Social media shapes our politics. But does it actually elect presidents?

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Getting elected president used to be a slow, plodding process in which a candidate trekked from town to town, climbing atop a soapbox or standing behind a lectern to ask Americans for their votes.

Over the years, technology has altered the way candidates communicated with voters. Stilted platform speeches gave way to news accounts printed on broadsheets of paper. Newspapers, in turn, yielded to radio broadcasts that allowed voters to hear a candidate’s live voice. Later, televised debates beamed the faces and voices of politicians into American living rooms, presenting voters a more fulsome portrait before they went to the polls.

Now, in the age of 24/7 digital communication, politicians are never out of contact with the voters. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other forms of social media loom large as must-have media weapons deployed to identify, target, and capture potential donors, volunteers, and voters.

But the candidates might want to proceed with caution. Many of the Democratic hopefuls present their best selves to appeal to the more energized social media activists, but they run the risk of racing past the very voters who will choose the nominee.  

A growing body of research examining the nexus of politics and social media suggests that strident and omnipresent messaging by candidates’ supporters or the frequency of online advertising may not signal true strength of a campaign.

Rather, over-the-top social media presence may be fool’s gold, reflecting only a shiny sliver of a candidate’s loudest supporters. It may not be an accurate read of the campaign’s overall strength. Online advocacy doesn’t necessarily translate to support at the ballot box.

Views of Democrats on social media often bear little resemblance to those of the wider Democratic electorate.

In one recent study, for example, More In Common, an international research group examining global civic engagement, found that Americans’ use of social media is an imperfect tool to assess the relative support of one candidate over another because highly motivated activists play an outsized role in shaping online conversations. 

The group’s report — “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape” — surveyed 8,000 Americans and conducted focus group and in-person interviews to discover that Americans are “defined by their core beliefs, rather than their political opinions, race, class or gender.”

Those core beliefs tend to cluster people into categories — or “tribes” — that span the political spectrum from very liberal to very conservative at the extremes, and five broad middle categories.

Among the report’s more significant findings was that people at the extremes were a distinct minority of the U.S. population, but were among the most active on social media.

Americans identified as Progressive Activists, for examplemake up 8% of the population and 70% of them said they had shared political content on social media. Those identified as Devoted Conservatives are 6% of the population and 56% of them shared political content on social media.

By contrast, the study noted that people categorized as Politically Disengaged, the largest single category at 26% of the population, “are practically invisible in local politics and community life,” and only 5% of them said they shared political content on social media.

Taken together, the extremes dominate political messaging on social media sites, said Stephen Hawkins, global research director for More In Common. “If you can mobilize the Politically Disengaged, you’d win the election,” he said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “But that’s very hard to do.”

It’s all the more difficult to accomplish using social media, because the majority of the U.S. electorate aren’t denizens of the Twitterverse or heavy users of Facebook. Social media conversations are usually confined to a smaller, more vocal group that frames political discourse. The intense online chatter at the extreme edges is then amplified by mainstream media that increasingly draws upon it for quick and low-cost reporting.

“In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America’s differences have become dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense,” the report said, adding that more measured opinions are drowned out by the extremists. “In talking to everyday Americans, we have found a large segment of the population whose voices are rarely heard above the shouts of the partisan tribes.”

As Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy wrote recently for “The Upshot” in The New York Times, the rambunctious and caustic political views expressed on Twitter and Facebook aren’t necessarily the views of the largest segment of Democratic voters.

“Today’s Democratic Party is increasingly perceived as dominated by its ‘woke‘ left wing,” Cohn and Quealy wrote. “But the views of Democrats on social media often bear little resemblance to those of the wider Democratic electorate.”

In an effort to push back on the escalating influence of far-left political views in the upcoming primaries and election, Third Way, a think tank that works closely with centrist Democrats, is using social media to critique social media. The group recently sent out a tweet urging its followers to ignore Twitter.

Matt Bennett, a co-founder and senior vice president for public affairs at Third Way, acknowledged in an interview with The Daily Beast there’s a bit of irony — maybe, even hypocrisy — in the group’s use of Twitter to attack political activists who also use Twitter to promote their views.

“We don’t want to cede the digital conversation to the far left,”  Bennett said. “For us, it’s a very double-edged sword. On the one hand, one of our messages is ‘don’t pay so much attention to Twitter. Twitter isn’t real.’ On the other hand, you have to go where the people are.”

Nevertheless, Democratic hopefuls and the Trump re-election team are unlikely to turn away from social media any time soon, if ever. A report in Business Insider recently noted that presidential candidates are shelling out big bucks to advertise on Facebook to tap into the online giant’s enormous audience.

“Already, the Trump 2020 reelection campaign is going all-in on Facebook, spending more than $4 million since the start of 2019,” the report stated. “Since May 2018, the Trump campaign has spent nearly $12 million on Facebook advertising.”

On the Democratic side, several candidate are aggressive spenders on Facebook ads, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) who have each spent more than $1 million since the start of January and others such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang close behind in their spending, Business Insider said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden stands out as a large and rapid social media spender, slotting more than $400,000 in Facebook advertising and $300,000 on Google since announcing his campaign at the end of April, according to figures compiled by Bully Pulpit Interactive, which tracks digital campaign advertising.

Whether the heavy investment in social media will pay dividends to the candidates is unclear, largely because the use of social media in political campaigning remains relatively new and is still evolving as a campaign tactic.

Writing in the Georgetown Public Policy Review, Caitlin Chin noted that in only three presidential campaign cycles have voters been able to follow and interact with candidates online. She wrote:

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.

Many political observers point to the 2016 presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s use of Twitter to drive the political conversation — all the way to the White House.

“I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” Trump said in a 2017 Fox Business Network interview. “It is a little unconventional. It just seems to work.”

Maybe, maybe not. Ask Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana mayor, who was, at least briefly, an internet sensation and much-talked about Democratic nomination candidate.

According to a report by Issie Lapowsky, a business reporter for Wired, in a 30-day period in March, Buttigieg garnered the most Twitter interactions, but during the same time period, he failed to translate his social media popularity into campaign cash.

“[I]t’s hard to ignore the glaring gap between Buttigieg’s success on Twitter and the other, more tangible metrics, like money, that have traditionally framed the presidential horse race,” Lapowsky wrote. “The disparity raises a distinctly modern question about campaigning in the social media age: What value does a candidate’s internet stardom have?”

Lapowsky answered her own question: “Of course, just because a candidate is driving a lot of conversation on social media doesn’t mean they’re particularly well-liked.”


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