A Political Parasite? - Social Media and the US Election -- Hugh Ludford

A Political Parasite? -  Social Media and the US Election -- Hugh Ludford

With 72% of voting-age Americans active on some form of social media, it was hardly surprising when both the Republicans and Democrats fully utilised these sites in preparation for the 2020 US Election. However, each party used a very different set of tactics to promote their agendas and hide their candidates’ weaknesses: this ultimately becoming an election that was almost as focused on the characters of those standing as their policies.

Part of the reason for candidate personalities being the focal point of the election was Trump. His personality and ‘novel’ attitude towards politics were a large part of how he was originally elected. By continually flaunting this character throughout his presidency, he ensured that the 2020 election would be just as character-orientated as 2016.

Trump’s main method of spreading his ‘brand politics’ was through his Twitter account. Trump’s account had just under 90 million followers at its peak, but this was by no means an accurate appraisal of its influence. His brash tweets regularly made the news and the account became infamous around the world for its ‘bull in a china shop’ approach. By reaching the news, Trump’s tweets and policies spread around the globe – even people who weren’t on social media were familiar with the account – and while the campaign didn’t appeal to everyone, awareness was huge.  This had the effect of gaining Trump a very large follower base, and by extension a dedicated (albeit smaller) voter base.

As the election approached, Trump continued to project his views in the same way, undermining Biden and aggressively encouraging voters. Perhaps his use of Twitter in the build up to the election is best summed up by this tweet: “I am asking you to go VOTE for your favourite president, we still have work to do! Let’s WIN, WIN, WIN!”, which shows his brazen tone – this was how he ‘fired up’ his followers ready to vote.

Also, a new nickname was forced on Biden by Trump’s tweets: “Sleepy Joe”. Trump’s ‘alternative’ methods are perhaps epitomised by this recurring tactic of allocating labels to his opponents. During the 2016 election, he faced “crooked” Clinton, and his list of nicknames for Biden varied based on whatever was in the news cycle – “Beijing Biden”, “Quid Pro Joe” and even “Crazy Joe Biden”. These nicknames were hugely popular with his followers – a ‘unique selling point’ – and were spread on his twitter to undermine those who stood against him, particularly in the build up to elections.

These factors resulted in a very character-orientated election: Trump’s feisty attitude against Biden’s reserved, more predictable nature.

Biden and the Democrat Party took a very different approach to social media in the build-up to the election. Knowing that this was a crucial election for the Democrats, Joe Biden was the candidate of choice because he occupied the ‘middle ground’ of the party – and so would attract the highest possible number of voters to take on Trump.

However, when he was chosen to run, Biden seemed to have one major shortcoming: a relatively feeble online presence. In taking the middle ground, Biden had to an extent distanced himself from the younger, online world of 21st-Century politics. For example, when the Democrat candidate was selected, many of Biden’s rivals had large online fan followings (eg. Andrew Yang’s Yang Gang, Bernie Sanders’ Bros and Kamala Harris’ K-Hive), while Biden had much less in terms of an online presence. Of course, he did have some online fan hubs, mainly on Reddit, but fewer than other democrat candidates (at this stage) and virtually nothing next to the notoriety of Trump.

Instead, as the election loomed, the majority of Biden’s social media hype came from external sources. He was endorsed by many influencers and online accounts, one of the most prominent being Ridin’ with Biden. In terms of ‘organic’ fan hubs though, Biden was still lacking.

Perhaps one of the biggest boosts for Biden’s pre-election online profile was his decision to appoint Kamala Harris as his Vice President. Harris already had a healthy online following, and this merged with Biden’s to form a strong sense of online support: perhaps aided inadvertently by Trump’s aggressive style which had pushed some undecided voters towards the Democrat Party.

That is not to say, however, that Biden did nothing to aid his own online presence. Biden and his team used emails and texts to contact and inform followers. This allowed the older community, who are significantly less active on social media to still be included in Biden’s campaign, on more familiar technologies. Emails seem more personal than social media posts and were Biden’s best bet for enticing new voters: the polls said he was already ahead in younger voters, so he needed to focus on convincing the older demographic.

Also, though their prevalence paled next to Trump’s online presence, Biden did in fact have his own social media accounts, which were a key tactic to continue to engage with his younger voters. It also helped Biden in another way – to avoid the gaffes he was famous for. There are whole YouTube Channels following Biden’s most awkward slip-ups, but these mistakes are eliminated on sites like Facebook and Twitter, where Biden’s message can be carefully considered, edited, then posted with no hiccups. This not only strengthened his social media presence and credibility as a candidate, it also gave opponents less ammunition to use against him – which was a crucial defence against Trump’s tactics of undermining and discrediting opponents.

Now, following Biden’s win, the future is unclear. Will social media’s relationship with elections become symbiotic or parasitic? Symbiotic, where social media is used fairly to engage with a better-informed voter base? Or parasitic, leeching off the election process, benefitting from and perpetuating political divides in the population? Either way, its influence will only grow, meaning that successful future candidates are likely to be those who can understand and harness its potential, for better or worse.

Hugh Ludford is a current Orwell Youth Prize Fellow and was as a junior 2020 Orwell Youth Prize winner for his piece 'You are what you eat'.

Image credit: Ted Eytan | Flickr

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