This year, more money will be spent on political ads – $11.4 billion – than ever before. According to Borrell Associates around $1 billion of that will be spent on digital media, and half of that on social media. Compare that digital media spend to the $22.25 million spent in 2008, and you’ll see a 5,000 percent increase.
But forget ad spend for a second. Think about where voters now get their news – or the food of their outrage.
One 2012 study found that Facebook increased voter turnout by 340,000 votes by manipulating which stories were in the newsfeeds of 1.9 million users.
The experiment, which was conducted over six years but only shared with the public in 2014, didn’t go over well with the media. That has to do with the fact that Facebook users skew democratic slightly.
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, women are 10 points more likely to use this social network than men; young people are almost twice as likely to be on Facebook than those older than 65; and urbanites are slightly more likely to turn to Facebook than folks in rural areas. If [Facebook’s experiment] was applied even-handedly across Facebook’s adult American user population in 2012, it probably pushed more Obama supporters than Romney backers toward the voting booth.
Another study from 2012 found that 34 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 18 to 24 said that what they read on social media would influence their voting decisions, second only to what they saw in televised political debates. That was 2012. I’d be surprised if social media wasn’t king this year.
True power, when it comes to the presidential race, lies not in old media but in the hands of social media platforms.
President Obama was the first president to truly connect with the public via social media. But this year’s candidates blow Barack’s once-famous Reddit AMA out of the water.
Ted Cruz is using Periscope. Marco Rubio, Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush have all used Snapchat as part of their campaign. Even Bernie Sanders, at the ripe age of 74, is winning at social media with the biggest gain in Instagram followers of any candidate since the beginning of the election.
And then there’s Donald.
As one Politico writer put it:
A natural-born troll, adept at issuing inflammatory bulletins at opportune moments, [Trump] is the first candidate optimized for the Google News algorithm.
The greater issue with social media’s influence on the election is that it does not stand alone. Social media campaigning is not limited to a single platform. When Hilary Clinton takes a picture with Kanye and Kim Kardashian, traditional media, online media and TV news all pick up the story. When Trump retweets a Mussolini quote, it dominates news coverage for the next 24-hour cycle.
Ten-second disappearing videos and 140-character tweets live on and expand into something that we all see, whether you follow these candidates or not. Social media used to be temporary, now its permanent. The things we used to do on a whim – send a friend a cat picture (or a crotch picture) – can now sink a political campaign.
Knowing how important social media is to the voting decisions of Americans, and knowing that candidates are using social media far more than ever before, I’d like to throw out a hypothetical.
Imagine if, in the most altruistic act of evil (or simply evil, depending on your political leanings), Facebook simply shadow banned all mentions of Donald Trump. People posting about him, both positively and negatively, simply went unseen in the feeds of their friends. Trump, without the ability to embarrass himself by sharing Mussolini quotes, could spend his time yelling at Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio on television.
And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter, the world’s town square, means that anyone on the planet can also live-tweet the debates. The conversations on Twitter are just as bizarre as the ones happening behind the lecterns, and given that we are more likely to listen to the opinions of people we know, those conversations also become influential.
Let’s not forget Snapchat. This is the first time presidential candidates have announced their bid on Snapchat (Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush). Plus, the platform has added paid political filters for candidates to advertise.
My dad, born in ’59, talks a lot these days about the elections of his youth. He tells stories of his mother and father sitting at the kitchen table with a newspaper. In that newspaper was a table chart of all the candidates and all the important topics, showing where each potential president stood on any given topic.
I’ve never seen a chart like that. It kind of exists in my head and it is populated by snippets of media I’ve seen and digested.
The conversation around this year’s election is happening online, on platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and Instagram. It has been whittled down to the latest sound bite, the most recent photo, the craziest 140-character retweet. And in realizing that, we should make no mistake about who holds all the cards during the 2016 election.
Real power lies in the hands of Zuckerberg, Dorsey, Spiegel, and Systrom.
Their platforms could very well decide the fate of the election.
(DO NOT READ THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT A HOUSE OF CARDS SPOILER)
In the latest season of House of Cards, Frank Underwood’s republican opponent uses a search engine company called Polly Hop to manipulate search results, with the most favorable news stories popping to the top and the most damaging getting buried. In retaliation, Frank uses the NSA to conduct domestic surveillance, enabling him to target voters and sway them to his side.
(NOW YOU CAN CONTINUE READING)
Google, though not a social network (if we neglect Google+, which we should), is in more control than anyone when it comes to the election. And Google, too, has come under fire by theorists who believe the search engine could rig elections through manipulated search results. Google has vehemently denied these claims.
As much as I love a good conspiracy theory there is no evidence that Facebook or any other social platform has tampered with the free speech we so enjoy around the presidential election. But as we pass beyond the milestone of Super Tuesday into the home stretch of this election, it’s worth remembering who really has the power in this situation.
If they so desired, social media platforms could choose the next President of the United States. It’s a scary thought and one that puts the power of the televised debate, the radio spot, and the newspaper candidate chart out to pasture.
Not even Olivia Pope could compete with that.