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Don’t Delete Your Account: How Social Media Has Changed Since The Last Presidential Election

How does democracy function in a world where you can simply "unfollow" the people you disagree with?


Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

John Locher/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Hillary Clinton’s Twitter persona got a much needed update when she tweeted “Delete your account” to Donald Trump. A far cry from the canned missives that only add to the perception that she is stiff and unlikable, the tweet heard ’round the world showed not only that she knew how to deal a zinger, but that her team understood the nuances of a tool that has become increasingly influential since the 2012 election.

According to a Pew Research study published in July, 54% of younger adults prefer to get news online. While TV is still the leading source of news for most people, about half of all 18-49 year olds reported they often turn to online platforms for news. According to a Gallup Poll also published in July: “15% of Americans aged 18 to 34 list a social media site as their main news source — up from 3% in 2013.” The poll also found that “specific mentions of media organizations have risen from 30% to 42%,” suggesting that people are becoming more loyal to certain news organizations. This means that people can increasingly cherry-pick news that reinforces what they already believe.

To think about those numbers in the context of the presidential election: At the end of the day, the candidates’ action was less influential than the way it played out on people’s social feeds. That means everything was happening in a world where you could simply mute, or “unfollow,” the people you disagree with. In a politically disparate social media world, the way we consume news has driven the wedge between liberals and conservatives deeper and deeper. Both sides love to blame the media, but the content of the media might matter far less than the way people consume media.

From the blog "Texts From Hillary"

From the blog “Texts From Hillary

The Wall Street Journal published a visual essay titled “Red Feed, Blue Feed” demonstrating the vastly different images and articles shared on Facebook by users who identify themselves as liberals and those who identify as conservative. While liberals are watching videos posted by Occupy Democrats, conservatives are reading The National Review and articles calling for Clinton’s arrest. Where older people can choose between Fox News or MSNBC when they turn on their televisions, social media is much more pervasive than the nightly news. For most young people, social media is an integral part of their daily lives.

Whereas previous generations watched the nightly news, perhaps listened in the car on the way to work in the morning, getting news from social media ensures that you will be inundated throughout the day. And it’s not just young people anymore: A separate Pew study found that “35% of all those 65 and older report using social media, compared with just 2% in 2005.”

The 2012 election had its fair share of viral moments: Who could forget Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women,” which became a meme and then its own movement? But more often than spawning a hashtag, the viral moments of the 2012 election were news items before they were memes, not memes that became news items. Romney’s leaked “47% speech,” Clint Eastwood’s tragicomic lecture to an empty chairMarco Rubio battling cotton mouth and giving up — these were all funny moments that were shared widely, but originated offline.

In 2016, one orange candidate practically ran his campaign via a series of Twitter rants, Bernie Sanders broke fundraising records with the help of #FeelTheBern, an innocent illustrator’s beloved frog was hijacked by white supremacists, and a tastefully gloating shimmy GIF did more for Clinton’s image than any amount of baby kissing and hand shaking ever could.

Gone are the days of 2008 when a charismatic young Barack Obama could dominate the race by mobilizing the youth vote on social media. In 2016, politicians on every level must engage with voters on social media, crafting a narrative and a persona worthy of hashtags and coveted shares. No matter what happens on Tuesday, the next POTUS and her or his administration will be crafting a victory tweet as carefully as a victory speech. Just don’t expect the other side to read it. Chances are strong they won’t be following each other by that point.

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