Social Media in US Elections

Significance for A Level Politics

  • raises issues around political communication
  • raises issues around the development of political media
  • raises issues around possible interference in elections
  • links to campaign finance
  • links to election campaigns
  • links to election outcomes
  • links to voting behaviour


Social media may be defined as websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking and differs from traditional news media forms such as television, newspapers, and radio.

The potential of social media in elections was first recognised in the 2008 election by the Obama campaign who used the internet to create and support groups of supporters and to raise campaign funds.

Twitter and Facebook are by far the most important platforms. YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Reddit (campaigns are not allowed to have accounts on Reddit, but their supporters can) are also key players in modern elections.

Social media has altered the way politicians communicate with the electorate. Around 35% of 18-19 year old American voters named social media as the most helpful source of information about the 2016 Presidential election. 14% of US adults acquired information about the 2016 presidential election through social media (Pew Research Centre). The top news destinations on social media were: Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Social media is changing the way in which US elections are funded. The research on funding from internet sources remains patchy. However, the growth in small donors to campaigns is very likely to be driven by internet pledges.

2016 Presidential Election

Social media was a key player in the 2016 US Presidential election.

A number of candidates announced their intention to run in the 2016 Presidential election on social media rather than established media outlets, it was clear from the outset that social media would play a major role in the election campaign.

The dominant platforms in 2016  were: Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter.

Facebook was the dominant social platform for political marketing. It functioned as a place for online political participation and allowed users to influence or be influenced by their ‘virtual reference groups’ (people who share similar interests, views and concerns).

Snapchat posted live stories that worked as ‘on the ground’ political coverage of  events, rallies and presidential debates. Research shows that millennials on Snapchat (people born in the late 1980s through to the early 2000s)  were politically engaged either by watching stories, creating their own stories or using election filters.

However, the overall ‘winner’ in 2016 was Twitter. The ‘Twittersphere’ , in terms of chatter, communication, political broadcasting and immediacy, all in real time, established itself as a mainstream channel of political communication. All the candidates in 2016 used Twitter to control and manage their political message and to engage in dialogue with supporters and opponents.

Donald Trump used Twitter to greater effect, particularly in the primaries. It only took one outrageous Tweet from Trump to generate enough free media coverage to make sure it was his campaign that dominated the next 24 hour news cycle.

Trump’s tweets were often an emotional and personal ‘connection’ with the public and portrayed him as the more engaging candidate online,  frequently retweeting and highlighting posts from the public.

Clinton, by contrast, used a more ‘distant’ and ‘corporate’ to Twitter with very little direct interaction with the voters.

Twitter also took a key role in the televised debates through live-stream coverage and reaction that could not be matched by other social media platforms. Although we need to observe more elections, there is a view (Hutchinson, 2016) that Twitter may actually be ‘predicting’ the outcome of elections when viewed by the total ‘share’ of Twitter conversation (in 2016 – 59% Trump, 41% Clinton).

The Issues

Trump dominated social media in the 2016 Presidential election. His tweets, in particular, often caused a news-storm that allowed him to keep the media (for better of worse) focused on his campaign. In 2016, Trump used social media to re-work the way traditional campaigns had attempted to both spread their political messages and to communicate with the electorate. 

However, there are a number of issues and concerns to be aware of when evaluating the role of social media in modern elections:

  1. Social media allows the candidates to gather valuable data about the people they are interacting with. The data is also being recycled by the social media platforms themselves in a way that raises serious concerns about privacy. Recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook illustrate the extent to which social media may be used to influence the outcome of elections.
  2. Linked to the first point, there are also concerns around the extent to which foreign interests, mainly Russia, may be using social media to disrupt and influence the outcome of elections. There is considerable research about Russian interference with the 2016 Presidential election and the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK. If you’re interested in this and wish to do more reading on the U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and indictment, click here.
  3. The third point links 1 and 2 around the issue of ‘fake news‘ on social media. The US data company Statista suggest that in 2017, 42% of traffic for fake news was generated through social media. The same company offers a breakdown of the most read fake news stories in the 2016 Presidential election – read more.
  4. As a SYNOPTIC point you might get the opportunity to link to the recent problems of the UK Labour Party and accusations of anti-semitism which have been raised mostly through the activities of a number of Facebook and Twitter accounts indirectly linked to Labour supporters and, in a number of instances, followed by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Further Reading

You may find a recent BBC documentary interesting. It ties together several of the issues discussed here and elsewhere in the course.

Who Killed Seth Rich? BBC ‘Murder in Washington’

Concluding Point

From US political commentator, Beatrice Bender (April 2017)

The 2016 US presidential election has certainly demonstrated that social media has established itself as a dominant channel in political marketing. The incorporation of social media has completely reshaped campaigning activities and changed the form of political communication. Altogether it seems that politicians are harnessing online and social media tools to not only broadcast their message, raise funds, but increasingly now to also trigger increased political engagement both on and offline.