By Hannah Kim
Since 1980, statistics have indicated that U.S. presidential candidates with the most campaign funds win the general election. However, in 2016, Republican nominee Donald Trump broke this pattern after securing a presidential victory despite raising 957.6 million dollars in comparison to his opponent’s 1.4 billion. What helped Donald Trump clinch the 2016 U.S. Presidential race?
A potential answer lies in the breakdown of campaign techniques between Trump and his
contender Hillary Clinton. The New York Times reported that Clinton’s “campaign was more dependent on television advertising” as opposed to Trump who
was “sustained at times by little more than a Twitter account, his own money and extensive news media coverage.”
In other words, the formula for victory in future political elections might place greater weight on social media tools. It is therefore important to understand how and to what extent technology sways our political opinions and actions.
A research paper from the University of Glasgow and London revealed that a small
group of Trump supporters garnered numerous views on the social media platform Twitter by uploading slogans such as “Make America Great Again”. The account gained so much attention that it topped the Repulican Party’s official account in terms of followers, securing exclusive media exposure for Trump and potentially narrowing the funding advantage Clinton had.
The study’s results prove that a candidate does not need campaign funds to gain exposure. If a small group of followers are adamant about expressing their support, access to social media platforms such as Twitter make it possible for them to rapidly gain national attention no matter how unsubstantial the information they post may be. Like Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger states, social media has made “fame and attention more democratic,” not necessarily ideas themselves.
Twitter was not the only area Trump excelled in. He spent more on Facebook ads than Clinton as found by a study by the University of Carlos Madrid III. The study outlines that targeted political advertising on Facebook potentially increased Trump’s voters by 10%. It continues to explain that the ads were tailored based on the user’s gender, location, and political views, which were most effective in swaying undecided voters or skeptical Republicans.
The Trump campaign also hired the data-consulting company Cambridge Analytica (they are currently defunct), which was put under fire for leveraging the data of 50 million Facebook users. The company utilized data on likes, comments, and private messages, determined the personality type of each user, then targeted certain media to sway that particular user to favor the Trump campaign.
This was possible through researcher Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian Americ
an who worked at the University of Cambridge. Kogan built a Facebook quiz app that collected data on the quiz-takers and all the friends of the users who took the quiz. Vox reports that Facebook “prohibited the selling of data collected with this method, but Cambridge Analytica sold the data anyway.”
Though it is not factual to claim that Cambridge Analytica won Trump a presidential victory, it demonstrates that the influence of social media is not kept at the level of ultra-supportive users or targeted ads. It is a much bigger game that transcends politics. It is a game in which big players such as companies exploit the personal information of millions, even a whole country, to pursue a personal agenda.
Some may argue that citizens are well aware of the limitations of social media usage, perhaps because of the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, news of targeted ads, or the expansive presence of Trump supporters on Twitter. However, we are still subconsciously affected by its negative impacts. An Essay in the Journal of Democracy maintains how social media encourages authoritative practices that ultimately undermine public accountability. This is largely due to the fast-paced environment of social media that makes “unsubstantiated claims and narratives go viral while fact-checking efforts struggle to keep up.” The result is an online bubble, filled with “extreme, emotionally charged, and divisive” content as opposed to a competition for more complex, principled narratives.
The 2016 elections demonstrated how far social media could go through data companies, targeted ads, and small groups of ultra-supportive followers. It may have played a large role in winning President Trump the 2016 elections. But so what? Manipulation of media and marketing have always existed. Government will always struggle to keep democracy. Society will live.
Yes, manipulation of media and marketing have always existed, but now every person in the world can market anything. It is no longer as filtered with the presence of designated media companies and we are prone to misinformation overload. Yes, the government will always struggle to keep democracy, but maybe it cannot keep democracy if the government becomes a game of “who can be the loudest” instead of “who has the best ideas” in the online sphere. Finally, yes, society will probably live.
But do we want to live in a society where our beliefs and privacy, the two elements that compose our identity as human beings are at stake with one tap of a social media app?
Social media has its benefits, but as seen with the 2016 elections it has a dangerous slippery slope. Although we cannot control the social media machine, we must make the conscious choice to understand its impacts on society and remain critical of everything we see. Although we cannot depend on the networking platforms we use to hold the public accountable, we must hold ourselves accountable.
Feature image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore