This year's presidential elections have been the most bitterly contested, and social media has played a big role in multiplying the bitterness and spreading it fast. Use of social media was quite high even in the last (2012) elections too but many factors have contributed to its massive use this time. Let's briefly recapitulate them before discussing the more substantial matters. The main factors are:
- Rise in the availability of high-speed internet in most parts of the US
- Significant increase in the use of smart phones (35% by last elections, 65% now)
- Spread of apps, mobile sites, social networks (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)
- Massive rise in use of visual media (especially small videos) over various platforms
- Globalization of messages and their consumers (leading to high global visibility of US elections)
- Reduced dependence on newspapers for news, especially breaking news (about 45% get their news first from social/ apps)
Are 2016 US Presidential elections truly riding on social media?
Till 2012, social media was still evolving as a quick, chatty medium to broadcast messages. It spread the message, generated some interest and almost stopped there. Not much audio-visual content floating on FB, Messenger, WhatsApp, etc... Blogs, websites and Facebook etc discussing poll issues more than playing ping-pong with spicy statements... Snapchat was just taking its baby steps at that time.
Even tweets of presidential candidates would get a few dozen, rarely a hundred, shares and comments.
This time the candidates are playing their part in giving the social media all the ammunition it asks for: histrionics played on television, sexual assault claims against Trump, dirty remarks against women made by Trump coming in the open, FBI's unnecessary clarifications on an already heated email backlash against Hillary, Trump saying he'd send her to jail...
Donald Trump is a social crowd puller due to his controversial, right wing rhetoric against immigrants - particularly Mexicans and Muslims, his sexist remarks and flamboyant personality. These appeal millennials and young voters prone to getting fun out of virtual sloganeering, lampooning, hooting, jeer. What matters is strong statements and dramatic visual expressions, not substance.
Strong statements by their candidate and mistakes by the opponent are exploited by back-end offices, support groups and fans and made into juicy memes, jokes, cartoons and spoofs. Social media does this work with vengeance and without the candidate having to pay a penny. Ted Cruz's awkwardly shaking hand with his running mate becomes the proof of his awkwardness in broad terms. Trump's mocking of Hillary's pneumonia bout is not pardoned - in fact it might prove his nemesis.
Though a number of gaffes, ugly remarks and strong stands have been tweeted and re-tweeted many times over, the trophy for social shares is bagged by the snub Hillary gave to Trump on Twitter. When Hillary was endorsed by Obama, Trump wrote a tweet, "Obama just endorsed Crooked Hillary. He wants four more years of Obama—but nobody else does!" Hillary wrote back, "Delete your account." This one from Hillary has been re-tweeted over 500,000 times and liked over 672,000 times (so far).
That takes us to the next question: despite the buzz, does social media influence elections?
Does social media really contribute to a candidate's win or loss?
Though many media pundits would like to call the present elections as 'social media elections', social media's contribution to a candidate's win or loss is not likely to be substantial.
Agreed that with millions of active followers on major social networks, the two main finalists are generating unprecedented social buzz. Yet, the followers who keenly watch the candidates' actions and make an instant comment and share it with others, making a statement look like a gospel or a slip of tongue look like a habitual abuse, do it with their preconceived notion. They seldom care for others' views. Social media merely acts as echo chamber and reinforces their biases.
The chance that people would change their voting preferences based on social media messages is slim. Only fence-sitters might be influenced by social noise. In fact, only such people are likely to be influenced by other media including television debates, person to person discussions and serious discussions/ analyses on the web.
It is also a fact that not all followers of political leaders are their supporters, but they follow to keep abreast of the leader's latest actions.
Since the two Presidential candidates are now neck-to-neck and their leads are shifting by the day, their stakes are very high. So, there are chances that in this scenario, even a very small contribution by the social media might become very important. Of course, from the candidates' perspective, social media is important even if it is able to change hearts of even a few thousand fence-sitters. In that respect, social is more important than print or television ads which - being non-interactive and sometimes obtrusive - hardly influence voters.
Social media's role in taking forward major election issuesAll social is not ephemeral or superficial. Some platforms, including blogs, play an important role in discussing the election issues threadbare.
In the current elections, many websites have drawn comparisons between Trump and Hillary on key issues including jobs, immigration, gun violence, terrorism and international relations. Some blogs have advocated or criticized individual stands with data and strong arguments.
Candidates have been using social media to clarify their stand on different topics and also whenever a controversy arises.
Social media has exposed the frailty of both the finalists and their frivolous understanding on a number of matters of national and international importance by laying their views and actions bare in the open for all to see. In fact, this exposure is more effective than the laboriously written political commentaries and editorials, isn't it?
Keen to check American Presidential election results in a clear format? We have sifted the web to see which websites give detailed yet clean and simple presentation of Presidential election results. We recommend Politico. You can click on the link or the US map to visit their results page. (Disclaimer: We have no commercial or other affiliation with Politico.)