Tweeting 2016: How Social Media is Shaping the Presidential Election
IN THIS ARTICLE
Something seems different about 2016. Something many of us just can’t place our fingers on. Sure, The Donald looms disconcertingly over us, a threatening testament to American fear, but it’s not like he has transformed the political atmosphere all that much. Historically, politicians have spanned the whole spectrum of negativity and bigotry—anti-radical, anti-Catholic, anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Semitic, anti-foreigner, anti-Left, and anti-pretty-much-everything else. While former Republican candidate Ted Cruz and Republican nominee Donald Trump continue to echo this tradition of alarmism and panic, even Sanders, with his constant castigations of Wall-Street, contributed to the negativity of 2016’s rhetoric. But if all of this is entirely typical, what makes 2016 so unsettling?
Perhaps, it’s simply that the ad hominem attacks have gotten out of hand. It certainly feels that 2016 is a particularly rhetorically violent year for presidential campaigning. But, personal attacks are American as apple pie, cornerstone to every election from 1800 to 2012. America bared witness to accusations that John Adams lacks “patriotism” and “philosophy” (Mark, 2006, p. 20-21), acquiesced to calls demanding proof of Barack Obama’s faith of Christianity and his birth in America, and yet, in 2016, we balk at the attacks and seem hyperaware of the negativity.
Two of the most unpopular candidates for the U.S. Presidency in the history of American elections. Image: Flickr/DonkeyHote SA-2
The rhetoric itself does not fall far outside of historic trends, so something else must be at play. Just in its natality during the 2008 election, social media has gained then unimaginable popularity in recent years. By 2012, nearly 40% of American adults used social media to share political content, although, despite the hullabaloo, social media played a relatively minor role. Now, political commentary and criticism flourish in the online ecosystem, cohabitated by conventional journalists, politicians, and members of the public. As approval ratings for the presidential nominees hit all-time lows, we simultaneously see an explosive growth of user-driven political commentary (Merline, 2016). As discord reverberates within the major political parties, which have failed to produce inspirational candidates, criticism of campaign rhetoric abounds online.
A relatively new medium, politicians are just beginning to include social media as an important part of their campaign arsenal. It should come as no surprise that technological innovation can majorly reframe presidential campaigning. As partisan newspapers fell out of favor in the 1800s, candidates began to use the new railroads to campaign directly to voters. Radio and then television reinvented communication between candidates and the voting public, bypassing journalists and permitting widespread political advertising. On the brink of a social media revolution in 2008, one which overflowed in the Arab world during the 2010 Arab Spring, Obama became the first presidential candidate to use the social media sphere with some efficacy. However, it wasn’t until 2016 that politicians began to use social media as more than a gimmick, symbol, or conventional media add-on.
Social media — especially Twitter — has played an instrumental role in the amount of attention received by the most flagrant examples of negative rhetoric in the 2016 campaign cycle.
The spheres have collided—political and social—and we’re still struggling futilely to separate them. We’re pre-social media voters living in a post-social media world, trapped within a paradigm that experts have been foretelling the demise of for years (Frantzich, 2013). Politicians have entered social media in full force, bringing negative campaigning with them. Twitter and other forms of social media are reshaping how politicians communicate with voters, cutting out the journalistic middleman, and popularizing political criticism. Not only has the wall separating voters from politicians been overrun, but American news media consumption habits have changed. User-generated political content on social media sites can have the far-reaching impact formerly reserved for journalists and newscasters. Increasingly, Americans are relying upon viral media content on social networks as a primary source of information. User-driven and spreading virally, social media presents a whole new ballgame for politics, the potential of which has of yet not been significantly explored.
I argue that viral social media, especially Twitter, has played an instrumental role in the amount of attention received by the most flagrant examples of negative rhetoric in the 2016 campaign cycle. Propagating through social media, overwhelmingly negative, frequently deceptive, and often fallacious examples of campaign rhetoric that would have gained little traction in the journalistic avenues of traditional media are brought to the forefront of our attention in a continuous onslaught. The perpetual assault on our senses and sensibilities by the likes of Donald Trump shapes the public conversation surrounding the election, focusing our attention even more than before on the soundbites and less on the valued presidential qualities of the past. It would take a certain brand of naivety to believe that social media will mellow out with time, but a good understanding of digital campaigning and political rhetoric online could better prepare voters, mitigate the negative effects, and potentially emphasize the benefits provided by social media to politics.
