The Role of Social Media in Election 2016

What really happened? And what next? Here are some clues.

Photo by Makayla Ostapa on Unsplash

This past month I read and wrote about the book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer & Emerson T. Brooking. I found the book so eye-opening I felt compelled to ask for it for Christmas. The authors address a whole range of subjects related to the new media, but devote special attention to the 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The degree to which social media has been in play in our elections is mind-boggling, and only now seems to have become apparent.

Public domain.

Its not like the 2016 election was the first to utilize social media influence. Obama was adept to a certain degree with the emerging possibilities of social media, as this Atlantic article notes. But that was all warm-up compared to election 2016.

Very early on Hillary’s army took to the trenches, making moves to gain an advantage. According to Nick Allen’s article in The Telegraph, “Mrs Clinton employed more than 100 people in her digital team and spent tens of millions of dollars targeting millennials with a series of hi-tech messages on Facebook.”

That sounds like a fairly hefty commitment, and on the surface appears sensible. Millennials are wedded to their devices, the pundits assume. Her husband Bill, and I am not suggesting husbands are always right, encouraged her to spend money on blue collar workers in the Rust Belt states, which had been hurting since the 2008 recession. Hillary’s digital teams pushed for the social media maneuver. Nick Allen proposes that this was a mistake.

In LikeWar, Singer and Brooking go into great detail as regards the Trump campaign’s utilization of these tools. Donald Trump had spent a lifetime playing the media game. He was no newbie in this jungle. And he made his own rules. “With his Twitter loudspeaker, Trump could drive the national conversation at a pace and volume that left both journalists and his opponents scrambling to keep up,” write the authors. “It allowed him not just to dominate the web-borne portion of the 2016 election, but to dominate all other forms of media through it, thus capturing $5 billion dollars of ‘free’ media coverage (nearly twice that of Clinton).”

In addition to Twitter, where he continues to maintain a steady stream at @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump, he also has built a stadium-full of followers on the Reddit platform at /r/The_Donald.

All of these platforms provide opportunity for Meme-makers to create amusing, pointed images that often get extended play by going viral. The meme-teams are already busy producing blistering barbs about Elizabeth Warren.

Courtesy John Heino Photography

If Reddit seems a chaotic Wild West, then it’s only because it’s unfamiliar to you. There are maps and outposts, and a posse for every Marshall Dillon. Marshall Donald did have an agenda, and the posse understood it, for it spoke to their anxieties and powerlessness, “standing strong against the forces of ‘globalism,’ aligning with many fervent conspiracy theories,” write the authors, a digital army that never took furlough. They were always on their game, “endlessly available.”

In the marketing game, there’s a well-known technique for fine-tuning your marketing message called A/B testing. In A/B testing you run two versions of an ad and see which one gets better results. In this way you learn what connects and what does not connect with your audience.

The degree to which Donald Trump’s team utilized this A/B technique is literally unbelievable, continuously fine tuning their messages over and over and over and over, to get it razor sharp. According to Singer & Brooking, “the Trump campaign had run almost 6 million different versions of online ads. Once, the number of variations on a single message approached 200,000.”

Can you imagine? The effort to “get it right” was taken to a truly obsessional level. Add into the mix that the messages are being targeted to persons whose data had been captured via Facebook and catalogued at Cambridge Analytica. They knew who they were talking to, and voters listened. Trump, despite being pretty much despised by the liberal media and a good portion of the general public, had a message that resonated with the voters that mattered, which is the unaligned, undecided voters in the middle. What happens in 2020 will be anyone’s guess. As a famous Nobel Laureate once wrote, and sang, The Times, They Are A-Changin’. Meantime, I’ll catch you on the flip side.

Related Links

Did you know that Hillary’s campaign was nearly 20% more active on Facebook and Twitter than the Trump campaign? Read this insightful story on the Illuminating 2016 Project.
See how much the candidates spent on Facebook ads.

Originally published at on January 1, 2019.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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