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Social media the newest way for politicians to connect to voters

Throughout U.S. history, politicians have used different mediums to connect directly with their constituency, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” in the 1930s to the contemporary White House YouTube channel, which posts videos of the Obamas checking out science fair projects and greeting visitors, alongside videos explaining policy and political issues.

To this end, presidential candidates in the 2016 election have used the ever-expanding opportunities of social media in traditional and innovative ways, said Jessica Feezell, a political science professor at UNM who focuses on American politics.

Feezell said Clinton’s use of Instagram has been novel, utilizing video posts and allowing other people to post for her for a day, as she did with running mate Tim Kaine.

Still, Feezell said, at this point in the road to the Oval Office, social media probably will not help Clinton win over any more millennial voters who are still on the fence about her.

“After those three debates, after the long election season that we’ve had and, frankly, after her 30 years (in public office) I’m not sure that there’s any more winning over to be done for her in this election,” she said. “I think it’s really just about turning out the base, and social media can help do that.”

Republican candidate Donald Trump, on the other hand, uses Twitter to generate attention and news for his campaign in a way that no other candidate has done before, she said.

“Before, campaigns would use (Twitter) to broadcast where the next campaign rally would be, to promote turnout and to encourage people to form meetup groups that support the campaign. This is really much more of a platform for his campaign in terms of taking positions and calling out opponents, and really just commenting during the election rather than mobilizing a base,” Feezell said.

However, she said Trump’s attention-grabbing use of Twitter may end after this election, rather than becoming a trend. She said, in particular, he isn’t using it as a tool to win over undecided voters.

“It’s my opinion that his Twitter usage doesn’t always help him, and I think any campaign would advise their candidate to only use social media in a way that will help you and benefit you in the polls,” Feezell said. “His incendiary comments are firing up his base, but his base is there. He’s not reaching across the aisle.”

Different social media platforms offer different tools for campaigns as well, in addition to Clinton’s use of Instagram. Various popular apps bring candidates and their political rhetoric right to voters’ fingertips in a way that can be accessed anywhere, she said.

“There are certain parts of a campaign that are really conducive to imagery, and I think that something like Instagram or even Snapchat can really capture that and bring more emotion to the election,” Feezell said.

While it’s difficult to tell if social media use increases voter turnout, it has changed how people consume information. Feezell said social media helps keep people engaged in specific issues and, when they see it come up on their feed, it stays on their mind.

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“But there’s also not the gatekeeper of information that we used to have in the formal media, where they’re fact-checking things and engaging in quality reporting. There’s a lot less of that sort of gatekeeping of information in this election and a lot more citizen reporting,” she said.

This puts more of the burden on consumers to fact-check information and try to verify its sources, Feezell said.

Better engagement

The way people watch presidential debates has also changed.

“They’re calling it ‘second screening,’ where people will use Twitter along with watching the debates and that helps them to engage in the debates,” she said. “It allows you to fact-check and share your comments with what is happening in the debates. It also leads to high levels of turnout and engagement generally, and it makes it much more fun,” she said.

Twitter has provided a medium that allows people to stay up to date with comments being made at the presidential debates, using specific hashtags that were consistently “trending topics” on the social media app during the debates.

It also allows for other politicians to comment on the debates in real-time — something former candidate Bernie Sanders and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson did this year — and for their followers to see their views on the topics being discussed.

Although, people who engage with the debates through Twitter are generally those who are already interested in politics, and not people who are becoming engaged because of their ability to tweet along, Feezell said.

“That’s somebody who’s engaged, who’s passionate, who cares about the election. Second screening is popular among that type of person, somebody who’s engaged already,” she said.

Still, people who tweet about the debates may encourage the other people in their social media network to become more interested in the election, Feezell said.

Facebook actively uses the political engagement of their users to encourage the people in that network of friends to become politically involved too, she said.

“Facebook has done a few things in the past where they’ve encouraged people to register to vote and they’ve put up a little thing that asks the user ‘Did you vote in this election?’ And they share that with their network, so you get a little thing that pops up saying, ‘Look, here’s your friends who voted in this election.’ That helps to move people to the polls,” Feezell said.

Still, Feezell said social media use does not have a dramatic impact on who votes in an election. Instead, a voter’s background and demographical information are better predictors of whether they will go to the polls on Election Day, and who they’ll vote for.

“The things that really matter are the things that have always really mattered,” she said. “One’s education level, the political socialization from their family, their income, their free time, the money that they have at their disposal, their civic skills...all of these things have always been strong predictors of political participation and political turnout in the election. I don’t know that social media is going to change that in a huge way.”

However, engagement through social media may create a slight, but potentially significant increase in the number of people participating on Nov. 8, she said.

“We see in the research that the effects of social media on opinion and on behavior are strongest on those people who aren’t as politically motivated,” Feezell said. “So there is some ability for social media to reach people who are not otherwise engaged by traditional indicators of participation like time and money.”

Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.

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