Before the age of social media, politicians relied on traditional channels of communication, reaching voters through television, newspapers and word-of-mouth. Now, political candidates have turned to sites like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok as a means of reaching voters of all ages, particularly young.
This strategy proves effective for a multitude of reasons, the main being that it allows candidates to interact with voters directly and hear their concerns first-hand. Aside from sharing political views and policy ideas, many politicians also post content surrounding their personal lives outside of politics, making them more relatable and personable to the everyday citizen.
Furthermore, the speed by which information spreads on social media allows political candidates to capitalize on anything and everything that could promote their campaign, in a timely manner. Take, for example, how the Biden campaign quickly capitalized on the fly meme during the vice presidential debate, immediately designing fly swatters that sold out in hours.
By taking advantage of the humorous moment, the Biden campaign was able to gain more news coverage, reach younger voters enthralled in “meme culture” and raise money, all at the same time.
Concerning fundraising, social media particularly benefits new political candidates who typically do not have the clout or connections to run a successful campaign. With these online platforms, candidates have a relatively low-cost way to communicate and engage with large audiences, all while gaining support and visibility.
Both political newcomers and long-time politicians have utilized the large reach that social media has, influencing voters from many different backgrounds. Of all the demographics that social media campaigning reaches, it is most influential among Gen Z, the youngest generation capable of voting.
While many Zoomers are under 18, rendering them unable to vote, they have learned to mobilize social media in ways that significantly impact presidential campaigns.
TikTok, an app that is largely dominated by people under 25, has become a platform where social and political awareness posts are just as common as dance trends and comedy skits. Through calculated TikToks, teens on the app were able to drastically reduce the attendance at Trump’s rally in Tulsa this past June.
The blow to Trump’s campaign, though arguably a small one, demonstrates the passion that young people have to participate in and shape democracy. With a rising interest in politics among young voters, TikTok and other social media apps have the power to increase voter turnout, both in young people and older voters.
In addition to posts from civilians, celebrities have also started taking advantage of social media to encourage voter registration. And while Twitter remains the most popular— and most comically contentious— medium for politicians to spew their spare thoughts and forward their campaign goals, Instagram has also found its place in the realm of political advocacy.
The goal? To win the favor of tech-savvy millennials who will have a great influence on the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election.
The app, with its visual emphasis and its impressive base of about 800 million users, is quickly rising as a go-to for politicians seeking to stay relevant. According to Statista, as of 2018, over 50 percent of the House and 70 percent of the Senate has an Instagram account.
Instagram Live has become a friendly and familiar way for those in power to connect to young voters, with political figures like Michelle Obama encouraging young people to vote by organizing live conversations with in-demand celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Zendaya and DJ Khaled ahead of the national election.
In April, popular female rapper Cardi B welcomed former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to her Instagram livestream, where the two spoke candidly about the upcoming election, Joe Biden’s presidential nomination, the indispensability of young voters, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the government’s controversial response to the pandemic. The meeting between the unlikely pair went viral, with Cardi B asserting that “133,000 viewers and nearly one million people” tuned in to hear their conversation.
Other celebrities have resorted to posting “thirst traps,” aiming to lure in voters with enticing photos that ultimately direct to voter registration links. On September 28, after Kylie Jenner posted two bikini photos and urged her followers to register and vote, Vote.org saw a massive increase in site traffic and engagement with the voter registration tool.
Even with all its benefits, social media can also have dire consequences. While it allows voters to share their views and interact directly with candidates, it also allows ample room for misinformation and disinformation to thrive. Much of this fake news goes unchecked, especially on sites like Instagram and Twitter where a repost to someone’s story or a retweet to someone’s page can spread information so rapidly.
President Trump, who is notorious for his tweets, has often retweeted or posted false or misleading information. With a platform as large and influential as his, his tweets have the power to sway opinions and encourage real-life actions, much of which has proven divisive and even violent.
Pres. Trump: “That was a retweet, I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves.” @SavannahGuthrie: “I don’t get that. You’re the president. You’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.” #TrumpTownHall pic.twitter.com/Im0QFy7VOU
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) October 16, 2020
There is no doubt that 2020 will likely see record numbers of voter turnout, given the emphasis on registration and early voting that has pervaded every media platform. Although social media is just one factor, it has played a great role in motivating people to go to the polls or send their mail-in ballots. Most importantly, it has inspired voters all over the country to participate in democracy and ensure their voices are heard.