By Brett Zielke
Marketing and advertising for US elections has changed over the years as technology has grown. Roosevelt successfully utilized radio, Kennedy’s win was largely attributed to his decisive victories in the first ever televised debates with Nixon, and Obama’s early adoption of social media led the way to his improbable victory in 2008. Since then the electoral influence of social media has grown, and resulted in both positive and negative effects on American politics.
In 2008, Obama’s campaign is credited with bringing social media marketing, and social media fundraising into the mainstream. He used Facebook and Twitter to engage with his supporters encouraging them to post and share political content – comments, photos and videos of his speeches. According to the Pew Research Centre, 48% of Obama voters received regular emails directly from his party, and 49% of them shared text messages related to the campaign with other people. Only 38% of John McCain’s supporters received emails, and only 29% shared text messages about the campaign.
Obama’s social media efforts resulted in an increase of online donations. Digital fundraising efforts such as email, social media (Facebook especially) and mobile accounted for $403 million in 2008. In 2012, it accounted for $504 million and became the first campaign in history to ever raise over $1 billion in fundraising.
While social media was used in an effective and positive manner during Obama’s election campaigns, there is a negative and damaging side to its use. In a 2018 interview with David Letterman, Obama commented that after his success with social media in 2008, he had high hopes for it as a political instrument for bringing people together. However, he feels that they overlooked an important detail, saying “what we missed is people in power, special interests, foreign governments etc., can in fact manipulate that (social media) and propagandize it.”
Since social media does not adhere to international boundaries, political campaigns are not safe from interference of foreign governments. The degree of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election is still a hotly contested topic, and it can be hard to separate what is concrete evidence from speculation. According to a Time article, Russia hacked into the Clinton campaign’s emails, and spread misinformation and propaganda throughout social media, as much to ensure Trump would win, as to create general discord within the American public.
The social media interference during the last election led to changes being implemented on these platforms for the 2020 election. Twitter and Pinterest banned political ads, and blocked or deleted political tweets from the candidates. Facebook however, only banned new ads in the week before the election. Despite these actions, according to a special report of the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, 42% of the general American population expressed concern over the prominence of fake news and false information during the U.S. presidential election.
Social media is rapidly and constantly changing, including how it is used in political campaigns. Twelve years ago, social media was positively used as fundraising and engagement tools. Now, these platforms are used to further separate people ideologically by presenting messaging that further cements what they already believe. This leaves little to no room to change their opinions through debate, which was once a cornerstone of election season. Perhaps most detrimental though, is that in the last decade social media has been weaponized by many to manipulate the outcomes of elections damaging an already cracked foundation of trust.