The scope of this question draws upon research in seemingly disparate fields, ranging from analyses of literature relating directly to Twitter to pre-Internet studies which apply by logical extension or analogy to the modern state of politics on social media. First, we contextualize the perceived decline in rhetoric and liken it to changes in politics seen after the adoption of television. Then, we progress into a comparison between the use of Twitter in social movements such as the Arab Spring, American elections including the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, and new developments in the 2016 presidential election. Next, we describe differences between the social behavior of Twitter and other forms of media and examine connections between the negativity, virality, and effectiveness of political advertising on various mediums. Finally, drawing upon communications and marketing research, we draw analogy between the oversaturation of the airwaves with product and political advertisements and the omnipresence of political messages online, with particular attention payed to the backwards propagation of social media content into conventional media outlets.
“The Trump Effect”
Published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The Trump Effect” (Costello, 2016) attempts to hone in on why 2016 “seems different” than past elections. In particular, the study searches for changes in campaigning behavior that could be responsible for the repulsion many feel towards the 2016 election. The article identifies that the “catchphrases…campaign and antics of its [2016’s] contestants are omnipresent” (p. 6), stressing a key development in 2016—the political sphere has subsumed everything. We’re surrounded by politically charged media, yet it arrives in ways that would have been foreign just four years ago. Driven to virality by the heightening usage of social media such as “YouTube, Instagram and Twitter,” our exposure to campaign rhetoric and slogans likewise rises (p. 6).
Our consciousness has been saturated with politics from social media, which provides the perfect environment for divisive claims to become the center of attention. As award-winning writer and columnist Michael Winship adds, “mud of the filthiest kind has been slung in every American presidential campaign since George Washington…[but] such invective came before the 24/7 news cycle and social media could relentlessly batter us with it from every corner all the time” (n.p.). The mental battery has been psychologically taxing: social media users are now hyperaware of the constant assault of political content online and have begun to react adversely to politics entirely.
Conventional media exacerbates this declining trust in politics. Although fact-checking is chic, the accuracy of news is declining and the public is losing trust (Fahri, 2012; also see Holan, 2015, p. 4). Whereas conventional news operated quite independently of social media in past elections, social media is very much part of journalists’ experience in 2016. Given the rapid growth of social media since 2012, Twitter and Facebook may easily be the most ubiquitous, publicly accessible, and politically important forms of media today. Reporters, stripped of their role as “gatekeepers” of knowledge, are forced to join the public in the online social realm (Hahn, 2013; Farhi, 2012; Silcock, 2009).
This transition is also significantly transforming the entire field of journalism; Stuart Hughes, a producer at the BBC, reports that in the past three years more than 80% of his newsgathering has come from Twitter (Hahn, 2013, p. 12). Not only does the use of Twitter for newsgathering reduce independence between the mediums, distorting conventional media in many of the same ways that social media distorts reality, but it also undermines the credibility of conventional media, which is becoming increasingly reliant on sources of questionable authenticity. Droves of individuals online share content without verifying its accuracy, thereby furnishing “viral” social media with unfounded credibility only to have it picked up by conventional news organizations (Farhi, p.35). By driving a biased, likely more sensational, sample of information to the top of users’ feeds, social media plays an enormous role in the spread of interesting and exciting stories. Unfortunately, whether those stories reflect reality is anybody’s guess.
Consequently, “the Trump Effect” refers to more than just the slogans of Trump permeating public thought. “The Trump Effect” captures the mode by which political slogans are mobilized in the 2016 election and how those differ from the past. Likening the growing popularity of social media to the adoption of the television in the 1950s and 60s, we see distinctive parallels between the two technological movements. The rapid adoption of the television by the American public shattered earlier political science research on the effects of mass media: pretelevision era studies that suggested mass media has little effect on the public (Berelson, Lazarsfeld & McPhee, 1954) were rendered obsolete by post-television studies, which found that television viewers are impacted greatly by the experience (McClure & Patterson, 1974). Voters were transformed into sponges by television, soaking in the political advertising, news broadcasts, and occasional primetime debate.
