The Social Media War of 2016

Updated: May 28

Because Google Adsense deemed this website to have too little content for ads, I'll be posting my top 25 undergraduate papers. This was the term paper for politics and social media. It was pretty interesting looking deep into the social media strategies of the Trump and Clinton campaigns. Re-visiting that election is something political scholars will be doing throughout my entire lifetime.


Dalhousie University

POLI 3546

June 4th, 2021



Introduction


There is no better example of a social media political campaign showdown than that of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The two candidates had differing images the likes of which has not been seen for generations. One candidate was brash, overly wealthy, unprofessional and chauvinistic. while the other portrayed an image of traditionalism, diversity, professionalism, mainstream and overconfidence. All of those characteristics were on full display during their social media campaigns. However, the 2016 U.S. presidential election was the first time that there had been major differences in the approach to a social media campaign in an election of that magnitude. While one side leaned into identity, celebrity endorsements and carefully scripted production, the other waged a social media war by hiring a consulting firm to target specific individuals for specific reasons. They also posted their thoughts endlessly on social media, no matter how unprofessional or poorly written they were and leaned into those characteristics as a part of their identity.

Part of the reason why Donald Trump became president is because he won that very social media war against the Clinton campaign. That was partly due to the fact that the Clinton campaign wasn’t aware it was fighting a war, let alone if it were necessary, but at every point of data analysis, the Trump campaign outworked and outperformed the Clinton campaign on key social media metrics. From engagement to spending and strategy, the Trump campaign engineered a strategy that leaned into their strengths and viciously targeted the weaknesses of their opponents.



The Clinton Campaign


The Clinton campaign, while it may have seemed as though it was going to be a campaign based on normalcy and status-quo, in reality it was quite the opposite. Not necessarily because of strategy, but because this was a presidential campaign which had a greater expectation of victory than any other presidential campaign in recent memory. The particular memory that strikes a cord is that of the Clinton campaign staff uncorking the champaign bottles on election night before the results had come in.(1)

The list of endorsements for Hillary Clinton in 2016 could not be bested by anybody. Not only from every desirable figure to a Democrat in Washington, but a laundry list of the most mainstream celebrities American culture has to offer. Bruce Springsteen, Lebron James, Katy Perry, Jay Z, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Morgan Freeman, Oprah Winfrey, Elton John, and the list goes on seemingly for an eternity. The celebrities in question were happy to give their endorsements via social media. It may seem to the untrained eye that such a list of celebrities cater to the same exact type of person but that is not necessarily the case. Someone who is an avid fan of Katy Perry is not likely to be the same as someone who is an avid fan of Lebron James or Elton John. Therefore, in theory, having such a ginormous and diverse celebrity endorsement list would be a huge benefit to the campaign. However, as we will see, it may have cemented the ultimate weaknesses of the Clinton campaign in comparison to the Trump campaign, authenticity & abnormality.


The Clinton campaign possessed an inherent advantage over the Trump advantage on social media platforms such as Facebook. The inherent advantage being that her campaign controlled many Facebook pages with legions of followers because, as what should have been evident by the diversity of their celebrity endorsements, the Clinton constituency was made of many more different types of factions. The Clinton campaign made a grand mistake in not incorporating simulcasting into their Facebook strategy. There do exist third party tools such as “Shindig” to broadcast a live event across many different Facebook accounts. However, that was not a strategy that was taken advantage of. So, while the Clinton base may have been larger on social media sites such as Facebook, it was certainly more fragmented in comparison to the Trump base.(2)


The Trump Campaign


The Trump campaign was the most unorthodox presidential campaign in recent memory in seemingly all respects. Professionalism, celebrity endorsements, heavily scripted speeches and many more qualities of traditional presidential campaigns were more than absent. The motivations for a reality tv star to run for president are still debated. However, it is not unreasonable to suspect that those within the Trump campaign, including Trump himself, while they may have wanted to win, they certainly did not have expectations of victory. Not only was the pollster consensus heavily on their opponents favour, but their social media strategy reeked of someone trying to invent a new hail-may campaign effort, or someone who had strategic geniuses in their campaign. The infamous social media strategy of note is the Trump campaigns relationship with Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica is a British consulting firm which gathered the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users without their consent for the purposes of political advertising. They used an app called “This Is Your Digital Life” which created a psychological profile for the users along with collecting their Facebook data. In short, the firm used psychological categories in order to better cater political advertising on social media.(3) The data may have been collected via unethical means, but in the U.S. there are no laws requiring that social media users opt-in to that data being available.

