05 Oct 2016

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American politics has long served as a laboratory for new technologies. Think of political campaigns as the DARPA for public outreach and advocacy strategies and tactics. The biggest technological factor in this election is the impact social media is having. Many everyday communications tools (Instagram, Snapchat etc.) were barely featuring four years ago and Twitter and Facebook were only being truly utilized for the first time. This year’s election is seeing the honing and perfecting of those techniques invented and popularized within the last two cycles.

US Election – Political Campaigns and Social Media

The lag time between campaign tactics existing solely in the political sphere and becoming public has shortened after each election in recent times. Blogs became more widespread corporate communications tools after the 2004 campaign; social networking did the same after 2008. This year, as more campaign consultants and staffers realize they can apply the skills they honed during the election working for corporate clients for personal gain, that time lag is now essentially one day – the day after Election Day.

Political campaigns traditionally consist of four interlocking parts: policy; political; organizing; and communications (paid and earned). While the policy and political departments are not going anywhere, technological advancements are changing how the communications and organizing departments function. A campaign will utilize anything that is more efficient. For social media, from being able to geo-target specific areas with specialized ads, to targeting individual voters based on their preferences, both the capabilities of data processing and overall computer power are pushing targeting to new heights.

What impact has social media (particularly Twitter) had on the 2016 contest so far? And does it help candidates to attract and motivate the public to both vote and recruit friends and family to vote? It has certainly aided candidates in raising and saving money and has helped in identifying voters. It has also been a boon for the mainstream media. In terms of its effect on press, the traditional media deadline of 4pm is long gone, despite the concept of a media cycle continuing. Journalists now have rolling deadlines and social media allows them to report in real time. The mainstream media now also reports on what journalists and candidates have tweeted. On Twitter, journalists do not universally adhere to the strict editorial guidelines they may face in the newsroom. For instance, Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin has tweeted numerous times with the intro “I’m hearing,” without a solid source no editor would allow similar into print/web, but on social media a tweet like Halperin’s could lead to others commandeering his “I’m hearing” to spread their own news. Patrick Ruffini, a Republican political strategist describes the so-called ‘feedback loop’ through which a candidate (or journalist) posts something captivating: the media picks up the tweet, leading to public responses of both the media coverage and the initial tweet itself.

This feedback loop then leads to social media’s biggest selling point – free media. A mediaQuant study suggested that Trump received some $2 billion worth of free media, which has allowed him to run a shoestring budget on traditional advertising compared with other candidates. Trump has also accrued some $380 million worth of free social media between tweets, likes and shares according to a report from SocialFlow. However, despite dominating the news cycle when Tweeting, rarely does a post lead to entirely positive coverage.

Paradoxically, when it comes to ad spending the political world actually trails the corporate world significantly. According to a report from Borrell Associates, the 2016 cycle will see total political ad spending reach a record high of $11.4 billion (20 percent more than in 2012. Digital media buys account for about $1 billion, a near 5,000 percent increase from the $22.25 million spent on digital ads in 2008). That growth still pales in comparison to the private sector. The report notes, $1 billion is less than 10 percent of campaigns’ overall advertising budgets. In the private sector, digital media buys often accounts for 30 to 50 percent of the total amount being spent on ads.

Additionally, social media has played a distinct role in the polarization of media. Between social media feeds, bespoke newsletters and wider access to media, individuals are customizing what news they receive and how they receive it. Pre-social media, depending on where a person lived, they would receive news through limited local and potentially national media. Today, that same person has access to nearly every local, national and international media outlet and can pick and choose what they want to read based on their own beliefs and desires. This can lead to fairly closeted sourcing, with conservatives reading primarily conservative media and following like-minded people on social media and the reverse for liberals. Generally, they are “doubling down” on what they want to see/hear, thus creating a more thorough hardening of the political bases than previously seen.

Social media also offers challenges, due to the freedom of speech it promotes. Due to Trump’s ultra-nationalist and populist standpoint, whether intentional or not, his campaign has attracted support and comment from the extremities of the right (often referred to as the Alt-Right). Regardless of whether his campaign does or does not disavow the support of these groups, they can be active non-surrogates for the campaign, attacking journalists like POLITICO’s Julia Ioffe and Conservative writer Bethany Mandel for writing negative things about Trump, but specifically due to both being Jewish. In such a situation campaigns are in an impossible position as they have no ability to stop it.

So ultimately, does social media get people to vote? The success of the Obama campaigns suggest yes, but it’s not that simple. A 2012 study published in Nature suggests “that the Facebook social message increased turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes ”. Additionally, a 2015 Ipsos MORI paper suggests that for British voters aged 18-24, some 34 percent think something they read on social media will influence their vote, second only to the TV debates.

Among 18 to 29-year-olds, nearly two-thirds said social media is the most helpful means of learning new things about politics, according to a study released last year by the Pew Research Center. By contrast, only half of Gen-Xers and 40 percent of Baby Boomers agreed with that statement. Overall, Pew found, 44 percent of American adults said they had learned something new in the past week about the election from social media. Clearly, social media has become a critical resource for campaign information for younger adults.

If it doesn’t necessarily move people to vote, can social media predict who will win the election in November? There are really two variables to consider: volume – the sheer number of tweets, and sentiment – what those tweets actually convey. A 2011 Dublin City University study, suggests that tweet volume was “the single biggest predictive variable” in election results, suggesting that mere mention volume is a better predictor than sentiment, as it shows relative popularity, while sentiment can be reactive to current events. Even after sentiment and volume have been analyzed, the American presidential election is not simply a popularity contest. The Electoral College decides the result based on state results – hence the ubiquity of ‘swing states’. So, to use tweet volume as a predictive tool, the individual state/voting district popularity, as opposed to national popularity would need to be analyzed.

A massive Twitter presence, therefore, shouldn’t be regarded as anything more than a delivery system for an existing message. This is one of the reasons Trump has been struggling since the party conventions. Just because a candidate tweets often, and has millions of followers doesn’t mean they’re changing minds or convincing people to get out and vote. For a political campaign, social media can help organize, distribute a message or call to action, earn free media attention and be useful in pushing back on negative media stories but it can’t be the solution to all problems and isn’t a replacement for the actual idea/candidate/product you’re pushing.

Will the 2016 election be the year that "social media killed traditional campaigning"? Probably not, but it has certainly changed it.

1. From the authors: “To put these results in context, it is important to note that turnout has been steadily increasing in recent U.S. midterm elections, from 36.3% of the voting-age population in 2002 to 37.2% in 2006, and to 37.8% in 2010.” The 340,000 additional votes attributed to Facebook messages represents “0.14% of the voting age population of about 236 million in 2010…. It is possible that more of the 0.60% growth in turnout between 2006 and 2010 might have been caused by a single message on Facebook.”

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Elie Jacobs

Elie Jacobs is the president of EJ Strategies LLC and a partner with the Truman National Security Project.