How social media is shaping the 2016 presidential election

Social media brings out the darker side of digital introverts and often amplifies slanted views or political biases. With the 2016 presidential election less than six weeks away, social could not be more powerful or dangerous.

When the leading candidates for America's next presidency traded barbs this week during the first presidential debate, political operatives and energized voters were hard at work sharing opinions (and insults) on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Much of today's political discourse starts on social media, and the medium often amplifies vitriol and slants information.

The 2016 presidential election isn't the first event for which social media has been used as a political tool, but today it carries tremendous weight and influence over the electorate. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both use social to their advantages, but it's often the surrogates, supporters and influencers who shape perceptions, according to whatever views serve their preferred candidate's interests.

Social can reinforce, popularize narrow opinions

Never before has a "like," retweet or otherwise mindless online activity been so reflective of the state of American politics. Social media acts as glue for like-minded people, and it can reinforce their confirmation biases. "Psychological research shows that people really want confirmatory information," says Karen North, a clinical professor of communication and director of the digital social media program at the University of Southern California (USC). "Not only do they want to know what's up, they want to have opinions, and they want to find like-minded people to tell them why their opinion is correct. It doesn't mean the people won't change their opinion, but it feels better to find people who are supporting you and telling you why your opinion is right."

Many people seek out echo chambers on social media, according to Vincent Raynauld, assistant professor in communication studies at Emerson College in Boston. "Even though social media allows people to be exposed to different political views, people tend to be part of environments where their political opinions are constantly reinforced."

Social media democratizes information sharing, and it helps individuals with very narrow interests quickly and easily connect with others who share their beliefs, Raynauld says. Sensational headlines and memorable memes give rapid-fire politics momentum on social media, he says.

Social is the "most important platform for the millennial generation," Raynauld says. According to a survey of 3,760 U.S. adults by the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of people 18 to 29 years old say social media is the most helpful source of information on the 2016 presidential election. "It's become the go-to tool for politics, whereas older generations are still relying on traditional media," Raynauld says.

Social media reflects ugly side of voters

Social media gives people the power to organize and inform, but it's also frequently used to exhibit narcissism and ignorance, according to Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group, a research and advisory firm. Such behavior reflects the uglier side of political discourse, he says.

Many people simply haven't learned how to be civil on social sites, according to Solis. "Instead we use the channel as a way of imposing our perspective and thrust it upon our community in ways that have been incredibly divisive and unproductive," he says. "What we're seeing is the psychological and sociological impact of social media on society."

The Clinton and Trump campaigns also expand the power of social media beyond the people who regularly use it, according to Dave Marinaccio, CEO and cofounder of marketing communications firm LMO Agency. "The campaigns can influence the traditional media by reacting to, or creating, newsworthy social content," he says. "They can engage a much larger segment of the electorate than they would solely through social media outlets. Even people who don't use social media feel its influence daily."

The 2016 presidential election through social media's lens

The average expectations of modern news and commentary also change as people gravitate toward more curated experiences, according to USC's North. The things that catch a person's attention on social media may seem serendipitous, but they often aren't random, she says. "Our friends and the platforms on which we live our digital and social lives can send us information" that stokes our passions. Political strategists can also seek out segmented audiences and feed them information in a way that is specialized to their own interests, North says.

"Social media is the hope of all political efforts these days, because it finds people wherever they are that week and that day," North says. "It is completely amplified by your social decisions online because only certain parts of what these influencers say is shared. And the stuff that's shared is probably more polarized, more interesting, more entertaining and more engaging than the stuff nobody chose to share."

Today, the medium is often an "ugly soapbox" for politics because people can easily exert their opinions with a few keystrokes, according to Solis. "It brings out the darker side of digital introverts in that we are willing to say anything … without logically thinking about its impact on what's reality and what people will think about us beyond this election."

Solis says the potential ramifications of social media on America's collective political psyche are disconcerting and worrisome. "We are not behaving like adults, and we're supposed to be leading the future of this country," he says. "We're voting for our children, and this behavior online is incredibly selfish."

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags government

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Matt Kapko

Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?