Social Media and Political Campaigns
Social Media and Political Campaigns
During the 2016 presidential campaign season, Hillary Clinton’s most popular tweet was directed at fellow candidate Donald Trump; her June 9, 2016 post, “Delete your account,” received over 700,000 ‘likes’ and ‘retweets.’ Trump’s direct response, “How long did it take your staff of 823 people to think that up--and where are your 33,000 emails that you deleted?” was also popular, receiving over 300,000 ‘likes’ and ‘retweets.’
This Twitter exchange demonstrates that social networking sites have given voters the ability to personally follow and interact with presidential candidates during elections. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately one-third of registered voters who follow a political candidate online say that they do so to feel more connected to that person. In addition, voters use platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to receive real-time campaign news and express their political views. For example, approximately 128 million people engaged with the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Facebook, generating 8.8 billion likes, comments, posts, and shares.
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have allowed American voters to engage in political conversation not only within their network, but also with the general public and with political candidates themselves. However, despite the current ubiquity of social media, these platforms are relatively new.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to use social media platforms to communicate with voters, and was successful in his efforts. By November 4, 2008, Obama had almost 3,000,000 Facebook fans, which equaled almost four times as many Facebook fans and 23 times as many Twitter followers as John McCain. His campaign circulated news clips and celebrity endorsements on YouTube, and YouTube viewers watched a collective 14 million hours of Obama-centered videos during the 2008 campaign season. Obama’s campaign used social media not only to raise issue awareness, but also to solicit grassroots donations and volunteers. Obama’s use of social media helped him achieve celebrity status among millennials and connect with underrepresented groups of voters.
Barack Obama was not the first politician to pioneer a new medium of electronic communications. In 1932, presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt used the newly invented radio to communicate with voters on a more personal level, therefore engaging voters who could not read or lacked access to a traditional print newspaper. The radio allowed Roosevelt to control his publicity messaging and reach out to Americans across all backgrounds and socioeconomic classes. Three decades later, the newfound popularity of television helped candidate John F. Kennedy gain an edge over his opponent, Richard Nixon. In 1960, Kennedy captured American attention during a historic televised debate, and then subsequently used popular culture and television appearances to appeal to voters.
In the present day, social media provides a low-cost platform to disseminate political information, in conjunction with traditional advertising and news sources. During the 2016 election, social media platforms helped candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to foster strong social movements among voters, despite raising relatively few fundraising dollars. Social networking sites have allowed candidates to gain attention and go viral, and American voters are able to use their digital media accounts to support causes and organize civic participation.
Even so, any correlation between social media communications and voter participation is unclear. According to United States Election Project data, voter participation has not significantly increased in recent elections. Just under 139 million people, or approximately 60.2% of eligible Americans, voted in the 2016 election, which is roughly consistent with previous modern presidential elections.
Donald Trump first ‘tweeted’ the term ‘fake news’ on December 10, 2016. By the six-month mark of his presidency, he had ‘tweeted’ the phrase approximately 73 times, or once every three days.
While the term ‘fake news’ can describe any purposefully untrue or deceptive news story, it developed a popular and highly political connotation in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. In the months following the 2016 election, many Americans reported observing false news stories online.
In a December 2016 Pew Research Center survey, approximately 32% of Americans said they “often” observed made-up political news stories online, and 23% of Americans revealed sharing a false news story. Of the 23%, approximately half of respondents disclosed sharing a story that they knew was fake at the time. The Pew Research Center also found that the spread of misinformation comes at a time when American adults are increasingly turning to social media as a news source. In 2016 and 2017 surveys, 62% and 67% of American adults reported receiving news from social media.
Following the 2016 election, researchers Hunter Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow discovered 115 erroneous pro-Trump articles and 41 erroneous pro-Clinton articles that received a total of 30 million and 7.6 million Facebook shares, respectively. Allcott and Gentzkow concluded that false news articles were widespread during the campaign season, and overwhelming alt-right — however, unlikely to have altered the outcome of the 2016 election.
Even before the 2016 election, media outlets had reported on Trump’s potential affiliation with Vladimir Putin, and of Russia’s possible interest in the U.S. presidential election. The U.S. Intelligence Community soon substantiated some of the reports, and discovered that the Russian government had sought to tamper with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
On October 7, 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that the Russian government had hacked into U.S. email servers and leaked their contents. Additionally, on January 6, 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that Russia had promoted fake news articles on social media. ODNI released a report that President Putin had ordered an influence campaign to vilify Hillary Clinton. The Internet Research Agency may have been involved, according to the report.
The Internet Research Agency (IRA), an organization with ties to Russian intelligence, had run approximately 3,000 political ads on Facebook using fake accounts, according to some estimates. Approximately 29 million U.S. users had seen IRA-specific content on their Facebook news feeds, and up to 140 million U.S. users may have seen Russian-affiliated content on their Facebook or Instagram news feeds.
Officials have identified social media as a potential outlet for foreign activity in the upcoming midterm elections. On February 13, 2018, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the 2018 midterm elections are a “potential target for Russian influence operations,” and that Russia may continue to use propaganda and social media to mislead American voters.
In addition to misinformation and foreign activity, the 2016 presidential election revealed a third issue with social media: the potential ability to use consumer information to target political messages.
On March 16, 2018, Facebook released a statement that it had suspended Cambridge Analytica, a political data analytics company, from its platform. In the following days, numerous media outlets reported on Cambridge Analytica, which had allegedly used personal data from Facebook users to attempt to influence voters during the 2016 presidential election.
Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg will soon testify before Congress on Facebook’s data privacy policies and on Cambridge Analytica. The announcement of Zuckerberg’s testimony comes at a time when many Americans are beginning to ask questions about data privacy. Traditionally, social media companies have not faced major privacy legal restrictions in the United States. However, Facebook’s response to Cambridge Analytica will only signal the beginning of a discussion to find an ethical approach to big data and privacy, especially in the face of electoral integrity.
Many Americans are still attempting to understand the events leading up to the 2016 presidential election, and misinformation, cybersecurity, consumer privacy, and advertisement transparency will become crucial issues in future elections.
In the wake of the election, Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and John McCain (R-AZ) pushed for the Honest Ads Act, which would require digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to publicly reveal campaign advertiser information. These senators argued that a higher level of accountability is needed to ensure fair elections.
On March 14, 2018, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) proposed regulations surrounding digital political advertisements. The regulations are currently open for public comment, and the FEC will hold a public hearing in June 2018 to discuss the proposals. While the FEC will probably not finalize the proposed regulations in time for the 2018 midterm elections, it is possible that new rules could come into effect by 2020.
Since the 2016 election, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have twice testified before Congress about their actions to combat Russian and other potentially extremist content on their platforms. Google has pledged to only allow U.S. nationals to purchase U.S. election advertisements, and to improve identity verification of election advertisement purchasers. Facebook has also promised greater transparency and verification for campaign advertisement purchasers, and is strengthening its machine learning and content review abilities. Likewise, Twitter committed to increasing the transparency of election advertisements and reducing incendiary tweets, and YouTube has invested in machine learning algorithms to flag terrorist content. Despite these efforts, some government officials, including members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission, have called upon social media companies for further explanation and action.
History has demonstrated that social media can have positive effects on democracy and free speech, but 2016 remains a cautionary tale. While technology companies are working to independently secure their platforms from fraudulent or divisive content, some lawmakers are considering legislation. And as the nation looks ahead to 2018, 2020, and beyond, any proposed legislation could reflect the changing nature of political campaigns due to technology and social media.