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In many ways, Twitter was the defining social media platform of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Years from now, political scientists and presidential historians will probably look back and marvel at how Twitter completely changed the dynamics of the race.
How Twitter defined the 2016 election
Donald Trump’s 3 AM tweet-storms, the trending hashtags and memes that went viral on Twitter after every debate, and CNN’s breathless reporting of every new tweet from the candidates as “BREAKING NEWS” defined the ways we saw the candidates.
Trump’s tweet-storms became part of a broader narrative that he was unfit to serve and simply didn’t have the temperament to become president. And the constant stream of mean tweets between Trump and Cruz, Trump and Bush, and Trump and Clinton became a new form of very ugly PR.
And, yet, it could also be Twitter’s last election. That’s because the future of Twitter is now very much in doubt. Several of Twitter’s potential suitors – including Apple, Disney, Google and Salesforce – have already passed on a deal, and without an acquisition, it’s really questionable how much longer Twitter will exist in its present form.
And that leads to the obvious question: What other social media platforms have the ability to transform future political elections? Facebook, surprisingly, was pretty much a non-entity this time around after doing so much for Obama back in 2008 and 2012.
What made Twitter so effective?
It’s important to keep in mind what made Twitter so effective during the 2016 campaign:
- The ability to get out a message in real-time to a massive base;
- The ability to get free airtime without paid campaign ads;
- The ability to circumvent the traditional media; and
- The ability to launch an uncensored tweet-storm at any moment
You can think of these as the building blocks of what will make the “next Twitter” during future elections. More importantly, we’re likely to see the rise of new types of anti-establishment candidates like Trump who have mastered these new forms of social media.
The media narrative vs. the Twitter narrative
And we’re likely to see the continued divergence of what’s happening online with what’s happening offline. There are two very distinct narratives what went on with the 2016 election. One is that Clinton won “the ground war,” won the “fundraising war” and won the “advertising war.” By every conventional measure of how you are supposed to win a political campaign, Clinton won. She raised more money than Trump, ran more ads than Trump, and had more boots on the ground in all the key battleground states than Trump.
And yet…Clinton and Trump were a lot closer than anyone could have imagined. You could argue that Trump won the unconventional war – the social media guerilla war. He won the Twitter war, found out a way to use Twitter to slash his advertising costs (who needs expensive airtime if you’re getting free airtime with controversial tweets?), and used Twitter to outrage and humiliate the very “Establishment” that people thought you needed to win a race. Up until the final weekend of the race, Trump was still firing Twitter jabs at the ranking House Republican and taking on all comers, including U.S. senator John McCain.
Without Twitter, in fact, it’s hard to see how Trump could have remained relevant throughout the primaries and general election. So it’s likely that the next social media platform that manages to capture what made Twitter so effective will be just as valuable in 2020 as it was in 2016. Let’s just hope there’s less rancor four years from now when people go to the polls.