It was 10:59pm on October 19, just 22 minutes after Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton exited the stage at the final presidential debate. A tweet went out from Trump’s account: “That was really exciting. Made all of my points. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
The debate may have ended, but the night was still young on the social media front.
“RT if you’re proud of Hillary tonight,” a tweet from Clinton’s campaign encouraged followers as the debate finished. After posting quotes and remarks throughout the event, Clinton’s campaign retweeted a flurry of comments and polls declaring her the victor. “3/3. #SheWon,” one tweet said, accompanied by a shot of a CNN poll.
Before a reporter had interviewed either campaign, both candidates already had instant contact with millions of Americans.
Social media: the new public square
This year, more Americans are turning to social media for their news more than during any past presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center. About a quarter of U.S. adults go to Clinton or Trump’s social media posts “as a way of keeping up with the election,” said the study, conducted this past summer.
That number is even higher among millennials. Nearly 40 percent of the 18-29 demographic turn to social media for the candidates’ latest news, the report said.
Presidential campaigns have also paid much more attention — and more dollars — over the past two elections. Political spending on digital media in 2016 is projected to be about $1 billion — a 5,000 percent increase from 2008 — according to the research firm Borrell Associates.
The 2008 presidential race went down in history as the “Facebook election,” due to Obama’s enormous success in garnering support and votes through reaching out on social media platforms. Facebook’s political influence continues to grow. The New York Times reported that since 2012, Facebook has “doubled its government and politics team, which includes a political ad sales group, a data communications team and employees devoted solely to Democrats or Republicans.”
Twitter has also grown significantly. During the 2012 presidential election, the platform shared that “as many tweets are sent in 8 minutes as were sent on all of Election Day 2008.” Four years later, the number is even higher, hovering around 500 million tweets posted each day.
Today, social media continues to revolutionize campaign strategies. Pew found that social media sites have become a key part of how candidates’ connect with the public, displacing some roles that campaign websites used to fill. The candidate’s sites have become “leaner and less interactive” as campaigns focus on communicating voters on social media.
The candidates have centered their campaigns around hashtags, such as #ImWithHer and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Both — particularly Clinton — have also employed other platforms, such as YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and even Pinterest during the race.
Lessons from the Sixties
This isn’t the first time technology has revolutionized the way candidates connect with citizens.
Over fifty years ago, the first-ever televised debate — between Nixon vs. Kennedy in 1960 election — transformed presidential campaigns. Viewers who tuned in on their television sets watched a confident, charismatic Kennedy, contrasted with an uncomfortable, shifty-eyed Nixon, and declared Kennedy the clear victor. Listeners on the radio, however, gave Nixon the win.
Radio shifted the public’s attention to vocal presence just forty years earlier. Now image was king.
Image continued to impact the success of presidential candidates after Kennedy’s ascent to the White House. Technology critic Nicholas Carr noted that “it was Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton who perfected the form. Born actors, they could project a down-home demeanor while seeming bigger than life.”
In today’s ever-evolving social media world, our 2016 presidential candidates are facing the same problem: how to translate to the American public on this new medium. Television charisma looked like a possessive posture, confident expression and winning smile.
On social media, it’s being a punchy wordsmith. It’s a potent personality, confident wit and relatable presence.
And one candidate clearly has the upper hand in a social-media driven society.
Trump, the social media star
Donald Trump — the former star of his own reality T.V. show — has been called the “FDR” and “Kennedy” of social media. Hailed as the “emperor” of social media and a “master of marketing” his unapologetic commentary and pithy insults speak the internet’s dialect.
Jason Shephard, the chairman and associate professor of communications at California State University in Fullerton, said that social media “plays to [Trump’s] personality, his celebrity status, his flair for catching public attention.”
“I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke,” Trump tweeted in October 2012. Other notables include: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” “Thanks- many are saying I’m the best 140 character writer in the world. It’s easy when it’s fun.”
“There is an authenticity to Donald Trump tweets that make them more powerful,” said Shepherd.
Maneuvering this new medium has proved to be more of a challenge for Clinton, according to Liz Mair, who has served as the online communications strategist for Scott Walker and Rick Perry during their presidential campaigns. Mair explained that “She’s very buttoned up and conservative in terms of her demeanor.” As a result, “That reads as overly poll tested and inauthentic to people. Anything she does [on social media] will be less effective.”
Overall, Clinton’s campaign has harnessed social media quite strategically, inventing creative ways for social media users to interact with campaign messages while demonstrating their support. In July, they introduced “#TrumpYourself” a website that allows users to “discover what @realDonaldTrump thinks about people like you,” by applying filters over their profile pictures that included offensive quotes from Trump.
They even implemented a version of Trump’s unapologetic, straight-to-the-point approach through punchy one-liners, met with overwhelming internet applause.
The most famous — a tweet that simply read “delete your account” in response to Trump’s brazen critique of Obama’s endorsement — was retweeted nearly half a million times, a number exceeding that of any other tweet this election.
What does it mean?
If television introduced the importance of image, in social media it’s all about personality.
Trump’s success strikingly illustrates the social media ideal: it favors the “authentic” and “relatable” over the polished and the predictable. Trump’s posts never mince words, often use all-caps and seem to come from the candidate himself.
Carr, author of The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us, wrote an article for Politico last year entitled “How Social Media is Ruining Politics.” He explained that on social media, “it’s only a particular kind of personality that works—one that’s big enough to grab the attention of the perpetually distracted but small enough to fit neatly into a thousand tiny media containers.”
He describes it as a “Snapchat personality”: “It bursts into focus at regular intervals without ever demanding steady concentration.” This atmosphere advantages content with shock value — while sometimes de-emphasizing credible information.
The change also means that media will likely continue to grow more constant, as social media users check their mobile social networks an average of 17 times a day — and expect to see new updates. Social media is “more encompassing and controlling, more totalizing, than earlier media ever was,” according to Carr.
This election, both candidates have outpaced their predecessors in the frequency with which they post and the amount they spend on digital marketing. For those lamenting the politically saturated state of social networks, sorry — you’ll probably be seeing a lot more #politics in your feed’s future.