There may be some who are questioning the accuracy of using psychological profiles from social media data in order to determine advertising strategy. According to a Vice article by Hannes Grassegger & Mikael Krogerus, there was a study which showed that this strategy could attract up to sixty three percent more clicks and 1,400 more conversions in advertising campaigns on Facebook. And we must also not forget that it does not take a Facebook user endless hours of Facebook use in order for the data to be conclusive. Just a normal amount of use on Facebook is enough for the personality type to be determined and targeted. The relationship between the Cambridge Analytica team and the Trump campaign was one that grew stronger and stronger by the day as the 2016 campaign unfolded. The firm received $100,000 from Trump in July, $250,000 in August, and $5 million in September. Clearly, the Trump campaign kept gaining confidence in the firms ability to create an marketing marketing mechanism and they must have been seeing the data to backup the reality of its effectiveness, let alone the fact that they handily won the Republican primary.(4)

While Trump is well known for being one of the biggest Twitter users of all time, let alone presidents.(5) In fact, it is not even a small stretch to claim that had he not had Twitter and Facebook, the entire infrastructure of the Trump campaign would have not even registered compared to the reality of 2016. Twitter and Facebook were essential to the Trump campaign in a way that they weren’t to the Clinton campaign and there are many data points to prove why that is the case. An article by Michael Bossetta titled “The Digital Architectures of Social Media” provided the data showing that during the primary, the Trump campaign used Facebook more than any other candidate from either party. The Cambridge Analytica fiasco is a direct link from the Trump campaign to Facebook. However, Bosseta also describes the Trump campaigns dependency on Facebook as “Algorithmic filtering, and the ability to override it via paid advertising, allowed campaigns to reach potential voters outside of their organic follower bases. Moreover, Facebook’s sophisticated matching, targeting, and analytics suites enabled high-resource campaigns to split-test messages to voters in strategic geographical locations.” That explanation is crucial in the context of the Trump campaign. In order for Trump to win the electoral college, specific areas of the country needed to be won over such as the rust belt and Facebooks technical features provided a very useful tool in how to appeal to those voters specifically.(6)


Campaign Comparison


While the images of the Trump campaign and Clinton campaign with respect to social media were Yin and yang in the political sense, it is very clear by the data that one side outworked the other and better strategized than the other. Clinton’s images of professionalism, traditionalism, celebrity endorsements, diversity, etc. and Trumps images of wealthy figurehead, rambunctious large rallies, patriotism, unfiltered, etc, may have been an asset to Trump after eight years of a Democrat incumbent. But the social media data makes it clear that one side took the campaign for granted. For instance, the article by Bossetta also provides comparisons of Facebook posts across the campaigns. It turns out that Trump’s Facebook posts were 26% text posts while only 2% of Clinton’s posts were text posts. As it turns out, this was merely the Trump campaign reposting Trumps endless tweets on their Facebook page. However, to ordinary common people who only use Facebook and not Twitter, seeing that text written in an unprofessional manner and knowing that it was written by the candidate himself could have been a major boost to the Trump campaign in terms of perceived authenticity.(7)


An article by Gunn Enli titled “Twitter as Arena for the Authentic Outsider” lays out another stat proving that the Trump campaign executed their social media strategy better than the Clinton campaign. Figure 1 in the article shows that 82% of Clinton’s tweets were classified as traditional. They use traditional in the sense of something that would be considered a traditional tweet from a President. In contrast, only about 38% of Trumps tweets were deemed traditional. In fact, 55% of Trumps tweets were deemed non-traditional. When analyzing those numbers, it seems as though Trump tweeting non-traditionally 55% of the time is an overachievement compared to Clinton tweeting traditionally only 82% of the time. But once again, Trumps image of authenticity and abnormality was his campaigns identity and they succeeded at their social media strategy.(8)

