Anti-social media in the 2016 US election

It was in this Tweet that Donald J. Trump, President-elect of the United States of America, began a conspiracy theory that would form part of the bedrock of his Presidential campaign some five years later.  To question the citizenship of a sitting President raises many significant issues, such as the role of race in American politics.  But there has been another phenomenon at play which is crucial to understanding the question that has been on everyone’s lips this week: how was Donald Trump elected President?

This question can, at least in part, be answered by understanding how in the 2016 Presidential race, the medium could not be separated from the message.  Social media played an unprecedented role in the political process in 2016: as of July 2016, 24 percent of US adults said the social media posts of the candidates themselves were the main source of news and information about the election, compared with 15 percent who used the candidates’ websites or emails combined.  The two major candidates also took to social media prolifically: as of 12 October 2016, Donald Trump’s Twitter account has 12,381,579 followers, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 9,651,177.

Sheer prevalence of social media is not enough to explain the 2016 Presidential election, however the implications of such heightened media production and consumption are crucial to understanding shifts in the political process.

Post-factual politics

In 2016, we have witnessed a profound shift in the political discourse from one in which citizens lambasted politicians when they were dishonest, to one in which citizens, disenfranchised with the way the political system has affected them, find their views legitimised in misleading comments about those who oppose their opinions.  The online public sphere has provided a new platform in which citizens and candidates alike can propagate false stories without any vetting or editorial process.  This has been particularly evident in the increase of fake news websites that resemble credible news organisations and have published a number of false stories throughout the 2016 campaign.  Pundits and politicians have attempted to counter the effects of this environment of post-factual politics through fact-checking and repeatedly pointing out these lies.  But their efforts, it seems, have been in vain.  In the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast on the day after the election, Faria Chideya commented that ‘bringing facts to a culture war is like bringing a knife to a gun fight’.  The Clinton campaign missed the mark, attempting to treat a symptom of the deeper disease: a population of disappointed and economically suffering people who sought change from the system they believed had failed them.

The echo chamber effect

The unapologetic and prolific dishonesty by the Trump campaign has been heightened by the ‘echo chamber’ effect of online communication.  Research has found that participants in online communities are prone to engaging with or following citizens who share their opinions, with opposing views being underrepresented in the media they consume.  Thus, a set of information and opinions are amplified and reinforced online, increasing the participant’s sense that their views are credible and universal.  In 2016, 64% of American adults received their news from only one website, while more people’s online networks consisted of people whose views were the same as theirs, compared with views that differed.  The manifestation of this phenomenon amongst conservative media has been in the spotlight for much of 2016, with the perpetuation of websites such as the Drudge Report, alt-right media organisations such as Breitbart News playing an increasingly central role in the Trump campaign.  It is also true of the left, however, with political satirists such as John Oliver and Stephen Colbert rising in popularity.  This has served to significantly lower the quality of debate between citizens as well as the quality of media reporting generally, sensationalising and heightening the coverage of Trump and his comments.

Engagement and mobilisation

One of the key debates throughout this year has been concerned with the differing get out the vote strategies of the two campaigns.  The Clinton camp employed a more traditional strategy, investing millions of dollars in television advertising and employing state staff, courting and receiving the endorsements of almost all major newspapers, and engaging largely one-directionally with their constituents online.  Trump’s campaign, on the other hand, barely had a strategy to speak of, with unprecedented engagement with ordinary citizens via Twitter, far fewer campaign offices than Clinton in key states, and minimal spending on television advertisements and GOTV tactics.  Indeed, Clinton is set to win the popular vote, however Trump’s ability to connect with voters in an authentic and genuine way has been pointed to by some as a key factor in Trump’s success compared to perceptions of Clinton’s cold, deceptive persona.

It has been less than a week since Donald Trump was elected President, and analysts of the future will certainly better situated to assess the phenomenon that is 2016.  The media, particularly social media, however, has played a central role in shaping the discourse and campaigning of the 2016 Presidential election.  It is incumbent upon those of us in the business of studying, understanding and explaining politics to reassess, and use this moment to consider new and better ways to inform citizens and engage in robust and productive discourse.