Like social media, television is appealing to a wider audience than newsprint. Television strives to be understandable and accessible by the public as a whole. Maybe it’s even more democratic: combining graphics with text and spoken word, the television has a universality to it that has only recently been surpassed by the Internet. Regarded as “a better medium for truth,” observers contemporary to the television boom predicted “an infinite broadening of the democratic process” to spring from the television revolution (Taft, 1951; Mickelson, 1960; Gentzkow, 2005).
Instead, voter turnout declined and local news sources were “crowded out” of the market as Americans exchanged the newspaper for the television (Gentzkow, 2005, p. 2; George & Waldfogel, 2005). The American voter became less well informed and less politically inclined. Despite consuming greater amounts of media, the television was regarded primarily as an instrument of leisure and entertainment. Although the television was more politically impactful than print sources and the radio on voter opinion, its single greatest effect on American politics may have been its role in diminishing voter turnout by as much as 2% per decade since its arrival (Gentzkow, 2005). Television seemed to have damaged democracy.
In recent years, the Internet, not television, has been referred to as the “ultimate” populist tool with far-reaching impact offline (Dobbs, 2015, p. 153). Political multimedia spreads organically online, driven by public opinion and popularized through user interaction such as “liking” and “resharing.” The extent to which political content on social media permeates the lives of its users is greater than even that of television. By necessity, any piece of viral social media content has been vetted by thousands of users who found it to be emotionally stirring, informative, or otherwise jarring. Confirmed noteworthy, popular content online is more likely than the traditional content available to any broadcasting network to solicit response. There is a strong similarity between the technological shift from print to television and the current shift to social media. Just as television users have gradually been turned-off from politics, perhaps the current unease felt by many Americans today is a continuation of the same behavior stemming from the adoption of social media.
2016 Couldn’t Come Soon Enough
In 2011, citizens across the Arab world staged uprisings against authoritarian regimes controlling much of the region. The so-called “Arab Spring,” the aftermath of which is still being felt in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, was coordinated in large through Facebook and Twitter. Content “trends” on Twitter as users reshare or “favorite” the content of others. Users may also associate key words, known as hashtags, with their content; these hashtags, which correspond roughly to movements, events, or other topics of significance, can likewise trend as more users include the hashtag in their posts, reshare content containing the hashtag, or like content that cites the hashtag.
Studies have found convincing evidence that social media “played a central role” in the revolutionary activities and political conversation comprising the Arab Spring (Howard et al, 2011, p. 2). In particular, young, urban individuals in Arab states used Twitter and Facebook to shape the public dialogue surrounding the government and its officials. Howard et al. (2011) focused on Twitter, finding that the Twitter conversation often reported on issues left untouched by conventional media. While the authoritarian nature of these Arab states complicates drawing direct analogy between the Twitter revolution in the Arab world and the ongoing growth of Twitter in American politics, the ease with which Twitter prompted protest suggests its monumental power to convince. The speed with which Twitter brewed a social storm provides evidence for its potential to spread information virally. The effortlessness with which individuals called hundreds of thousands to action across the Arab world demonstrates the ability of the medium to bypass conventional channels and cater to the popular need.
The Arab Spring arose from a general dissatisfaction with national governments, driven primarily by word of mouth communication between private citizens. While unions played a minor role in organizing public actions, it was the narratives and stories of common individuals, particularly Arab youth, that stimulated others into action. Twitter facilitated the spread of these narratives by increasing interpersonal connectivity and expanding the reach of oral communication electronically. Research has shown that Twitter users, regardless of whether or not they are very well connected, are able to influence others online (Smith, Coyle, Lightfoot & Scott, 2007).
Even moderately connected Twitter users are able to steer the direction of public discourse and can have reach extending far beyond their social circle through secondary and tertiary retweets. Electronic word of mouth communication has been studied significantly by marketing researchers, who have found that electronic word of mouth communication can affect individuals equally even if produced or promoted by a company (Godes & Mayzlin, 2009).
