Social Media in the 2020 U.S. Election

Georgia Strong | United States Fellow

The role of social media in society is constantly evolving. Increasingly, it is being used as a communication and information tool between politicians and everyday Americans. Platforms such as Twitter have allowed United States (U.S.) Presidents to bypass traditional media outlets and speak directly to the American public, and the world. During his four year term as President, Donald Trump sent out more tweets than all previous Presidents combined. As of October, he had tweeted 30,524 times on the topic of fake news. There were also 45,915 mentions of each the ‘China virus’ and the U.S. election, and a further 48,894 tweets on the Black Lives Matter movement. These messages have been met with great support from his 66 million strong follower base on Twitter.


A 2020 study by Cornell University found that 38 per cent of social media content relating to COVID-19 misinformation mentioned President Trump. This means the President is the single largest driver of pandemic falsehoods on the internet. Given the number of election tweets he has released exceeded his pandemic-related Twitter content, President Trump is also likely to have a hand in driving the falsehood of ballot tampering in the 2020 election. The spread of such information and ill-informed material is an example of fake news. Fake news is designed to look like all other legitimate news articles, but it lacks the editorial norms and research processes which typically ensure the accuracy and credibility of reporting.


In response to the emerging trend of misinformation on the internet, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook face increasing pressure to distinguish fact from fiction and steer users towards credible reporting. This is a difficult task given that 3.2 billion images and 720,000 hours of video are shared daily.


Initially, crude mechanisms such as content blocking and account banning activities, have morphed into a more complex toolkit of removing recommendations and adding information labels to tweets. As of May 26, 2020, Twitter began flagging several of President Trump’s tweets as fraudulent or disputed. Later in the year, President Trump tweeted several times on the topic of a rigged election and mail-in ballot voter fraud. In response, Twitter added a context label to these tweets under the website’s Civic Integrity policy. This policy aims to reduce the impact of misleading information by informing social media users that the tweet’s content is disputed and provided a link to additional contextual information. In one day, as many as 15 of 28 tweets by the President were tagged with the information bubble indicating the statements made were disputed.


The steps these big companies are taking are positive. By making accurate voter information readily available, Facebook and Twitter are reducing the spread of voter misinformation. However, more rigorous testing and information structures are necessary for moving forward to counter the misinformation conversation. The problem is though, current censorship mechanisms lack transparency in deciding what content to maintain and what to remove from search mechanisms. Fair content moderation decisions are of central importance in creating public accountability mechanisms.


All this begs the question: how do we balance individual rights and freedom of speech with factual reporting in the 21st century? Increased volumes of misinformation have changed the role of traditional media outlets. There is an emerging trend in which newscasters play the role of a third-party content moderator by debunking misinformation on social media. In order to appear balanced, they report the claims made by President Trump. Unfortunately, by splashing Trump’s quotes in the headlines across newspapers and online networks, the media is working to perpetuate false information rather than educating audiences. In a post-Trump era, the redistribution of funding resources from fake news stories could allow greater sustainable journalism.


Social media can also have a positive effect on voter engagement with elections. It is a low cost and effective medium which reaches a high volume of people in their everyday lives. In 2020, a greater number of celebrities and social media influencers used their platforms to encourage their followers to register to vote and vote in the U.S. election. This included Kylie Jenner, who posted a bikini photo pre-election to encourage voter registration among her followers. This photo led to a 1500 per cent increase in activity on online voter registration platforms. It shows the positive power of social media in informing, encouraging and reminding the American people the importance of voting in the federal election. Such activities likely led to the highest voter turnout in recent years, with 66.9 per cent of the voting-eligible population participating–the highest voter turnout rate since 1900. Looking forward, it will become increasingly important to partner with social media platforms and connect voters with the most accurate information available.


Georgia Strong is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.