The Power of Social Media in the 2016 Election

Early on in the race, it became clear that the buzz a candidate was generating on social media would be an important factor in their success. More people than ever use sites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to learn about the issues and engage in political discourse. Although the Internet and social networking have been growing in importance in the twenty-first century, this is the first election where new media is overtaking traditional forms. With any candidate instantly able to reach millions online, party outsider candidates with emotionally gripping rhetoric such as Donald J. Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders have risen farther than past candidates outside the establishment.

Go on your Facebook right now, and I guarantee you that mixed in with baby pictures and cooking tutorials, you will quickly come upon an article about Mr. Trump, the most notorious frontrunner of the social media race. Trump is the example of how a candidate’s ability to create excitement on social media can translate into tangible political gains, as he is currently the leading Republican candidate. His pathos-packed and simply worded stump speeches provide the perfect fodder for sharing and retweeting. If someone already leans towards agreement with his ideas, it is easy to see how quickly they can be swept up in the excited sentiments the Trump campaign is consciously generating. On social media, his main strategy is sending out simple, inflammatory statements, and so far, that method has been extremely successful. When Trump said he would ban all Muslims from the United States, he seized half of the Twitter mentions among candidates.

Of course, not all of the people talking about Trump were in support of his proposal. Although sentiment analysis is tricky, it is estimated that at least half viewed this idea negatively. Yet whether positive or negative, he dominated the news cycle on social media, and all that exposure was attention denied to other candidates. That command of the nation’s attention speaks to the power of social media as that attention correlates with Trump’s high poll numbers in the Republican primaries so far.

Mr. Trump is not the only one to utilize this strategy. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has succeeded by targeting the fears of debt-laden college students and the frustrations of a middle class. Although he has long been involved in politics, it was only last year he joined the Democratic Party. Like Trump, his primary campaigning strategy has been stump speeches and rallying.

Sticking to a format where Sanders controls the microphone provides a slew of prepared quotable moments ripe for sharing. While Sanders does not make too many provocative statements in the style of Trump, he does tap into the emotions of his supporters in a similar way, mostly targeting economic insecurity rather than Trump’s focus on fears of terrorism or immigrants. What really separates Sanders from other candidates is how much of his support lies in millennials who will often use social media to do much of Sanders’ campaigning for him.

What is unique about their form of campaigning is many will talk about the presidential candidate in the same way they talk about any popular celebrity, following trends such as the “cinnamon roll” meme and photoshopped flower crowns. While it’s great the notoriously unparticipative 18-25 demographic is so enthusiastically engaging in politics, this culture of having “faves” and “stans” that are romanticized beyond reproach is not conducive to someone occupying as complex a role as the president of the United States. In fact, it is extremely dangerous, and it reveals the trends toward the far left as well as the far right.

This extremism is integral to Trump and Sanders’ social media presence. The two bring an intensity that more party-establishment politicians like Kasich and Clinton fail to excite. This election is particularly emotionally fueled with issues such as a resurged interest in civil rights, combatting the new threat of ISIS, and the defunding of Planned Parenthood only representing a few of the topics on the table.

Everyone is talking about these issues, but the language is different for these two compared to other candidates. Within a few days, Senators Sanders and Clinton both tweeted about affordable college tuition. Clinton tweeted, “No student should have to borrow money to pay tuition at a public college. Here’s how we can achieve that:” with the link leading to a lengthy, politically worded plan, as many of her tweets do. In contrast, Sanders tweeted, “It’s a disgrace that hundred of thousands of bright and qualified young people are unable to afford a higher education. This must end.” Sanders’ language is more emotional and plainspoken. It has an intensity that strikes a chord in the reader, especially if the reader, like many Twitter users, is a college student or recent graduate and is drowning in student debt.

It is that emotional resonance that will lead to retweets and shares, furthering Sanders’ cause. People deeply care about these issues, and the amount of pathos a candidate uses is going to be what makes voters listen, even if the expectations being set are as high as a wall on the Mexican border. An idea such as that doesn’t sound very extreme when all your friends on Facebook think it could work.

This is how more extremist ideas have been given room to grow. Social media is a primary source for many users, but while more information is at the fingertips of voters than ever before, people are consuming political news in “filter bubbles,” a term created by Upworthy chief executive Eli Pariser. Filter bubbles are when your activity on the Internet leads to future content being catered to your tastes and ideologies, expelling what may be contradictory to your views and interests.

This filtering may come from websites like Facebook that use algorithms that record your interests in order to show content (usually ads) that will appeal to you. But it can also come from the user. Quite logically, people mostly “friend” and “follow” figures and news sites whose ideas line up with their own. A liberal is less likely to follow Sean Hannity on Twitter in the same way it is not probable for a libertarian to be sharing a Daily Show clip. People consume and share the content they most agree with, and this trend in social media has allowed Trump and Sanders to not only stay in the 2016 race but also thrive as their niche viewers can find who they resonate with.

In past elections, these two may have attracted a small following that would probably have died out as voters left for more established candidates with a higher chance of winning. Because people can now cater their content to whom they agree with, they can continuously reinforce loyalty to their candidate and, in a very populist manner, keep a campaign alive and growing.

The intensity of the candidates and their ability to tap into the hearts of the electorate inspired their initial success, but social media fostered it. Through the use of social media, presidential candidates who are outsiders to established political parties can stay in the race longer- perhaps all the way to November.