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It might seem hard to believe, but the history of using the Internet as an integral part of political campaigns only started in 2004, when presidential aspirant Howard Dean used the Internet as a fundraising mechanism and a way for campaign supporters to meet each other in real life at Meet Ups around the nation. Since then, of course, each new presidential election cycle has resulted in greater and greater emphasis on social media as a crucial tool for raising money, connecting with voters, and, of course, swaying voter behavior at the ballot box.
The first social media president
Years from now, historians and political scholars will still be studying the 2008 U.S. presidential election as the first example of a relatively unknown political figure – Barack Obama – successfully leveraging social media to become a national icon. Back in 2008, the social media platform of choice was YouTube, and this is where the charming, charismatic presence of Barack Obama made all the difference. According to one estimate, people watched 14.5 million hours of YouTube campaign ads for Barack Obama, making it a very effective way to highlight his message of “HOPE.”
The use of social media to mobilize the base
After that initial success, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Obama campaign redoubled its social media efforts in the 2012 re-election campaign against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. By 2012, the Obama team had expanded from YouTube to Facebook, Instagram and mobile apps. Even though the Republicans tried to outspend the Democrats, they were no match for the vast social media influence of Obama and his ability to reach younger voters.
Suddenly, it seemed very possible for an everyday voter in the middle of the nation to connect with the sitting President of the United States, simply by liking or re-tweeting content. Moreover, social media helped to shift the emphasis from large, Establishment political donors to small, individual donors who believed passionately in a cause or individual politician.
Trump, Clinton and the dark side of social media
In many ways, the 2016 presidential election can be viewed as an amplification of all the trends already witnessed in 2004, 2008 and 2012. We saw the rise of a political outsider – Donald Trump – as he successfully parlayed his fame and stardom into a rabidly passionate voter base. We saw the ultimate political insider – Hillary Clinton – attempt to use the apparatus already put in place by Obama to create her own version of political celebrity by using a slick, corporate-like approach to social media.
But we also saw the dark side of social media in politics. We saw the rise of “dark forces” at play in democracy, as Facebook became a battleground for voters between shadowy forces adding incendiary content across social media. We saw previous uplifting messages of “HOPE” transformed into much darker messages about what would happen if the other party’s candidate won the presidency. And we saw the dark side of the cult of personality, in which a rabid, mobilized base would be willing to overlook just about anything as long as their candidate won the election.
And that brings us to where we are today. Heading into 2020, social media is once again shaping up to be the place where relatively unknown figures like Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris try to transform themselves into celebrity-like national politicians; where Donald Trump and his MAGA followers use social media tools like Twitter to bully their opponents; and where a lot of money can be raised very quickly, simply by appealing to basic, primal emotions. No doubt, we’ll see more smear campaigns, more elaborate social media hoaxes involving shadowy foreign players, and a lot more fake news spread via Facebook. So buckle your seat belt, 2020 might end up becoming the most divisive, angry and contested presidential election ever.