The Impact of Social Media on the 2016 Election

Politicians strive to reach the people in the most modern and personal way possible. At first this was through the radio, then television, and in recent years, social media. Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to take full advantage of reaching voters through social media. Social media’s impact on elections only escalated from there to the 2016 election. While both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton used social media to further their campaign, the candidates did so in very different ways.

According to Journalism.org, 44% of adults reported having learned about the 2016 presidential election in the past week from social media, outpacing both local and national print newspapers. While both Clinton and Trump posted about the same frequency during the election, they differ in the focus of their posts. On Facebook, Clinton linked primarily to highlights from official campaign communication while Trump linked to news media. Both of these strategies can have advantages and disadvantages. By linking to her own campaign material, Clinton has the advantage of controlling exactly what type of content she displays to the public. While trump risks finding reliable sources giving positive news about himself, the news he does find and link on his page come from outside sources, which makes them seem more trustworthy.

Both Clinton and Trump averaged roughly five to seven posts on Facebook a day and eleven to twelve Twitter posts a day during the campaign. However, Trump’s posts received far more attention than Clinton’s. This could be partially due to Trump’s higher follower count across all platforms. Trump also had a few “breakaway” posts meaning that these posts received a much higher rate of interaction and retweets than his normal posts. Trump’s Facebook post on supporting the police was shared over 72,000 times. Hillary remained steady in her average of 5,600 shares with her highest being a Facebook post attacking Trump that received 15,000 shares, still nowhere near Trump’s post. The other important thing to note about this is that Clinton’s most popular post mentions Trump, even if it’s not in a good way. The more his name circulates the more others will look into him, think about him, and view his posts.

So how big of a role in the election did social media really play? Some people will say it controlled the outcome of the election completely. According to U.S. News, a study was published by the journal PLOS One that claims, “social media use had no measurable aggregate influence on issue beliefs.” This seems hard to believe, but it makes more sense when we take a look at social media algorithms. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all use something called a called filter bubble. Filter bubbles are part of algorithms that figure out what a person likes based on their activity on social media and show them that content. For example, a social media platform can for the most part figure out if a user is a democrat or republican based on what they read, click on, like, type and share. The platform will then show them either mostly or only content than aligns with his or her political views which ultimately reinforces the users’ already help beliefs. While news articles or outlets may offer a more diverse perspective on an election, social media wants to show users what they like, therefore it most likely will not change a users’ beliefs significantly.

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