Two unlikely presidential candidates have emerged in the 2016 election season. Both channel the anger felt by many Americans, run outside of the “establishment,” and have pushed (in some cases pushed out) supposed front-runners.
Initially, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were seen as long shots at best, and complete non-starters at worst. The reaction of the political “establishment” — a term brought to life by both men — was predictable: neither a self-described Democratic Socialist nor a man most recently famous for his hit reality TV show were palpable options for the presidency. If anything, they were amusing side shows while Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush (or perhaps, Marco Rubio) cut straight paths to their respective nominating conventions. These party insiders had seemingly everything they needed to launch a presidential run: super PAC support, endorsements around the block, networks of deep political relationships, and veteran campaign teams.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy in a park to a small group of journalists and Donald Trump kicked off his campaign announcement by insulting the fastest-growing voting block in the country.
Luckily for them, 2016 is a year in which only the plausible is impossible. And they have the Internet to thank.
At the start of their respective campaigns, both Sanders and Trump had to make sure their message was heard by a larger audience than was presented to them by traditional, mainstream media “gatekeepers” — the types that would ignore views they saw as too radical to cover seriously.
Like most mainstream political institutions over the past 10 years, though, the media misjudged their authority. 60 percent of Americans don’t trust mainstream media, and the advent of social media has given people access to alternatives to the CNNs of the world.
Much ink, digital and otherwise (but mostly digital) has been spilled over social media and it’s impact on the ways in which we consume information. Research has shown we create our own echo chambers: since we’re mostly friends with likeminded people who share our views and steer us towards articles that reinforce those views, we become more intractable and less open to dialogue. These echo chambers helped Trump and Sanders supporters keep their candidates messages alive early, even when the political establishment seemed intent on writing them off.
A January 2013 study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication examining cross-ideology exposure found that “on Twitter, political talk is highly partisan, where users’ clusters are characterized by homogeneous views and are linked to information sources,” and that these dynamics likely “reinforce in-group and out-group affiliations, as literally, users form separate political groups on Twitter.” The study continues: “Politically active voices, particularly younger voters, who use the Internet to express their opinions are moving away from neutral news sites in favor of those that match their own political views.”
So while many mainstream outlets had minimal or largely negative coverage of these two outsider candidates, more diverse and farther left and right wing outlets published articles that were shared profusely among each individual’s respective base, creating fertile grounds on the far left and right for Sanders’s and Trump’s messages to take hold.
And then there’s the money. In 2000, John McCain raised $810,000 in a single day, which at the time was considered a coup. In 2004, Howard Dean shocked pundits by raising $5 million in a month off of small donor contributions online. Nowadays? By the end of September 2015, Sanders had reached 1 million individual online donations, becoming the first candidate on either side to do so.
As Timothy Lee writes at Vox, Sanders has been “able to leverage his online support to raise $73 million from 2.5 million donors in 2015 — most of whom gave small amounts. He raised another $20 million in January and $40 million in February, with an average contribution size of $27.” This all stands in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, who has a large super PAC and numerous high dollar donors, though she also has her fair share of low-level individual donations.
Donald Trump, who says he’s self-funding his campaign, has seen his fair share of low-level individual donations as well. Of the $19.4 million the Trump campaign brought in by the end of 2015, individual contributions constituted around 25 percent. In fact, big money donors have lined up against Trump — and it’s not as if the Democratic donor class has gotten behind Sanders. In both instances, the candidates have painted themselves as political outsiders not beholden to anyone but their supporters, and none of it would have been possible without the Internet.
But this doesn’t give enough credit to Sanders and Trump as candidates, and to their campaigns as social media-savvy communicators: they are just so darn good at it.
Sanders’ team has done an amazing job making their 74-year-old candidate as the choice of and by young people. According to the New York Times, before Sanders announced his candidacy for president, “Mr. Sanders had 1.3 million Facebook interactions, compared with 5.6 million for Mr. Cruz and two million for Mr. Paul, according to data provided by Facebook. But since their announcements, the popularity of Mr. Cruz and Mr. Paul on Facebook has tempered, while Mr. Sanders’s has risen. In a seven-day stretch leading up to May 3, Mr. Sanders had 5.3 million interactions, compared with 1.2 million for Mr. Paul and 1.7 million for Mr. Cruz.” He’s now beating Hillary Clinton 3:1 in Facebook “likes”.
And on Twitter: during the GOP debate on in South Carolina, certain Sanders tweets were the first and second most re-tweeted sporting the #GOPdebate hashtag. Clinton took 3rd and 6th place.
The website Reddit.com is yet another social media avenue where Sanders dominates. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that,
“The subreddit [a subsection of the website] /r/SandersForPresident received more than 200,000 comments overall in the three months studied, including 59,000 mentioning a candidate. Beyond generally discussing his candidacy, /r/SandersForPresident also serves as a place for grassroots organizing: the banner across the top of the page includes links for users to volunteer for Sanders, attend Sanders events, and watch Sanders on television. Neither the Clinton nor Trump campaigns, on the other hand, seem to have robust subreddits. Of all the 350,000 comments studied from these three months, just 61 appeared in a candidate-specific subreddit devoted to Clinton and 212 appeared in one dedicated to Donald Trump.”
Bernie’s social media fandom has spread through sharable memes and videos highlighting his focus on issues such as economic inequality and universal healthcare. The medium is as important as the message and, cumulatively, it has a huge impact.
Trump, on the other hand, has utilized mediums such as Twitter, Vine, and YouTube unlike any political candidate in history. Trump is pacing the presidential field when it comes to Twitter, attracting the most followers and consistently tweeting with a careless style that only seems to draw more. He regularly sends video clips out via Vine, and his YouTube channel has been viewed upwards of 4 million times. While campaigns are expected to spend $4.4 billion overall on campaign ads this season, Trump is spending just 1 percent of what Jeb Bush did on TV ads. YouTube is cheap, and even more effective at spreading a message if you have supporters active on social media.
Without the Internet, it’s difficult to know whether Sanders’s and Trump’s campaigns would have existed long enough to make any impact at all. After this election cycle, it’s difficult to imagine a successful presidential candidate winning without an enormous social media presence.
Photo: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders takes a selfie with a supporter after speaking at a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire January 4, 2016. REUTERS/Gretchen Ertl