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.

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