If you’re anything like us, your social media newsfeeds have been heaving with Hillary and Trump propaganda over the past 18 months. And it may (or may not) have come as a surprise that Trump was appointed president-elect earlier this month, despite Hillary taking the popular vote.
So why was Hillary pipped at the post by this uber-tanned fellow when she was pegged as the favourite? How active were Trump supporters on social media vs the Democrat die-hards? We thought we’d take a closer look at the role that media, in particular social media, has played in shaping perceptions around this year’s controversial US presidential election.
Social influencers in the election run-up
Popular celebs and public figures, whose views and election coverage was pushed to the front of our social feeds, were predominantly on the Hillary bandwagon. Everyone from our own pals to Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Kim Kardashian seemed to be gunning for a woman president, if for no other reason than to ensure Trump didn’t take the presidency. We didn’t see a groundswell of Trump support on social media – and so, it was comfortable to believe that the polls weren’t leaning in his direction (more on that, later).
More so than in any previous US election (even Obama’s), social media and influencers played a big role in helping shape political opinions and decisions, and in keeping everyone informed of election trends. It was media, both social and mainstream, that served up polling predictions and picked favourites ahead of time.
Ultimately, though, what it did was skew the general impression and understanding of who was more likely to win the White House. It created a perception of how the election was shaping up that wasn’t necessarily aligned with reality.
It also reinforced that algorithms, such as the ones that power Facebook’s newsfeed, are designed to serve us more of the content that they think we and our friends want to see, therefore validating our own beliefs, and warping what we acknowledge as popular belief or opinion.
If you’re interested to learn more about the power of social media in creating these truth silos, take some time to read and consider this excellent piece in the The Guardian, authored by Katharine Viner. In her article, she references Eli Pariser, co-founder of Upworthy, who coined the term ‘filter bubble’ in 2011. She writes: he was talking about how the personalised web – and in particular Google’s personalised search function, which means that no two people’s Google searches are the same – means that we are less likely to be exposed to information that challenges us or broadens our worldview, and less likely to encounter facts that disprove false information that others have shared.
Hillary’s ‘Election Eve’ mannequin challenge
On the day before the election, poll-leading Hillary initiated her own version of the mannequin challenge via social media, featuring cameos from Bill Clinton and Jon Bon Jovi. It was kinda fun, and a welcome departure from the seriousness and scandal surrounding the election lead-up, and it went viral, which was exactly the intent. The punchline was: “Don’t stand still. Vote today”. Within a week, public figures like Destiny’s Child and the New York Giants had created their own renditions of the challenge, and the hashtag #mannequinchallenge had been used used 2.3 million times on Twitter (see Mosh’s own version here). Pulling off this kind of trendy stunt would suggest that Hillary was keen to win favour with the millennials via social media and increase their traditionally low voting turnout.
Despite this, younger voting age groups (18-29 and 30-39) once again had the lowest voter turnout rate of the election. This demographic also happens to be the most prolific and savvy social media users, and plenty of campaign efforts besides the mannequin challenge were directed at them, so it came as a surprise to many Democratic supporters on social media that this didn’t equate to an increase in younger votes, or a Hillary win.
Crunch time on social media
Twitter’s live feed was a lively source of election commentary, from memes, videos and quotes poking fun at both Hillary and Trump, to poll updates rolling in every minute. And we loved it.
It wasn’t until we edged closer to crunch time that the reality of the election results began to sink in. And that we, like many others, realised the views and beliefs expressed on our social media channels weren’t necessarily representative of majority view.
Not only that, but the fact that general voter turnout was also slightly lower this year (than in 2012) at 58%, according to The Telegraph, was confronting. Just about everyone was talking about elections and ready to cast their vote, weren’t they? Turns out not so much.
So what did we learn from this?
Media is an incredibly powerful influencer – it has been for centuries (see propaganda and mass comms 101) but now that we have social media at our fingertips, the strength of media influence is even greater, more fragmented and less fact-based. (check out this interesting interview on RNZ Nine-to-Noon, by Robbie Allan, about the demise of fact-based media today).
We have such an amazing tool and so much power at our fingertips, especially as millennials. But being socially responsible is not only about what we post, but about the people and stories we’re interacting with online.
The recent US presidential election reinforced just how easy it is to shape and curate our own social media and internet worlds to reinforce our own views and beliefs, and in turn, produce narrow views on the world.
So what should we do? For starters, check out these great insights on Mashable Australia about how to pop that filter bubble. Go out and like some pages or posts that you don’t agree with, those that represent views that counter yours; news that isn’t popular or widely published elsewhere. Read beyond social media. And, every now and again, switch off your social and have an actual conversation with someone you disagree with.