This research is particularly relevant to Twitter political campaigning because, just as grassroots word of mouth communication spurred hundreds of thousands into motion in the Arab Spring, the same vigor may be tapped by politicians who effectively influence Twitter users with narrative and word of mouth communication. While politicians in the first years of Twitter’s existence primarily employed the social media site to inform and campaign in a traditional, pre-social media fashion, Golbeck et al. (2010) finds that those who did interact and participate in direct dialogue with Twitter users “appeared to gain more political benefit” (p. 579), which supports the argument that word of mouth communication can be harnessed for political advantage.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama was the first to grasp the connection between conversation, communication, and an effective usage of the Internet for campaigning purposes. Recognizing that “there’s no more powerful tool for grass-roots organizing than the Internet,” Obama posted 262 tweets leading up to Election Day, November 5, 2008, at a time when only 3.5 million Twitter accounts had been created (Solop, 2010). However, in 2008, Twitter did not yet have the reach it has today. The election happened before the rapid growth of social media; by the following Election Day in 2012, nearly 50 times more Twitter accounts had been opened (Statista, 2016). Furthermore, Obama used Twitter primarily as a medium to inform, not converse with, the public. Only 1% of his Tweets in 2008 were personal comments and nearly 80% of his tweets simply stated his whereabouts and upcoming live events (Solop, 2010, p. 41-42). Therefore, while Obama recognized the significance of Twitter, his campaign did not realize the full potential of the new medium.
Obama improved his grasp on social media by 2012, but not by as much as the cacophony of media coverage and social media hype may suggest. Some are quick to point to the Obama campaign’s social media specialists and data analysts, who helped the campaign “craft messaging and reach populations more effectively…through extensive personal contact” as examples of revolutionary innovations in campaigning (Steger, 2013, p. 74-75). Steger likened Obama’s data-driven online campaign to Billy Beane and Peter Brand’s “Moneyball” revolution in baseball and pointed to the campaign’s successful mobilization of voters as evidence. Stephen Frantzich (2013) counters, writing in Winning the Presidency 2012 that the “considerable attention” given to new media technologies “masks” the reality that “candidates are by definition strategically conservative” and that “new technologies are accepted as add-ons, rather than replacements” (p. 90).
While political commentators have been anticipating the coming of “the Internet election” for years, in 2012 the application of new technology was less important than the symbolic meaning of the technology and the importance of appearing up-to-date (Frantzich, 2013). Obama’s social media campaign fell short of truly generating public conversation. In large, the usage of social media in 2012 extended only so far as to supplement and digitally replicate conventional campaigning strategies. While social media was used in the 2008 and 2012 elections, they were not social media elections.
Right Under Our Nose: How the Public Became Hypersensitive to Politics
Online campaigning strategies have matured to match the evolving world of social media. Projections place campaign spending on digital advertising upwards of one billion dollars in 2016, an increase of more than 5000% over online advertising spending in the 2008 election (Borrell Associates, 2016). With social media and smartphone penetration approaching 60% and exceeding 75%, respectively, digital advertising in 2016 is much more than the symbolic gesture it has been in prior elections. Furthermore, individuals unaffiliated with any campaign are able to harness soundbites and clips online to create potentially viral user-generated news. In the past, unbalanced media coverage has had the potential to provide hundreds of millions of dollars of free political advertising to candidates. This trend continues in 2016, with Donald Trump receiving the equivalent of three billion dollars in free advertising from digital and conventional media outlets in comparison to Hillary Clinton’s one billion. Much of this unsolicited advertising is user-generated content by amateurs and private individuals for public consumption on social media.
Twitter, in particular among social networks, has an unusually high diffusion of content. The widely cited work by Kwak et al. (2010) finds that once a tweet has been retweeted once, it is virtually guaranteed to be retweeted to at least 4 levels of separation from the content producer. Independent of the number of followers of the content creator, retweeted content is viewed by thousands of people on average, many unknown by the original content producer. Therefore, Twitter users are likely to be bombarded by politically motivated tweets even if they do not directly follow creators of political content.
Original content produced on Twitter by private citizens often takes the conversational form of word of mouth communication, differing from other forms of social media, such as YouTube and Facebook, in which viral political content often possesses qualities of amateur journalism. Studies have indicated that negative word of mouth “spreads faster” and is “more effective” than positive word of mouth (Parmelee & Bichard, 2012, p. 70; Knauer, 1992; Park and Lee, 2009). As a result, political content that manages to find a foothold in Twitter’s topography more likely than not has a negative slant. At the very least, viral content on Twitter has a greater impact on its audience, which can extend far beyond the followers of the original content creator.
