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Anti-social media in the 2016 US election

Image Credit: Rich Girard (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Made in America? @BarackObama called his 'birthplace' Hawaii "here in Asia."

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 18 November 2011

It was in this tweet that Donald J. Trump, President 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. Social media played an unprecedented role in the 2016 political process: as of July 2016, 24 percent of US adults said the social media posts of the candidates were the main source of 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 October 2016, Donald Trump’s Twitter account has 12,381,579 followers, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 9,651,177.

The sheer prevalence of social media is not enough to explain the 2016 Presidential election, but the implications of such heightened media production and consumption are crucial to understanding changes in the political process.

In 2016, there occurred a profound shift in the political discourse from one in which citizens lambasted politicians for their dishonesty, to one in which citizens, disenfranchised with the way the political establishment has treated them, found their views legitimised in equally misleading comments. The online public sphere has provided a new platform on 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. Pro-Clinton 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 mere symptom of the deeper disease: a population of disappointed and economically suffering people who sought change from the system they believed had failed and deceived them.

This has also been evident in the early days of the Trump administration, with senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway proposing that “alternative facts” explained Trump’s claim that his inauguration was the most-attended in history, and President Trump himself calling out critical news outlets such as CNN as “fake news”. Contemporary journalists face a daunting challenge of navigating an uncooperative administration, and an audience whose perceptions of what constitutes the news and the truth are rapidly shifting.

The unapologetic and prolific dishonesty by the Trump Presidency 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 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 among conservative media has been in the spotlight, with the perpetuation of websites such as the Drudge Report, and ‘alt-right’ media organisations such as Breitbart News playing an increasingly central role in the Trump campaign, with CEO Steve Bannon appointed Trump’s chief strategist. It is also true of the left, however, with political satirists such as John Oliver and Stephen Colbert maintaining steady Democratic audiences. This selective media consumption has served to significantly lower the quality of debate between citizens as well as the quality of media reporting generally, while increasing polarisation and partisanship, sensationalising and heightening the coverage of Trump and his comments.

One of the key debates throughout this year has concerned the differing get out the vote (GOTV) strategies of the two campaigns. The Clinton camp employed a traditional strategy, investing millions of dollars in television advertising and employing state staff, 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. 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.

President Trump’s inauguration was just over a month ago and future researchers will certainly be better situated to assess the political moment experienced in 2016. Social media has played a central role in shaping the discourse of the 2016 Presidential election. It is incumbent upon those of us in the business of studying, understanding and explaining politics to use this moment to consider new and better ways to engage in robust and productive discourse.

Isabella Gorrez holds a Bachelor of International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney, and will be completing her honours thesis in 2017.

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