#2016…The First Social Media Election
By Emily Gibson
For Reporting Texas
District 49 House Representative candidate Huey Rey Fischer logs onto Grindr, a dating app geared toward gay and bisexual people, and reads a message that says, “What are you looking for?” He replies: your vote.
Fischer said his campaign brainstormed ways to engage millennial voters and decided to follow the precedent set by the successful 2015 Rotnofsky-Mandapalu campaign for University of Texas Student Government, which also used dating apps to connect with voters.
“We always pivot back to our core message that everybody should be going to the polls if they’re registered to vote,” Fischer said, adding that he rebuffed suggestive messages.
Fischer lost the March Democratic Primary election, but his strategy is indicative of a larger trend: more millennial are using social media to engage with and learn about politics — and politicians are adapting.
Social media makes it easier for politicians to connect with voters on a personal level, strengthening the bond between candidate and citizen and streamlining the process of organizing, advertising and collecting contributions for campaigns.
“Ironically, the most important and greatest impact is that [social media] has democratized democracy,” said Austin-based political adviser Mark McKinnon. “Social media has had a significant impact on every aspect of campaigns.”
According to the Pew Research Center, social media is the favorite way voters 18-29 learn about politics, with Facebook being the leading outlet. Jeff Gottfried, a Pew researcher who produced a report about how people access information, said 61 percent of millennials get their news from Facebook, 17 percent more than any other source.
“What we’ve seen as a trend throughout a lot of our research is that people are much more likely to be getting news and political news through social media than any other generation,” Gottfried said.
Millennials stumble on the news when their friends share it, he said.
“Something that clearly is the case is not that they’re getting news on Facebook at higher rates, they’re just using the sites at higher rates,” Gottfried said. “Something that we’ve seen is that a lot of people are getting news from Facebook incidentally. They’re not going there specifically to get news.”
Allison Novak, public relations professor at Rowan University and author of “Media, Millennials, and Politics: The Coming of Age of the Next Political Generation,” said the trend for candidates to use social media in campaigning began in 2008. At that time, the focus was more on blogging and candidate websites. But the current election cycle saw a rise in more casual social media outlets, such as Twitter and Instagram. Novak credits that growth to social media’s openness to other voices and its inclusion of millennials in politics.
“The perception of young people is that they are so apathetic or disengaged – online, they’re able to exist without those stereotypes, and they can exist and volunteer,” she said. “It’s the type of space where people can build their own interest and decide their own engagement.”
In May 2015, The New York Times published a piece that dubbed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders “the king of the Internet.” Similarly, CNN published a commentary that addressed Republican candidate Donald Trump, perhaps prematurely, as “the social media president.”
Both candidates have built up a devoted fan base that produces and shares content to spread their message.
It’s a win-win. Candidates have their message spread by a population of engaged citizens, and young people feel like they have a say, which is novel for a millennial population that Novak says feels disenchanted with politics.
“For the people it definitely feels more empowering than reading a newspaper or watching a TV broadcast of someone else’s message because now you get to control the message and you get to control what content is out there,” she said.
She said millennial voters are most attracted to the “angst” of offbeat candidates. After feeling excluded from politics, she said young people look for things that are outside convention, such as a candidate with no political experience, a “political revolution” or a way of consuming political news that isn’t the traditional television or newspaper.
“It all aligns in this singular branded message that says, these candidates use platforms that are slightly outside of the mainstream or outside of what is the dominant form of political communication,” Novak said.
The first time that a digital platforms was used extensively in political campaigns was 2008, when Barack Obama adopted the Internet as a key tool to win first the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. That campaign also steered politics to a new area.
As a result, Hillary Clinton has strived to make her 2016 campaign more inclusive and interactive, hoping to engage the same millennial voters who helped Obama beat her. Clinton, along with Republican Jeb Bush, who has since dropped out of the race, announced her presidential bid on Snapchat. The app, which allows users to send photos and videos to friends and then deletes them forever after they are opened, made a live story called “Hello Hilary, 2016.” People who attended Clinton’s first rally could upload pictures and video to the live story, which was then available to everyone who downloaded the app worldwide. The live story content is not deleted immediately.
The Bernie Sanders campaign created the website Connect With Bernie. On the site, users create a profile, then select the issues they are passionate about from a checklist, which includes items such as healthcare, immigration, income equality and LGBT issues. The site then shows a timeline of posts dedicated to the user’s selected topics and invites them to “share now” to Twitter or Facebook, streamlining the process of sharing. Once users have connected their social media sites and have more than 150 followers, they are even allowed to contribute their own content and suggest their own hashtags for the Bernie campaign.
The Ted Cruz campaign hired Josh Perry, a young Texan who got his start with the Austin-based Harris Media. The Perry/Cruz partnership has led Cruz to become the first candidate to read tweets on the Senate floor in 2013 and created a number of interesting hashtags, including #MakeDCListen, #AbolishTheIRS and #CruzCrew.
A favorite of Perry’s, as he told MSNBC, is Periscope, a live-video app that lets candidates broadcast their speeches and rallies on mobile phones and computers. This app has been used by nearly all the presidential hopefuls and has given them a chance to reach places where they wouldn’t campaign otherwise.
Though social media have unleashed a period of innovation in political communication, Johnson said it is just the latest chapter in an ongoing story of political communication. For instance, in 1928, radio was first introduced as way of reaching voters. Republican Herbert Hoover was running for president against Democrat Al Smith. Though Smith was a better campaigner in person, he would frequently move away from the radio microphone, so audiences listening at home couldn’t hear him. Smith lost the election.
““I think it still matters today who is authentic and who has the clearest message – when you listen to them, do they give you a clear message about what they want to do in office?” Johnson said. “And social media allows them to do that.”