This model of content resharing was studied early on by Phelps et al. (2004), which examines the factors that increase the apparent attractiveness of pass-along emails. The study found that “messages that spark strong emotions [such as] humor, fear, sadness, or inspiration” are more likely to be forwarded (p. 345; also see Parmelee & Bichard, 2012). These results may be extended to political tweets, providing further evidence that emotionally-charged, negative tweets are more apparent to typical Twitter users. Research has also shown that the “increased sense of anonymity” seems to make Twitter users more likely to express negative, uncivil, or even violent views online than in-person (Parmelee & Bichard, 2012, p. 20), providing further support for the theory that negativity proliferates in greater volume on Twitter than in traditional media or in person-to-person conversation.
These results are highly consistent with the public’s response to the 2016 presidential election: we are repulsed by the election, which we perceive to be marred by negativity to a greater extent than other elections in recent memory. Our mode of exposure to the negativity of elections has changed: this election is more personal—discussed conversationally online instead of being guarded by journalistic gatekeepers. And all the while we continue to regard the election as though it were an election of the past. We see the increasing volume of negativity, without thinking twice about its source. Finally, the Internet election has come to pass, but we haven’t realized it.
Not only has Twitter been swamped by political tweets supercharged with negativity, but also oversaturated by political content in general. There is strong evidence that political oversaturation in any medium can lead to not just political desensitization, but also political aversion. We have already discussed well-known studies that investigate the effect of campaign negativity on voters, finding that increasing campaign negativity correlates with decreasing trust of the government (Brooks & Geer, 2007), but political scientists have also found that oversaturation of political advertising can have an off-putting effect on the populous. Existing research has found that “the persuasive influence” of political advertising declines due to oversaturation (Fowler et al., 2016).
Television ad-space saturation has also been studied widely by marketing specialists, who find a similar aversion arises towards over advertised commercial products. In one case study, two companies DraftKings and FanDuel spent more than five times their revenue on 60,000 advertisements that aired during sports programming. This oversaturation of the market with ads was responsible for turning many people in the target audience against their online product (Petchesky, 2016).
The world of social media does not exist in isolation, either. Journalists are using Twitter for research, newscasters are citing tweets within their daily broadcasts, and even the Republican presidential debates are being infiltrated by live Twitter feeds. Politicians are also relying on traditional news services to pick up on their social media content as a form of free advertising. Media experts are becoming increasingly aware of the indirect effect of political advertising on voters through television coverage of political ads and social media content. These programs, however, focus excessively on negative advertising, “giving audiences a false impression” of the amount of negativity in a campaign (Fowler, 2016).
This amplification of political messages also occurs through comedy programs such as The Daily Show, which turns additional attention towards politicians within a context that, unlike advertisements, is not clearly sponsored by the politician. Social media fed back into conventional media during the first Republican debate in 2016, which featured a running Twitter feed and an entire section of debate devoted to questions posed by Twitter users. This backwards propagation of social media content into the sphere of traditional political influence emphasizes the omnipresence of politically focused social media content in even conventional spaces. Experiencing a claustrophobic effect, social media users cannot find solace from viral social media content offline, let along online.
This continuous bombardment has driven the plugged-in public towards hypersensitivity to the rhetoric of the campaign trail. Seeing orange hair and little hands everywhere, users are barraged by political content online and elsewhere. Unlike other forms of media, one cannot easily forsake the Internet when irritated by candidates’ advertising and political content. While Wihbey and Ordway of Journalists’ Resource and many others contend that “not much will prompt a faster change of the channel” than political attack ads on television, political content on social media is embedded along with desired pictures of friends and posts from family. Often, the political content may even originate from a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend, making this new form of political discourse more insidious than any before.
While the overabundance of political messages on social media isn’t driving users off of the Internet, users are feeling the adverse effects of message oversaturation. Users on social networking sites find it easier to isolate themselves politically than consumers of conventional news media, allowing for users online to stew within a homogenous broth of political thoughts (Parmelee & Bichard, 2012, p. 20). Kaufhold, Valenzuela, and Gil de Zúñiga (2010) found that citizens who view user-created online news, which includes blog posts and Twitter content, are likely to be less well informed and more likely to be strongly partisan than those who interact more frequently with professional news media.
