World View: Donald Trump uses social media to toxic effect

The US election has been defined by how candidates communicate with voters

Donald Trump has largely rewritten the social media rule book and remains, by far, the most tweeted-about candidate. Photograph: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Donald Trump has largely rewritten the social media rule book and remains, by far, the most tweeted-about candidate. Photograph: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

 

The US election has become the social media election: in its agenda, in the focus and tone of debates, in new forms of organisation and in the form of a frontrunner who epitomises it, social media with legs Donald Trump.

Two-thirds of adults and 90 per cent of young adults use social networking sites, predominantly Facebook. A third of young adults will post views on political issues on social media, and the Pew Research Centre has found that about a third of 18- to 29-year-olds name a social networking site as their most helpful source for learning about the election.

Borrell Associates estimates politicians will allocate more than 9 per cent of their media budgets to digital and social media in this election cycle, a staggering $1 billion (€880 million).

Crucially, it changes the nature of the dialogue between politicians and many voters by making redundant the mediation role of the press and TV. Communication is two-way, allowing for a sounding board effect and a sense of ownership of the campaign, while the message is also uncontaminated by translation or explanation by intermediaries. It is largely unquestioned or subject to fact-checking and does not have to sit beside rival narratives to face easy direct comparison. The control of the message by political campaigns is a joy.

Direct dialogue with supporters is also an important organising tool, which the likes of Bernie Sanders use to great effect in creating new forms of decentralised campaigning and small-scale fundraising – 2.5 million contributions since the beginning of 2016 – and in which tens of thousands of activists are empowered, sharing out functions such as organising local meetings, phone banks and canvassing.

These traditionally involve building big, costly professional campaign staffs. His networking has organised more than 60,000 campaign events to date, from meetings to phone banking – one million calls every day – and canvasses and even answering emails.

Unlimited scaling

Internet-based organising, using apps such as the commercial Slack, he says, has the critical capacity to “leverage the full capacity of all the people who raise their hands and say, ‘I want to be involved’. It’s one thing to crowdsource funding for movement organising. It’s another thing to crowdsource the organising itself.”

Sanders has about 165 Facebook pages with 7.3 million likes and nearly 200 Facebook groups with more than 358,000 members.

Unlike other candidates, Trump, the master of Twitter, insists on sending his own messages to his seven million followers. He has largely rewritten the social media rule book and remains, by far, the most tweeted-about candidate. Prior to and in the days after “Super Tuesday” there were more than three million tweets about him. Sanders had slightly more than one million.

Outrageousness

“The Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters,” Trump boasts of himself , quoting a fan. He uses Twitter to sound out his message, refining and tailoring it to his audience as others use polling and focus groups. His success is due to a mix of the outrageousness of his message and the much-valued “authenticity” of his social media presence.

There is another dimension to the dominance of Twitter, Facebook and Reddit in the election. Apart from its extremism, the campaign has descended to a level of incivility, of pandering to racism and ignorance, and downright lies that has no parallel in modern US politics. The blame has been placed firmly at Trump’s door, although rival Ted Cruz has played no small part in it. (Cruz’s insistence to a reporter that “I didn’t start it” was met superbly with that “that, Senator, is the argument of a five-year-old”.)

What is also striking about the tone of the debate is that it mirrors the way social media has transformed the nature of much debate online. The rudeness , the ad-hominem attacks, the shameless dissemination of utter falsehoods and prejudice by small numbers of very aggressive posters have turned much online discussion toxic, which for many are just shouting matches they would rather avoid.

That toxic culture has bled into the “real” world of politics: Trump is not so much an example of it as its expression, its creation, its Frankenstein. Trumpism has all the features of the worst of online debate, not just its tone and incivility but its ideology: the anti-politics, anti-elite rhetoric, a mirror of a distorted online anarchic rejection of authority and contempt for traditional media. The new world of anything goes. psmyth@irishtimes.com

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