one of her surrogates) has used Twitter to bait Trump into an ill-advised Twitter response. As a result, while Hillary Clinton is nowhere as active as Trump is on social media, her campaign may be more influential.
For those who once hoped social media might make for a more democratic political process, the 2016 presidential campaign has been less than encouraging. But it shouldn’t have been surprising. Providing new venues for political expression provides no assurance that the voices that emerge will be thoughtful, deliberative, or representative of the public more generally. Indeed, there is good reason to have expected just the opposite as the people who are most motivated by ideological or partisan commitments would be most likely to engage in these new forums. The larger problem, the need to engage less motivated, less ideological, and less partisan citizens, remains. These are the voices that move conversations toward the middle and that move politics toward accommodation, compromise, and moderation. These are the voices most need but also most often missing on social media.