It may seem painfully obvious at this point, but social media channels like Twitter and Facebook played a key role in Donald Trump’s surprise election win.
Social media helped Trump connect with and energize his supporters, whose views were woefully underrepresented in the mainstream media.
Twitter and Facebook provided platforms for Trump supporters to distribute and amplify both pro-Trump and anti-Clinton stories.
In fact, President-elect Trump admitted as much in an interview that aired last night on 60 Minutes:
“I really believe that– the fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent. And I won. I think that social media has more power than the money they spent, and I think maybe to a certain extent, I proved that,” he said.
Pew Research reported last week that 20% of social media users have changed their stance on a social or political issue because of things they saw on the services of their choice. About 17% changed their opinion on a candidate because of social media.
Trump, with almost 14 million followers on Twitter, would often start his own news cycles with deeply opinionated and often incendiary posts.
Presence of Bots
Aside from taking the traditional media gatekeepers out of the equation, social media is particularly susceptible to automated bots that can influence the masses.
Researchers at the University of Southern California discovered that “one in every five election-related tweets from September 16 to October 21 was generated by computer software programs called ’social bots.’” These bots could automatically pick up and help spread certain messages – often helping memes reach trending status.
These more than 400,000 social post generated at least four million election-related tweets during the period the researchers studied.
In this way, the bots could create “the false impression that there is grassroots, positive, sustained support for a certain candidate.”
The bots further benefited from a particular quirk of social media:
- Negative tweets are retweeted at a pace 2.5 times higher than positive ones.
Media Fragmentation, Weakness, and Elitism
Bloomberg noted last week that this was the “first presidential election in which the majority of the electorate got its news from social media.”
On the one hand, Facebook is now the most powerful media company in the world.
44 percent of American adults get their media through Facebook, many consuming news from partisan sources with which they agree.
The structure of Facebook also does not differentiate between news reported by top-tier news outlets (The New York Times, Wall Street Journal) and blog posts or small alt-right outlets – because everything looks the same in the newsfeed, everything is given the aura of the same level of legitimacy.
As Bloomberg noted, “the proliferation of fake news on Facebook has also been a problem: false stories about the Clinton family committing murder and Huma Abedin being a terrorist flew fast and furious despite refutations from responsible news organizations.”
But the issue goes beyond the ubiquity of Facebook – the mainstream media itself is hemorrhaging money – outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and The New York Times needed Trump because covering him meant more eyeballs, clicks, and higher ratings.
As The Guardian noted this weekend, it’s “difficult to imagine what outrages he would have to commit on camera that would cause a TV director to fade to black.”
Finally, in that same article, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof acknowledged the media’s elitism:
Journalists were “largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated… We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.”
Facebook Moves to Counter Fake News Stories
In a post on his Facebook profile late on Saturday, Zuckerberg said Facebook hoped to announce new measures to tackle fake stories “soon”.
“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”
“That said, we don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook. Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news. We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here. We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further.”
Now, the mainstream media must adjust to this new world order where their role as a check-and-balance on government and arbiter of what messages the public should hear has greatly diminished.
But the incredible role of Facebook and Twitter in cutting out the media middleman and allowing candidates this election to speak directly to their base has a silver lining: increased accountability.
As Darrell Etherington wrote in TechCrunch yesterday:
“Through all of this, Twitter is shining a light on a U.S. president elect’s mental state and political priorities like never before. That may not balance out the role it and other social platforms have had in providing a vector for misinformation and harassment, but it does mean we can point to evidence directly from the source when talking about the imminent danger resulting from this election.”