What kind of day has it been

The media and events team arrived at Manning at around 8am, most of us lacking breakfast and caffein, all of us excited for the day we’d spent months planning.  Everyone was buzzing, and everything was going according to plan; one of the PhD students brought me a coffee, people had started lining up for the event an hour earlier than the indicated start time, a life-size Anderson Cooper cut-out smiled confidently and personally at each person who walked past him.

But there are some things about yesterday that have stuck in my mind, things that I need to put to words lest I ever normalise or forget how the day unfolded.

To the left of the venue stood a drove of mostly young men wearing pressed collared shirts and bright red baseball caps.  Initially I thought they were being ironic: until yesterday, I too owned a Make America Great Again cap, a trivial something I thought I’d keep to show to the grandkids one day with a chuckle (I quite purposefully left it at the venue).  The Australian media has given due coverage to their offensive chants and behaviour, and I have nothing but respect for the way my superiors handled the situation to ensure such disrespectful behaviour was dealt with.  And yet, something sticks.  I’ve had more than 24 hours to think about it, and what I keep coming back to is this: for perhaps the first time, my confidence in an institution, a city, a country that I felt was safe, isolated from the division and disaffection and fear-driven sexism and racism that has characterised America this year, was, if even only partially, broken.

At some point around lunch time, a professor whom I respect and trust burst through the doors, hands held up in disbelief, and said “I don’t know what to believe anymore”. Florida’s votes had not yet been fully counted, but Trump was around 2 points ahead and had been for at least an hour.  Then CNN called North Carolina, and I watched as another esteemed professor walked, almost robotically, into the staff room and sat at the media desk in silence, looking blankly at her phone.  The frequency of these scenes only grew.  By around 5pm, another intelligent professor was sitting on the floor, head hanging and back against the wall, the rest of us desperately eating the blocks of Dairy Milk chocolate she’d bought us.  These periods of quiet resignation were interspersed with periods of madness, of endlessly ringing phones, of all the swear words I know and some I didn’t being used in the same sentence, of rushing frantically up to the main venue whenever we heard the fateful whoosh of the CNN projections.  Sometimes we didn’t even need to be in the venue to know who a state had been called for – the pitch of the cheers of the crowd were generally a good indication.  Then Pennsylvania was called, the heavens had opened on Sydney, and the academic sitting on the floor looked up at us and said quietly, “She can still win, right?”.

I was standing next to one of our academics when Tammy Duckworth was announced to have unseated Mark Kirk in the Senate projection.  Not having followed the Senate races very closely, this academic explained to me how Kirk had mocked Duckworth’s ethnicity and military service in a debate.  My first reaction was: what’s abnormal about that?  Not, ‘what’s wrong about that?’ – but what, in the grand scheme of 2016, is unusual about a politician denigrating the race of their rival?  Later in the afternoon, two of the academics and an ex-student started engaging in a heated discussion over the role of gender in the 2016 campaign.  We had been obsessively and cautiously looking at CNN’s exit polls, and one of the academics could not stop bringing the discussion back to one striking fact: 53 percent of white females voted for Trump.  There was lots of talk about the biased and often inaccurate nature of exit polls, all of which is true.  But there was one thing that seemed to ring clear and pure above the rest: it seemed that one’s race was of greater importance than one’s gender when it came down to the vote, and that such comments as those made by Trump in the Access Hollywood tape released by the Washington Post in early October have now been normalised, whether by the media, or by women, a majority of whom apparently believe “that’s just what boys do”.

I went home just before they called Wisconsin.  My rain-drenched state on a muggy train to suburban Sydney perfectly encapsulated my mood as I checked my Twitter and saw the results.

I have burning questions.

How did we let this happen?  How did we miss such a key demographic?  How can we account for them in future models?  How have we let anything of Trump become normal?  How did we not learn from Brexit?  Was there actually anything to be learnt from Brexit?  What does the troop of Trump supporters in Sydney’s very own Manning Bar tell us about what may be in store for Australia in years to come?  What the hell is up with the demographical turnout?

I have three big and important questions specifically from yesterday.

What does this mean for women?

What does the future of political analysis and commentary look like?

Have we now entered an era in which racism, sexism, attack the vulnerable, bullying, and fear-mongering are legitimised?