One of the clearest metrics of division between the social media campaigns of the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaign is how they used social media to attack each other. The Vice article by Grassegger & Krogerus brilliantly points out that the Trump campaign used Facebook to explicitly target those who may have been or potentially could be on the fence about voting for Clinton. In one district in Miami there are a large group of inhabitants who are Haitians and the Trump campaign targeted them with digital advertising attacking the Clinton Foundation for its response to the earthquake in Haiti. In other areas with large groups of African Americans, voters were targeted with Facebook ads and pages with videos of Clinton referring to black men as predators. It was apart of the strategy to suppress the Clinton vote rather than gain Trump vote all through the mechanisms of social media.(9) In contrast, Clinton received much backlash for her “basket of deplorables” comment and so her campaign most likely decided to stay on message, on brand and keep positive instead of meeting the Trump campaign in a boxing ring.(10) In fact, a large portion of Clinton’s social media strategy was using the hashtag “I’m With Her” to promote the hope that the nation would soon see its first female president.

Another statistic of note for the social media comparison of the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaign is that of engagement. A figure by Enzyinsights(11) reveals that engagement on the livestreams for Trumps Facebook page was exponentially higher than that of Clintons at multiple points of the campaign. It turns out that while Clinton used Facebook live mostly to stream her rallies and campaign commercials, Trumps facebook page broadcasted a nighty news style show which was intentionally designed for Facebook Live. One can only assume such attention to the Facebook live-streaming medium was responsible for the massive engagement advantage Trump had over Clinton in that area. Although it should be not surprising as Facebook and Twitter were central Trump’s campaign strategy in a way that they weren’t to Clintons campaign strategy. No other data point can illustrate that difference more clearly than the difference in dollars spent on TV ads. While Clinton and past presidential candidates had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads, the Trump campaign had only spent tens of millions.(12) While the Clinton campaign was inefficiently spending on TV commercials, Trump was investing far more in personality-based digital advertising.


Conclusion


The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election was determined in part by a social media war waged and won by the Trump campaign. They leaned into their image of and identity of an authenticate, unprofessional, chauvinistic, wealthy figure head that stirred up huge crowds at rallies. It was a large contrast to the image and identity of their opponent who leaned into potentially being the first woman president and incorporated other traditional strategies such as carefully scripted posts, endless celebrity endorsements and a greater focus on TV commercials than targeted social media ads.

But behind closed doors, the Trump campaign was working with an outside consulting firm that gathered the data of tens of millions of Facebook users in order to categorize them into personality groups so that they could more accurately be targeting with effective online political marketing. The Trump campaign was so confident in this new strategy that they gave the firm an increasing amount of money as the campaign unfolded. Not only is Trump known for being one of the biggest serial tweeters in existence, but his campaign used that data that they collected to specifically target areas that they knew were vulnerable for Clinton such as the rust belt. Trump would often repost his Tweets onto his Facebook page which may seem redundant, but if you are someone who only uses Facebook and are open to the image of Donald Trump, those text posts with grammatical errors and their perception of authenticity did wonders for rilling up his base and creating engagement. Trump tweeted mostly in a non-traditional way which only further cemented his image of authentic. He also created a nightly news broadcast specifically made for his Facebook page to amp up his engagement even more. Lastly, the Trump campaign specifically targeted racial groups such as African Americans and Haitians with Facebook ads and videos in order to reduce turnout for Clinton whereas the Clinton campaign mostly stayed on message.

In contrast to the Trump campaign, the Clinton campaign leaned into her perceived image with posts of her with celebrities, large TV ad spending, a heavy focus on image and video posting on social media, traditional forms of tweeting, and focused more on professionalism. She did not stoke anger often, which combined with her campaigns greater focus on traditional media, meant that her social media engagement was far lower than the Trump campaign. Her campaign also did very little to counter the Trump campaign on their targeted efforts. The Clinton campaign did not attempt to target potential Trump voters in that way that the Trump campaign targeted potential Clinton voters.

