Note: This was written November 2, 2015
The 2016 presidential election for the United States is still one year away, but it’s already been touted as the “social media election”. Facebook and Twitter certainly factored into the 2008 and 2012 U.S. elections, but its influence seems to have grown exponentially during this election cycle. This can be explained largely by demographics, as the teenagers who pioneered Facebook are now approaching their 30s. Adding to their influence are older adults, who have adopted social media in droves since 2012. Especially because adults and seniors are rapidly adopting social media, candidates now access significant portions of the American electorate within seconds through a single (free) post.
Candidates have clearly recognized this opportunity, as their social media campaigns have already been flourishing on Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram. Senators and businessmen certainly don’t fit the profile of a typical Instagram user, but nobody stands to benefit more from social media than politicians.
Their livelihood depends on gaining the trust of millions of Americans.Considering American skepticism toward politicians, social media offers candidates a necessary tool for diverging from “politispeak” and relating to their target audiences through common parlance. Through personal posts and visually appealing pictures, candidates can forge these emotional connections more quickly and easily than ever. In so doing, candidates not only endear themselves to their voters but distinguish themselves from the competition. And with 14 Republicans polling over 0.1%, any point of differentiation counts.
Beyond merely attracting new supporters, candidates can infuse emotionality into their policy positions through social media. Candidates may have difficulty articulating the specific details of their policy prescriptions while maintaining their appearance as “one of the people”. But by telling personal stories, candidates show the results of their campaigns instead of merely telling them. For instance, in the post below Jeb(!) Bush not only proves the success of his educational reform initiatives, but enhances his moral standing among voters by emphasizing the positive effects of his work on lower-income youth.
Not only can social media enhance a candidate’s public image, it can also preserve it. In the aftermath of a political gaffe, candidates can use social media to immediately settle a misinterpretation of their words or express contrition as necessary. Executed humorously, this can even have the effect of increasing a candidate’s favorability. This can prevent minor mistakes from sparking a potentially campaign killing public relations nightmare.
In essence, social media offers candidates a cost-effective PR strategy by providing them infinite, low-cost opportunities to connect to Americans. In past decades, reaching such a wide audience required million dollars outlays on TV spots. Targeting specific demographics necessitated additional resources, especially if they lived in rural areas. With individual donations to campaigns inching toward the billions, social media is particularly valuable for less prominent candidates lacking a Koch brother or two.
As displayed by Bernie Sanders’ seemingly instant explosion of popularity, social media enables fringe candidates to burst onto the national scene overnight. Social media exposes voters to new candidates and allows them to share relevant articles with their friends. Groups can further mobilize a candidate’s supporters, as they can plan events that transfer their online advocacy to real life promotion.
Attacking the competition
Did you really think politicians were above complaining on the Internet? Similar to TV attack ads, most candidates have posted “attack ads” against their rivals. Much more entertaining, though, have been the several Twitter battles between candidates. Notably, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton exchanged a series of tweets over college financing in August.
These social media attacks touch on the potentially sinister implications of social media on the electoral process. If candidates use social media to sell their personalities while avoiding “the issues”, they may alter the results by attracting voters who otherwise may not have chosen them. Additionally, because candidates need to condense their policy positions to fit character limits, they may not expound on critical issues like national security and healthcare to the degree necessary to inform voters.
The impact of social media on the 2016 election cannot be overstated. Just as TV is said to have decided the 1960 election between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon, social media may possess the power to influence the direction of the 2016 race. Perhaps more than ever, it is crucial for every social media user to consume social media with savvy.