Some preliminary thoughts: the division is real and big data models are not sufficient to account for certain members of the population, who were clearly missed in 2016.  We’re all going to have to do some work to think about either how we incorporate them into statistical models, or how to shift the discourse around polling data.  Going into this, the talk was all about how the GOP would have to do some serious soul-searching post-election.  As an academic said yesterday, we all thought we’d go into the day, chuckle nervously about how close it was, but inevitably get it over and done with and breathe a sigh of relief.  But it seems the Democrats are going to have to do some reflection of their own, particularly in thinking about their GOTV strategy and their lack of economic messaging at a time of such heightened economic uncertainty and suffering.  My ultimate takeaway, 24 hours after the fact, and one that I’m taking from many experienced and knowledgeable pundits, is that this election has forced America, and arguably the world, to take a good, hard look at its butt-naked self in the mirror and face the fact that the warts and scabs and bruises its been trying to ignore, or perhaps hadn’t even noticed, are getting serious.  What we’ve seen this election are mere symptoms of a deeper, internal, and not-quite-yet understood disease that they’ve let fester for too long.

There is always hope. There is always tomorrow. I cried watching Clinton and Obama’s speeches. It is now incumbent upon us to ensure we fight for the vulnerable groups Trump, and many of his supporters and the values that he stands for, have so viciously attacked and endangered this year.  But right now we’re in the depths of the cesspool and we have a lot of cleaning up to do.

It’s been 24 hours, and the shock has washed over me a bit.  There will be time for a more analytical piece in the future.  I’ll end with this Tweet I posted in one of the calmer moments of last night:


Day 2 of UNSC negotiations ends with landmark resolution

Original post was written for a simulation of Al Jazeera at the Belfast Model United Nations conference in 2015, and can be found here:

After two gruelling days of negotiations, tonight the UNSC were at last able to adopt a resolution to tackle the threat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  The lengthy draft resolution was presented by New Zealand, and incorporated elements of the two previous working papers.  Particular emphasis was given to cooperation with the Arab League in regards to stymieing ISIS’ use of social media to recruit members, strengthening neighbouring countries’ abilities to prevent the spread of ISIS, and ensuring the protection of human rights.

The resolution was generally received with optimism and approval, with all member states being signatories of it. Clause 18 was a source of contention, with Chile, Lithuania and France refusing to pass a resolution in which economic sanctions against the Syrian government were lifted.  China and Russia stated that if the wording of this clause was the only barrier to the passing of the resolution, it could be striked and erased from history.

After some minor amendments, and some doubt as to the position of Russia, the resolution was passed unanimously to the joy and applause of all the delegates.  Delegates remarked that the resolution was pleasing, with Russia stating it was “proud to have reached this consensus”.  There has still been minimal discussion thus far about the impact of the conflict on civilians, a key weakness in the final resolution.  The resolution was otherwise comprehensive and the delegates hope it will be a practical and successful step in the right direction towards stopping the threat of ISIS.

Diversity displayed in UNSC Session 5

Original post was written for a simulation of Al Jazeera at the Belfast Model United Nations conference in 2015, and can be found here:

Progress in the way of Working Paper 1.2 came to a halt this afternoon, with Russia moving to table it in favour of discussing other matters, particularly the development of a new Working Paper that had been in the making over lunch. China and the USA were the duo in the negotiations of this paper, and there was a palpable sense of hope in the room as the details were discussed.

The most significant development in this afternoon’s session, however, was the embracing by delegates of their state’s cultural and linguistic diversity.  The delegate of France was a leader in this field, the first to speak in the native language of French when addressing the Council. His reminder of “liberté, egalité, fraternité”, the traditional republican French values, were a powerful reminder to the Council of the importance of their decisions and the heavy responsibility each member holds. This was followed by the delegate of China displaying his multilingual abilities by addressing the Council in Russian, followed by the delegate for Venezuela speaking in Spanish.

There was a cheerful mood in the Council as session 5 came to a close, and Al Jazeera foresees that the final session for the day will bring greater cooperation and practical measures. The final challenge will be ensuring delegates reach consensus about how their united front can take real action on the ground in the Middle East.

