Social media has enabled voters to become increasingly connected to the presidential candidates. They are always on display, whether it be a newspaper interview, a tweet, or a news segment. Every action is seen and judged by the public; both to the benefit and detriment of the election process. More so than ever before, voters are able to familiarize themselves with the candidates on a more personal level, and not just through televised speeches and debates. Has getting to know our candidates helped or hurt the election process? The answer is unclear.
The media has successfully increased public involvement in the election process. News outlets enable the public to witness election-related analysis, interviews and debates. Candidates have become accessible to the average voter, and not just those involved directly in politics. The media can also dictate the political agenda, thereby directly shaping the public’s perception of a specific candidate. For example, CNN news coverage is known to be a left-leaning station, while FOX News is more conservative. According to the Electoral Knowledge Network, the media is the primary means through which public opinion is shaped and at times manipulated. Are voters truly able to form their own opinions, or has technology done this for them?
Popular broadcasting is not necessarily negative. According to Eleanor Townsley, Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean of Faculty at Mount Holyoke College, “Shows like [Sean] Hannity’s and [Bill] O’Reilly’s engage audiences that may not otherwise participate in politics. They offer highly authentic performances that speak to people’s values and touch their emotions. This encourages many to join in the public conversation who otherwise wouldn’t.” Townsley also suggests that the rise of opinion media can produce greater media literacy, “These shows alert people to media bias, and if more people realize that information comes from a perspective, then that is probably good for democracy.”
The media is two sided: candidates are impacted by technology, and in turn they can also utilize digital power to shape the election. I will begin by examining the online presence of the one and only Donald Trump. Mr. Trump is infamous for his Twitter account. He is the ultimate schoolyard bully. He is able to harangue and then retreat behind the Internet’s impenetrable wall (and his theoretical wall on the Mexican border). His tweets, comprised of bold one-liners, stuck with voters and enabled him to gain popularity. His campaign quickly gained traction for #crookedHillary and his “Make American Great Again” slogan. Donald Trump has 12.8 million Twitter followers and 11.8 million Facebook likes, while Hillary Clinton has 10.1 million Twitter followers and 7.6 million Facebook likes. I would applaud his ability to harness modern technology to gain votes, but I’m neither a xenophobe nor a bigot, so I will refrain from doing so. Trump’s Twitter account has become a smear campaign rather than a platform for his policies; as a result, the 2016 election has become a war of personalities rather than a political contest.
Hillary Clinton also uses social media to connect with voters. She does not use Twitter’s 140-character limit to describe her platform. Instead, she uses social media to unite her followers. She asked her followers to tweet their feelings on student debt “in three emojis or less” and sent a snapchat with the “praise hands” emoji in a diverse array of skin tones. She also tweeted a host of Star Wars reaction GIFs to illustrate the “Dark Side” of the Republican field. Long story short: Hillary is aware of social issues, and her social media presence reflects this. Unlike her opponent, she does not create online rivalries; rather, she acts as a unifier.
The utilization of technology in the 2016 election is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the media shapes popular opinion. On the other, each candidate impacts his or her public perception through their respective social media presence. Only time will tell the ways in which technology will both help and hurt the general election process in 2016 and beyond.