15.03.2016 Social media in the US presidential election

With presidential candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties pushing hard to secure votes, social media is already playing a major role in the 2016 US presidential election. Living in a culture where there are over 985 million Facebook posts a day and 400 million new tweets, candidates are using the influence of social media to generate support and to reach their target demographic. Social media expenditure is estimated to account for more than half of the $1 billion budget set aside for digital media in this campaign, with efforts particularly directed at the so-called millennial demographic, young adults born between the early 1980s and early 1990s.

Hillary Clinton’s social media campaign is especially active and contentious. The Democratic front-runner has a whole team of experts producing original content. Instead of sticking solely to content writing, the team has also produced interactive quizzes, amusing GIFs and viral-worthy memes designed to provoke reaction.

From Facebook and Twitter to Snapchat and Instagram, Clinton is tactically saturating social media platforms during high-profile debates. Her first debate Facebook post received over 20,000 likes and over 1,000 shares.




But with tensions high around the primaries, candidates are putting themselves at risk of extreme scrutiny as the opposition looks out for one wrong tweet before reacting with a serious backlash. Clinton was recently heavily criticised for a Twitter faux pas after paying homage to the black civil rights hero Rosa Parks, 60 years after her infamous bus protest. Clinton first thanked Mrs Parks for her heroism via Twitter, but her campaign then merged Hillary’s logo with a likeness of Rosa Parks, which spurred a heated Twitter debate. As one tweeter Sam Christian said, “Hilary could speak about it, tweet about, release a statement. Cross branding your brand with Rosa Parks is classless.”


Clinton’s campaign stimulated further controversy after her famed “H” logo took on the colours of Kwanzaa, a week-long holiday honouring African culture and traditions. It was ridiculed by Twitter critics for its “overt pandering” to African-American voters.


In addition to Clinton, other political candidates have been taking to social media to gain followers. Republican Jeb Bush used Snapchat to announce his presidential campaign and then promoted the launch of his fundraiser via Instagram video clips. Rand Paul, another Republican, discussed his views on the US tax code through Snapchat. Bernie Sanders owes a lot to social media following the Iowa caucuses. The Democratic candidate was mentioned over 77,000 times on Twitter during the caucus, while his competitor Clinton was mentioned 52,000. Although social media buzz does not directly translate into votes, it is a good indicator of the interest level surrounding a candidate, good or bad.

This brings us to Donald Trump. Social media experts are beginning to think that his online campaign presence may be the reason for consistently staying ahead in the polls. Despite being a political novice, Trump boasts 6.2 million Twitter followers since entering the presidential election race last June. His successful online presence relies on enforcing the Trump brand and giving supporters and fans what they want. “In Trump’s case, that means controversy – the more outrageous the content, the better,” says digital strategist Justin McConney.


Compared to the more methodical tactics employed by Clinton’s team, Trump’s social media presence is based upon agitating and motivating a vast, unseen audience. Trump will make a provocative remark, such as his insult against Republican presidential rival Carly Fiorina’s face – “Would anybody vote for that?” – and thousands of strangers will defend him and engage in passionate debates with his critics. Trump’s key social media tactic is ensuring that he remains the subject of a constant conversation.

Social media can be ruthless; political candidates can go from darling to underdog in 140 characters. Despite attempting to support a certain issue or appealing to a particular audience online, political campaigns are vulnerable to misinterpretation and heavy scrutiny. Posting statements on social media sites lacks the formality of making a public appearance yet can cause just as much of a storm. There’s no doubt that social media will continue to play a massive part in the 2016 presidential elections as candidates exploit its value.