Social media is a vortex.
It is impossible to not run into the vast, whirling, and omnipresent force of social media in your day-to-day to life. We are in the midst of the social media boom, and it is no passing fad.
But Twitter and Co. has infiltrated the world to an extent beyond just the trivial. Social media has seeped into the world of politics and rooted itself firmly as a tool and presence in presidential campaigns. We saw it starting in 2008, when Barack Obama’s “Hope” slogan and logo went viral and plastered itself all over the Internet. In 2012, both Mitt Romney and Obama made social media a critical part in voter outreach. But now, as the 2016 elections loom, social media has simply woven itself into the fabric of campaigns. A candidate’s ability to grasp and manipulate social networks is no longer a side benefit; it is a prerequisite.
The intersection of media technology and elections has been here for a long time now. From FDR’s radio-transmitted fireside chats, which made listeners feel like a cozy acquaintance to the President, to the Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy televised debate, where JFK charmed a nation with his handsome and confident demeanor, tech has been a critical link between the people and their leaders.
Philip D’Agati, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern, thinks there is no doubt about social media being on par with TV and radio in terms of impact. “Social media is providing another medium for campaigns and elections to carry out,” said D’Agati. “Also, on a different level, its really allowing voters to reach out to each other,” he continued. The numbers back up that assertion, too. The percentage of voters who followed a candidate on a social media platform has more than doubled since 2010, according to a recent Pew Survey. And young and tech-savvy voters don’t buoy that stat; the percentage of voters ages 30-49 following a candidate online has more than tripled than 2010 as well.
If the numbers aren’t convincing enough, proof lies in the candidates who have stirred up the most excitement. Bernie Sanders has rocketed into contention with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton through a keen appeal to the masses through social media. His #feeltheBern hashtag and live-tweeting of GOP debates have led to packed arenas. He takes no money from super-PACs, and is kept afloat financially purely through the people and their donations. For sophomore Conor O’Shea, an international affairs major, this social media success is due to an understanding of what people really want. “Instead of saying, ‘Oh, young people want to see kids in our Snapchats,’ it’s ‘Here’s where you can volunteer, here’s where you can get involved,” said O’Shea.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Donald Trump has proven to be quite possibly the perfect fit for Twitter and its 140-character snapshots. His controversial soundbites (Shots at fellow candidates, the name-calling of the current administration, to name a few) are explosive enough to be all over the Internet and short enough to be quoted and paraphrased in millions of tweets. With more than 4.3 million followers, he has turned politics into entertainment and molded himself into a toupee’d ball of endless attention.
Some of the other candidates who have suffered from stagnation or decline in the polls could have their social media presence, or lack thereof, to blame. Clinton, who has maintained relatively high numbers in the polls mainly because of a lack of mainstream Democratic choices, has seen her lead wither away in the last few months due to both questions about the private email scandal and an inability to generate excitement. Some think Clinton lacks the “it” factor on social media. “When I look at Hillary Clinton’s twitter, it’s more of a laugh. You kind of have to laugh at it. It comes across as disingenuous,” said O’Shea. Jeb Bush, another established political name, has fallen perilously close to non-relevance because of similar issues. In a GOP field studded with controversial candidates and theatrical antics, Bush hasn’t been able to distinguish himself on social media. Both he and Clinton have tried to appear savvy and hip, with Bush announcing his intention to run through Instagram and the pair even having a “Photoshop war” on Twitter, but they have failed to significantly capture the attention of the online audience, a development that could come back to haunt them at primaries and beyond. .“People are more likely to remember what color tie Donald Trump wore yesterday rather than [the candidate’s Twitter] exchange,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the political newsletter The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, in an interview with the publication Digiday in August.
With the constant influx of tweets, shared stories, and video clips, it is easy to lose track of one paramount question: is the heightened prevalence of social media creating a more superficial election environment? The answer varies based on who you ask, and more than likely, there is not one true answer. According to D’Agati, the appetite for tweet-sized pieces of info to hook onto has always been there. “Before, people were looking for the soundbite anyways. Social media has certainly taken the enterprise of, ‘keep it short, keep it quick, keep it simple,’ to another level, but that idea was always there,” said D’Agati. But for Gavin Davis, a junior journalism major, social media has irrefutably slanted importance away from thoughtful political discussion and more towards attention-grabbing statements. “Look at Donald Trump. He makes his entire livelihood off of snippets. He’s almost [hiding] from the big issues, and never really says anything real,” said Davis.
Social media has removed the distance between the candidates and the people permanently. Donald Trump’s latest tweet shows up right next to the tweet of that guy you knew in high school, and Sanders’s photo of him on the campaign trail is next in line on your feed after that picture of someone’s lunch. Social media is past being just a frivolous time-waster. It has become a key political tool, a connecting service that can spur one candidate to victory and send another to the bottom of the polls. There is no escaping the vortex, and it is here to stay.
Originally published in Woof Magazine