The risks and rewards of social media are high for those vying for the White House.
Every four years, a group of ambitious Americans compete to become the next president. They use television, newspapers, radio and many other mediums to reach voters and make their case. In recent years, however, the game has changed like never before.
The reason? Social media. With each presidential election, candidates are turning more and more to platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to connect with and influence millions of people, as efficiently and powerfully as possible.
“Presidential campaigns have always relied on whatever media tools they had available in order to reach potential supporters. In the 1970’s through the 1990’s, that meant television, all the time,” says David Karpf, assistant professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University, and author of “The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy.”
“Today, it means a mix of television and digital outreach,” he continues. “Particularly, as more and more Americans move away from live television-viewing and, therefore, become harder to reach through commercials. Social media is important because that’s where the people are.”
In the 2016 presidential election, both the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns are using social media to mobilize their existing supporters. “This includes asking supporters to post and retweet content on Facebook and Twitter,” says Karpf. “This also includes moving supporters onto other digital platforms like websites and email lists, where the campaigns can ask them to make phone calls, knock on doors or give a donation.”
Social media is also used to target and persuade potential voters via digital advertisements, viral messages and other strategies. Perhaps, even more powerful, is the ability of candidates’ social media efforts to shape the stories told by mainstream TV shows, newspapers and websites.
For example, Donald Trump “isn’t using social media to sidestep the mainstream media; he’s using social media to dominate the attention of the mainstream media,” says Karpf.
This phenomenon is particularly important, he says, because the entire American voter base is not on Twitter or Facebook. “Journalists use these platforms overwhelmingly and have incorporated them into their news-gathering routines,” he says. “It used to be that campaigns tried to influence news coverage with press releases and press conferences. Now, they’ve added tweets and posts to their communications arsenal.”
While social media is relatively new, it’s already fundamentally transforming the way candidates strategize their runs for presidency. “Campaigns are learning to engage journalists, supporters and opponents in new ways,” says Karpf. “They’re creating communications designed for YouTube and Instagram, not just television and newspapers. They’re leaning on their motivated supporters more and also spending less time chasing the undecided ‘swing voters’ who used to be the obsession of presidential candidates.”
Talking about Clinton’s social media campaign, Karpf says the team is often using social media, Twitter in particular, to get the opposing candidate to react. He cites the Clinton campaign’s tweeting of phrases like “Delete your account” as a prime example of this strategy in action. “That’s very new from them,” says Karpf, adding this strategy is “well-suited to this individual opponent. It wouldn’t have worked nearly as well against a [Mitt] Romney or [John] McCain.”
According to Karpf, social media efforts are also proving to be potent and effective in increasing the public’s engagement with politics. “It makes it easier for committed partisans to take action,” he says. “It makes it easier to reach the politically agnostic through the viral spread of news. And, it makes it easier for campaigns to refine their tactics and messages to reach people more effectively.”
At the same time, social media can also amplify extreme voices, adding chaos to the mix. “The same medium that makes it easier to virally spread political information can also be used to virally spread misinformation,” says Karpf.
Social media can create new pitfalls for candidates themselves. In the 2012 presidential election, for example, a video clip of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, ostensibly saying that he didn’t care about 47 percent of voters “who are dependent upon government,” spread virally via social media, significantly damaging his campaign at a key time in the election cycle.
“Romney was at a private fundraiser with large donors,” says Karpf. “One of the bartenders decided to capture his speech on a mobile phone, then sent it to a journalist. When everyone has a recording device in their hand, it becomes a lot harder to control your message.”
For good or bad, social media is likely to play a huge role in presidential elections for years to come. Karpf is intrigued to see what happens. “Donald Trump just became the Republican nominee and, I think, social media analytics had a lot to do with it,” he says.
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.
Data and Democracy
Technological innovations beyond social media have played a major role in recent presidential elections. One often-heard phrase? Big data.
The concept is simple: gather tons of information on voters, analyze it and use it to reach out to them in just the right way to gain votes, donations and other forms of support. A powerful strategy in principle, but according to David Karpf, assistant professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University, and author of “The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy,” it’s still somewhat of a mirage.
“Campaigns, particularly on the Democratic side, have become tremendously data-intensive. But, they’re mostly relying on the public voter file,” says Karpf, referring to publicly available records that include voter registration and history and, sometimes, voter race or ethnicity.
Campaigns also work hard to amass their own troves of data, person by person, by knocking on doors and calling potential voters to make connections and ask questions. And, while the gathering and use of big data played a significant role in, for example, Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, the art of turning raw information into votes is far from perfected.
“Every cycle, we see a few big data vendors offering huge promises that they can target the public with surgical precision,” says Karpf. “The reality is always a lot messier and error-prone than that though.”
Mobile apps also promise to open new avenues to reach and influence voters. “The apps that are most impactful are tools like Polis Politics, which aid campaigns in organizing their walk lists for door-to-door canvassers,” says Karpf. “Polis’ value proposition is simple—it takes a complicated campaign task and makes it more efficient.”
However, Karpf sees that mobile apps contain unrealized potential. “There are other apps that make much bigger and splashier promises,” he says. “But I haven’t seen any of them come close to living up to the hype they generate.”—M.G.