Given that negative content reaches farther, hits harder, and solicits a greater response, politically minded social media users may find themselves surrounded by messages they find erroneous, distasteful, or hateful. Communications research Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University, argues that “almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly” (Tugend, 2012). Incivility online has also been linked to increasing the “cognitive recall” of oppositional opinions, underscoring Twitter’s perfect storm of characteristics contributing to users hyperawareness of negativity in campaign advertising.
Implications of the Changing Paradigm
The Internet election is upon us, but what that truly means for voters is not entirely obvious. Voters seeking to be well-informed will have to become accustomed to the biases of political content on social media. Television attack ads sponsored by presidential candidates were immensely influential in the early years of television. President Johnson’s hyperbolic “Daisy Girl” ad that equated votes in support of his rival Goldwater to nuclear death warrants for innocent flower and freedom loving girls captivated viewers (Mark, 2006). But just as these advertisements fell out of favor as modern voters began to “punish candidates” for running attack ads1 (Dowling & Wichowsky, 2015, p. 1), plugged-in voters will now begin the slow trek towards awareness of deceit online.
Gone are the days of the “gatekeeping” role of journalism and the conventional mode of political advertising.
The Twitter presence of the 2016 presidential candidates dwarfs that of candidates in previous election years. However, one candidate stands out in 2016 as a particularly talented user of the medium; described as “[embodying] what it means to be a social savvy politician,” Donald Trump uses social media to push his message in a unique way that is impossible through traditional campaigning (Roussi, 2016). As allegedly advised by his digital strategist, Trump aims to use social media to cause “controversy—the more outrageous the content, the better” (Roussi, 2016; Rosenblatt, 2016). And this works phenomenally on social media sites, such as Twitter.
Appealing to popular desire and internalized prejudices instead of logic-backed argument, Donald Trump is a demagogue in the technical sense of the word. His impressive understanding of social dynamics came as a surprise to many traditionally-minded political commentators, who thought that Trump’s campaign strategy was chaotic and doomed to fail (Schwartzman & Johnson, 2015). But these critics are stuck viewing the campaigning process in an antiquated way; others have found discipline and methodology in Trump’s madness after trawling through thousands of his tweets and analyzing the linguistic patterns therein (Tsur, Ognyanova & Lazer, 2016). Trump creates a sense of “personal participation” in his tweets that mirrors the word of mouth techniques and direct dialogue that Golbeck et al. and others have noted to be particularly impactful in social media environments (Golbeck et al., 2010; Godes & Mayzlin, 2009; Smith, Coyle, Lightfoot & Scott, 2007). With near undisputed control among candidates over the new space of social media, perhaps Donald Trump’s popularity could have been foreseen well before his victory in the Republican primaries became clear.
Another troublesome consequence of the insidiousness of online political content biases may be a corollary of Gentzkow’s 2005 paper on voter attrition caused by television advertising. Gentzkow, a Stanford professor, proposed a model of voter behavior that reflects declining political participation as an effect of biased media coverage and political advertising. This model coincides with data collected from 1955 through 2005, explaining a 2% drop in political participation per decade. Gentzkow suggests that increased transparency in advertising could curb voter attrition, but if the same model extends to voters in the digital age, the increasingly biased sphere of social media could actually accelerate the erosion of the American electorate.
The picture isn’t entirely bleak, however. While professional journalism has historically played a key role in encouraging political participation and enhancing political knowledge, citizens who are more active online tend to have greater engagement in political activities (Kaufhold, Valenzuela & Gil de Zúñiga, 2010). Additionally, online political involvement represents a further liberalization and popularization of the political process, expanding the accessibility of politics to even beyond that made possibly by television.
User-created political content and online presidential campaigning on social media are here to stay. Gone are the days of the “gatekeeping” role of journalism and the conventional mode of political advertising. Moving forward, a deep understanding of the interplay between political negativity, social media, and the political sentiments of voters will be crucial for interpreting the dynamics of the American electorate in any sociopolitical context.
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1.) Dowling and Wichowsky (2015) find that candidates still benefit from attack ads sponsored by groups or parties.