The implications of these findings are that future campaigns will increasingly be wars of social media. Consulting firms will continue trying to find any efficient means possible to better target their political marketing in a digital fashion and political campaigns will look to try to maximize engagement. Politicians may also try to use text posts more often than before as a means of appearing more authentic. One thing that is crystal clear is that Facebook users should not be forced to make their personal data available to consulting firms such as Cambridge Analytica. And as the public ages and moves from Facebook towards other social networks, those consulting firms will need to find other means of creating digital personality profiles.




Bibliography



Harrington, R. (2016, November 12). Clinton staffers were so sure she would win they reportedly popped champagne on Election Day. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/clinton-election-loss-champagne-2016-11.


Rosenblatt, A. (2016, November 16). Social Advocacy and Politics: The 2016 Elections and the Facebook Gap. Social Media Today. https://www.socialmediatoday.com/special-columns/social-advocacy-and-politics-2016-elections-and-facebook-gap.


Meredith, S. (2018, April 10). Facebook-Cambridge Analytica: A timeline of the data hijacking scandal. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/10/facebook-cambridge-analytica-a-timeline-of-the-data-hijacking-scandal.html.


Grassegger, H., & Krogerus, M. (2017, January 28). The Data That Turned the World Upside Down. VICE. https://www.vice.com/en/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win.


Bump, P. (2020, May 12). Analysis | How much of Trump's presidency has he spent tweeting? The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/05/12/how-much-trumps-presidency-has-he-spent-tweeting/.


Bossetta, Michael. "The Digital Architectures of Social Media: Comparing Political Campaigning on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat in the 2016 U.S. Election." Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 95.2 (2018): 471-96. Web.


Enli, Gunn. "Twitter as Arena for the Authentic Outsider: Exploring the Social Media Campaigns of Trump and Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential Election." European Journal of Communication (London) 32.1 (2017): 50-61. Web.


Merica, D., & Tatum, S. (2016, September 12). Clinton expresses regret for saying ‘half’ of Trump supporters are ‘deplorables.’ CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2016/09/09/politics/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-basket-of-deplorables/index.html


Pearce, A. (2016, October 21). Trump Has Spent a Fraction of What Clinton Has on Ads. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/21/us/elections/television-ads.html.





1 - Harrington, R. (2016, November 12). Clinton staffers were so sure she would win they reportedly popped champagne on Election Day. Business Insider.

2 - Rosenblatt, A. (2016, November 16). Social Advocacy and Politics: The 2016 Elections and the Facebook Gap. Social Media Today.

3 - Meredith, S. (2018, April 10). Facebook-Cambridge Analytica: A timeline of the data hijacking scandal. CNBC.

4 - Grassegger, H., & Krogerus, M. (2017, January 28). The Data That Turned the World Upside Down. VICE.

5 - Bump, P. (2020, May 12). Analysis | How much of Trump's presidency has he spent tweeting? The Washington Post.

6 - Bossetta, Michael. "The Digital Architectures of Social Media: Comparing Political Campaigning on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat in the 2016 U.S. Election." Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 95.2 (2018).

7 - Bossetta, “The Digital Architectures of Social Media.”

8 - Enli, Gunn. "Twitter as Arena for the Authentic Outsider: Exploring the Social Media Campaigns of Trump and Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential Election." European Journal of Communication (London) 32.1 (2017).

9 - Grassengger & Krogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down.”

10 - Merica, D., & Tatum, S. (2016, September 12). Clinton expresses regret for saying ‘half’ of Trump supporters are ‘deplorables.’ CNN.

11 - Rosenblatt, Social Advocacy and Politics: The 2016 Elections and the Facebook Gap. Social Media Today.

12 - Pearce, A. (2016, October 21). Trump Has Spent a Fraction of What Clinton Has on Ads. The New York Times.