Delegate of Iraq pays surprise visit to UNSC

Original post was written for a simulation of Al Jazeera at the Belfast Model United Nations conference in 2015, and can be found here:

The focus shifted in this morning’s session towards negotiations regarding cyber-security to combat ISIS.  Solidarity was displayed by the USA, France and Chad in cooperating with regional power the Arab League in order to develop a comprehensive approach towards cyber-security.There was disagreement amongst delegates regarding the best way to tackle ISIS’ use of the Internet and social media, with China opposing suggestions from the USA to introduce measures within these states and instead proposing measures towards censorship to control the propaganda of ISIS.

A second working paper was also introduced by Chile in today’s session, focusing on combating the use of social media by ISIS as well as implementing the use of military force in Iraq.  This paper was given strong support by Jordan, the USA and France, who emphasised the need for intervention. The US found itself in a weak position after Russia noted the lack of response from the US to coordinate where airstrikes in Syria could occur, airstrikes that the US had criticized in this session. As noted by China, the paper “looks nice but doesn’t cover much”, and did not add anything substantial to discussions or practical measures. This working paper revealed, however, that delegates were eager to coordinate through increased information sharing and a unified approach to weakening ISIS.

After a sentimental reflection from the US that “we can make the world a better place one little step at a time”, session 3 ended with a surprise visit from the Delegate of Iraq, who concurred with the issues addressed in the working paper. Iraq was highly effective in ensuring the following discussions remained on topic and were not distracted by fringe issues such as the Kurds, and further suggested the Council address illegal weapons as a practical step in weakening ISIS.

Working paper dominates Session 2 of UNSC negotiations

Original post was written for a simulation of Al Jazeera at the Belfast Model United Nations conference in 2015, and can be found here:

Greater solidarity was displayed between delegates in the second session of UNSC negotiations regarding Resolution 2199.  Venezuela, reflecting the convincing positions previously stated by China and Russia, emphasised the importance of regional stability and strengthening local government without undermining Syrian or Iraqi sovereignty.  Russia continued to be the subject of unfair criticism in this session, with France questioning the bias of Russia, a major supplier of arms to Syria.  France raised doubts as to the ability of Russia to vote on the resolution at hand impartially, however Russia maintained the Syrian government was using their arms to improve stability in the region.

The most significant progress was made through the introduction of the first working paper by Jordan, France and Chile, focused on weakening ISIS’ power in Syria by providing Syria with alternative sources of energy.  Many delegates were critical of its lack of long-term sustainability, and the lack of nuance in considering the various actors in need of power, as well as the operational clause banning the ability to use this energy for military purposes.  China was particularly critical, asking “who are we to decide what Syria uses power for?”, and drawing attention to the fact that pressure is being put on Syria by not only ISIS, but also other western states that have placed sanctions on Syria.

Although the working paper was tabled at this session, its introduction and discussion signals the beginning of substantial negotiations and changes to the resolution.  Delegates have expressed a sense of urgency to continue developing concrete measures in tomorrow’s session.

‘Slow but promising’ start to UNSC negotiations

Original post was written for a simulation of Al Jazeera at the Belfast Model United Nations conference in 2015, and can be found here:

Negotiations at the UN Security Council made a slow but promising start this morning in regards to UNSC Resolution 2199.  Discussions largely focused on defining which specific areas of ISIS economic concern were most crucial, an area that will inevitably be a source of conflict throughout the conference.

There was little consensus amongst delegates in the first session, with the US unsurprisingly emphasising the “need to go further and take [the resolution] to another level” in order to achieve new levels of freedom, stability and democracy.  China argued strongly for a pragmatic approach, tackling the issue “head on” rather than via stopping or slowing trade with and economic growth by ISIS.  Unfortunately Russia’s valiant persistence to discuss ISIS’ logistical process, which may have stimulated discussion towards technical and practical issues, received no support from other delegates.

While minimal tangible progress was made in this session, some key themes continued to arise that will be crucial in the development, and potential passing of this resolution.  Questions were raised by Jordan as to the effectiveness of non-military intervention in stymieing economic funding to ISIS.  Further, the complexity regarding the various actors involved in both Syria and Iraq may cause further stalemates in this committee, raising issues such as alternative to ISIS for providing energy to the Syrian government, as well as considerations for minority groups in the region.  Delegates hope that in spite of this morning’s deliberations, further sessions will allow for more concrete discussion of the resolution.