By Victoria Venable Elm Staff Writer
The election of 2008 was a pivotal moment in American history for many reasons. Beyond the historical election of the first African-American president, 2008 was a major shift in the venues of campaigning and the role of the media in elections. In 2008, Barack Obama bolted together a network of social media sites to produce a game changing force to raise money, organize locally, and get out the vote. His successful campaign has been credited, at least partially, to his use of social media and the candidates of 2016 have noted.
Running for president is sort of like the hardest and most expensive job interview you could imagine, and just like the job interviewing process, the role of social media has greatly affected the way candidates have to campaign. Having a strong social media presence allows candidates to reach wider audiences for much lower costs. It can also allow them to portray themselves in different lights, all at their control. Though extremely calculated and under the consultation of numerous advisors and staff members, candidates can use Facebook posts, Tweets, and Instagram accounts to get their message out to voters with hardly any cost. It is the 21st century fireside chat, the online soapbox, and possibly the best campaign tool for this election season.
Social media helped President Obama win the election because, as the first post-boomer candidate, he was the first to utilize it. Now, simply having an active Twitter account is not enough. There are right and wrong ways to use it. So how are the leading two candidates in each party fairing in this new media era?
Donald Trump’s Twitter is almost as famous as he is. With over 6 million followers, Trump’s Twitter has made headlines several times. Twitter allows candidates to reach their followers with news, quotes, and campaign buzzwords instantly without much of a filter. Trump has used this avenue as a way to mock opponents during the race, correct news outlets that have painted him in an unflattering way, and even live-Tweet debates. Trump’s Twitter presence is so well-known that The New York Times created a comprehensive list of people, organizations, and Neil Young songs that have fallen victim to insulting Trump Tweets. How effective is this use of Twitter? Well, he is the most followed candidate on the social media site and his behavior on Twitter has only increased the media attention he receives. Whether this will translate into support in the voting booths is yet to be determined but it is worth noting that many point to his tactless Tweets and tendency to partake in Twitter fights as a prime example of behavior that is not diplomatic enough for a president.
Bernie Sanders has a secret, and that secret is Reddit. Though campaigns cannot host official subreddits on Reddit, their supporters can and, in the case of Sanders, they have. If you aren’t “Feeling the Bern,” I would suggest staying off Reddit for a while because you might feel a little out of place. This could be said about another popular mircoblogging website, Tumblr. The site, used to blog and reblog text, video, memes, gifs, and links, has turned into an online Sanders campaign rally. These online bulletin boards have been covered with Sanders support for months now, but as far as Facebook and Twitter goes, Sanders falls far behind Clinton and Trump. This is possibly another indication of Sanders’s popularity with younger voters. Based on the presence of his supporters on social media, Sanders has a huge fan base of young citizens. If Sanders is able to mobilize voters the same way he has motivated bloggers and Sanders users, his turnout could be unprecedented for a young demographic who rarely comes out to vote, giving him a real advantage at the polls.
Sometime between 2008 and now, somebody told Hillary Clinton that she needed to connect to millennial voters if she wanted to get the nomination from the Democratic party. Clinton and her campaign managers initiated a social media surge to make her appear relatable, in-touch, and electable to younger voters.
Unsurprisingly, her target audience did not respond too positively to weak attempts at relating to their demographic and many accused her of dumbing down the issue of student loan debt in a way that actually highlighted how out-of-touch she really is to the interests of young, lower class constituents.
Early on in the race, Clinton used Vine to tell her followers that she was “just chillin’” in Ceder Rapids and it nearly broke the Internet. Unfortunately for the Clinton campaign, this was not because this news was groundbreaking or incredibly interesting but because she was so painfully awkward in her use of the social media app.
Hillary does better when she uses social media to spread policy ideas and not to paint herself as the cool mom of the presidential race. She measures up right behind Trump in Twitter followers with 5.3 million followers and places similarly with Facebook and Instagram. This is a prime example of how the internet can sense authenticity and will call it out if it’s missing.
Ted Cruz spent a good part of 2015 rallying against Net Neutrality and the regulations of the internet, claiming that it threatens the entrepreneurial freedom. Flash forward to the 2016 election, and it is a bit ironic that Cruz is one of the least successful candidates on social media. With his Twitter having less than 1 million followers and his Facebook only boasting 1.8 million likes, it would appear that Cruz isn’t aware that the internet even exists. However, the Cruz campaign is utilizing the internet in a way that the other candidates are not. According to several news sources including The New York Times and The Washington Post, the campaign hired a data company, London-based Cambridge Analytica, to mine data from Facebook users, and create psychological profiles that target the people more likely to support Cruz. The profiles then tell the campaign team how to approach a potential voter based on the data collected and creates a network of labeled supporters. Although his social media support may not be the biggest or most widespread, there is a chance it is the strongest and most loyal based on this unparalleled program.
Whether this strategy is ethical or not is a question for another day.
In 2008, having an array of social media profiles was enough to boost your campaign and connect you to young voters. Today, using social media for a campaign is a trickier business. If you only post about policies, you take the risk of low number of followers, and there’s a chance that these followers will just scroll passed your posts. If you attempt to engage with your audience in an inauthentic way, you risk appearing calculated and out-of-touch. Not to mention, any typos or mistakes will inevitably be caught and called out, making you and your team look careless or foolish. Maybe this is why each candidate has an entire team devoted to carefully orchestrating every post.