How social media has shaped the U.S Presidential Election

Back in 2008, Barack Obama harnessed the power of social media in its infancy to help him win the Presidency. Voter lists, phone banks and direct mail gave way to the previously unforeseen political force of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. 8 years later, the social landscape has metamorphosed into an entirely different (and considerably more powerful) entity and with just 7 days to go until final voting in the 2016 Presidential election, its capacity to tip the balance in the run-in has never been more potent…

At the time, the way in which Obama’s team worked the social media angle was nothing short of revolutionary. Indeed, much of the juice behind his ‘change’ movement was created by the groundswell of positive opinion generated by the campaigns regular forays into social media. And by comparison, it caught his competitors cold because they were never as fleet of foot when it came to social. It made Obama look super smart and tech savvy whilst making John McCain seem old fashioned and out of touch, particularly to younger voters (which arguably swung the result in his favour).

Unsurprisingly, I guess it was inevitable that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trumpwere ever going to fall into the same trap and both of their campaigns have been largely epitomised by their presence on a variety of social platforms.

Now, before I continue, I just want to state that the solitary aim of this social commentary piece is about how the candidates are utilising these social channels to assist them in their campaigns. It is not a political piece extolling the virtues (or not) of either candidate. I have tried to be balanced and equitable to both parties, so can we please refrain from polluting the thread with unnecessary comments about email servers, misogyny, building walls etc. That’s for different forums. Mini rant over. Let’s press on…

Both Trump and Clinton have been prolific on almost every conceivable platform, although interestingly whilst Hillary does have a LinkedIn presence Donald does not. He does have 3 dedicated groups supporting him though and his son, Donald Trump Jr, has a strong profile in support of his father. And that raises an intriguing point. There is a school of thought which posits that it’s not necessarily their own activity that makes a difference. It’s more about their ability to galvanise their own loyal supporters, influencers, acolytes and surrogates into liking, commenting, sharing and retweeting their thoughts, views, opinions and ideologies. Information becomes democratised and, in turn, it becomes the ‘social glue’ that binds them together.

Maybe Donald has missed a trick with LinkedIn but in terms of Facebook, Trump wins the numbers game with 11.8 million ‘likes’ versus Clinton at 7.7 million. As for Twitter, it’s 12.8 million ‘followers’ for Trump up against 10.1 million for Clinton, so Donald edges ahead again. On Instagram, it’s honours even at 2.8m ‘followers’ each. There is no doubting that Donald’s social support is fervent and exceptionally vocal but will that be reflected when it comes down to the ballot box?

For millennials specifically, social has become the go-to tool for politics. In a recent research study by the Pew Research Centre, which garnered the perspectives of almost 4000 U.S citizens, 35% of 18 to 29 year olds stated that social media is the most helpful source of information on the 2016 presidential election. Vincent Raynauld, who is a professor in communication studies at Emerson College in Boston says:

“Sensational headlines and memorable memes give rapid-fire politics momentum on social media. Social is the most important platform for the millennial generation”

And a relatively new phenomenon which has really erupted in this election is the way in which both the Clinton and Trump campaigns have encroached into the more traditional forms of media. Basically, the steady stream of digital ripostes and ribaldry espoused by the candidates has actually become the staple fodder of the TV stations and newspapers as a form of news content in its own right. Who hasn’t switched on CNN or Fox Newsto see the latest acerbic tweet from either Hillary or Donald, probably posted at around 3am and likely in full attack mode make the main headline news of the day? And that inadvertently expands the power of social media even further by reaching people who don’t even use social applications themselves but witness the outputs on their more regular channels. As Dave Marinaccio, CEO of marketing communications firm LM&Ostates:

“The campaigns can influence the traditional media by reacting to, or creating, newsworthy social content. They can engage a much larger segment of the electorate than they would solely through social media outlets. Even people who don’t use social media feel its influence daily.”

Another, altogether more disturbing, trend is the way in which the more cynical side of social media has come to the fore over the course of the electioneering. Again, you can’t have failed to notice the rise in the number of vitriolic and toxic exchanges between people across their various social feeds. In some way, I suspect this is a mirror reflection of the way the overall campaign has been conducted across the duration of the election with the various barbs, smears and trolling emanating from both camps. Sadly the ugly face of social is becoming an all too common online occurrence these days with peoplehiding behind their keyboards to deliver the most stinging slurs and acidic aspersions.Brian Solis, principal analyst at research group Altimeter and LinkedIn Influencer explains it thus:

“It brings out the darker side of digital introverts in that we are willing to say anything… without logically thinking about its impact on what’s reality and what people will think about us beyond this election. We are not behaving like adults, and we’re supposed to be leading the future of this country. We’re voting for our children, and this behaviour online is incredibly selfish”

Depending on which of the latest opinion polls you read (or believe) the Presidential race is incredibly tight. The majority of research suggests that Clinton is marginally ahead. Some say by as much as 7% and others as little as 1%. Well after what the pollsters said about Brexit, forgive me if I treat most of this research with a modicum of disdain. I think it’s fair to say that with just a week to go, there is everything to play for and social media will have a pivotal role in the final decision-making process as the clock inexorably ticks down to the denouement…

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