Social Media: Great Campaign Tool, but Bad News for Democracy

By now, we have all read about and analyzed Donald Trump’s (in)famous Cinco de Mayo tweet, which featured a picture of him grinning broadly while eating a taco bowl, with the following tweet: “Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!” Twitter and other media outlets reacted swiftly to the tweet, mostly ridiculing Trump and criticizing his attempt to reach out to Hispanic voters. With his characteristic insult, Trump managed to win yet another news cycle and add to the nearly $2 billion free media advantage he has gathered so far.

 

Trump’s not-so-subtle outreach effort and the publicity it gathered, is an example of the evolving tactics of campaigns in an election year that some media outlets have labeled the “social media election.” Media reports cite polls showing that more and more people are keeping up with the election via social media. Polls also show that twice the number of registered voters follow politicians on social media as compared to 2010. Scholars have found evidence that campaigns are taking advantage of these trends and using social media, especially Twitter, to fundraise, spread information about their candidates, spar with opponents, control the media agenda, and organize volunteers and activists.

Though studies on the impact of social media on elections have found that social media has limited impact on election outcomes, candidates continuously use Twitter as a campaign tool. Election tweets mainly focus on information—facts, issues, opinion and news—and attempt to portray the candidate as an everyday, relatable person. Along with positive, image-building tweets, campaign tweets often use heavy attack appeals, usually juxtaposed with links to external media outlets, to add credibility to these negative tweets.

While social media is undoubtedly helpful for candidates who have low name recognition (usually challengers), these social media campaigns come with a set of unique drawbacks. Platforms like Twitter, where comments trend for very short amounts of time, tend to favor extrovert candidates. Twitter favors candidates who can make the most outrageous comments. Instead of knowledgeable opinions based on facts, Twitter statements are designed to provoke the most number of reactions from followers and journalists.

In fact, social media campaigns may not be beneficial for democracy. Take the example of political discussion. A healthy democracy depends on a free marketplace of ideas. Though Twitter gives users the illusion of interactivity and connectedness with the world, a large portion of this connection and interactivity is scripted and tightly controlled by campaigns. Since campaign managers aim to maintain a tight control on their message, they avoid engaging in genuine deliberation with citizens over social media, as this would make them lose control of the message and force the candidate to take firm policy positions. On one hand, Twitter enables candidates to connect directly with citizens, thereby helping message to reach citizens without the involvement of a third party, but on the other hand, deliberation, if any, remains superficial and confined to 140 characters.

Social media campaigns also minimize the impact of the media’s fact checking function. Candidates can simply ignore the media’s fact checking attempts and repeat erroneous messages to their followers on social media. In an age of increasing polarization and media fragmentation, this could widen the gap between voters on each side and lead to further negativity and loss of political efficacy.

About the Author:  Newly Paul is Assistant Professor of Communication at Appalachian State University. Her research focuses on political advertising, political communication, and race and gender in politics. Her website is newlypaul.weebly.com.