The 2016 US presidential election was groundbreaking in many respects but none got quite as much attention in the media and popular press as the use of social media to “influence” the outcome of the election.
Whether used in reference to global conspiracies or discussed in real, pragmatic terms, the effective use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the 2016 election season cannot be denied.
Looking ahead at 2020, however, the next election cycle for the US president could be markedly different in this respect and that’s mainly because one major player, Twitter, is bowing out of the contest. In its decision to not air political ads on its platform, Twitter is taking a firm and decided stance in the debate for and against social media advertising for political goals.
Naturally, this has placed increasing pressure on Facebook to moderate its own behavior or answer Twitter’s abstinence with a move towards a similar position. Some may note that it is hard to disregard Donald Trump’s use of Twitter during the 2016 election cycle to great effect, but his organic reach - as opposed to the paid reach that draws the ire of critics - is more a function of the social media platform itself. Indeed, a study into Donald Trump’s use of organic reach on Twitter during the 2016 cycle merits its own article entirely and is not the focus of this piece.
That said, we do acknowledge that Donald Trump’s use of Twitter has done two things for 2020: Made his behavior largely irrelevant in that it is now expected and common rather than novel and, if anything, his participation on the platform will keep it relevant despite Jack Dorsey’s best efforts otherwise.
Let us discuss why Twitter rose to prominence so quickly, who is using it to get out the message for 2020 so far, and what the move away from political advertising means for the platform’s relevance in 2020.
Then we can hypothesize why so many people think that social media in 2016 was manipulated through advertising and how Twitter’s platform is both a fertile ground for that to spring up and how the service has done little to combat it.
After that, we will take a guess as to how Donald Trump could keep Twitter in the political debate regardless of the platform’s corporate stance and how this could fundamentally shape other social media platforms participation in the election thus making Twitter consequential rather than irrelevant in the upcoming cycle.
Twitter rose up quickly in the 2016 election because of one man: Donald Trump. Through his persistent and savvy use of Twitter to get out his message, Trump single-handedly changed the way that candidates use and look at social media. Obama might have pioneered Facebook and the like back in 2008 and 2012, but it was Trump’s personal use of a Twitter account that gave social media a new paradigm. By connecting the candidate directly to his base through an unfiltered mechanism, Trump was able to harness some popular sentiment well before other candidates in the primary and routinely used the platform to attack Hillary Clinton during the election.
Most of this was done through his personal account, not a bot or a Russian conspiracy as some might like to believe. That is to say that Twitter’s ban on political advertising is not a ban on political activity and we expect that to continue in the 2020 election with renewed vigor on Twitter. People who argue that Twitter’s move is one in the right direction largely discount the impact of Trump’s organic reach through his tweets. Indeed, organic reach is the bread and butter of internet marketing and methods for harnessing and generating it dominate handbooks in that industry. There is little doubt that Trump and his opponent’s team will make use of every organic marketing trick in the book and there’s no real way to stop this kind of effort on Twitter or otherwise as these platforms, by their very nature, are organic marketing platforms of one kind or the other.
Because a lot of his momentum on the platform came from his own activity and not from spending money, it is hard to gauge what a ban on political advertising will do to stop candidates like Trump from using Twitter’s platform to deliver their message. Aside from full censorship, Twitter is quite hamstrung as to what forms of remediation it has when it comes to the types of political speech it allows. By disallowing some forms of speech, Twitter implicitly favors others and thus the appearance of favoritism leaves platforms choosing the route of nonintervention of tacit approval of all viewpoints (and their simultaneous disavowal since all people are allowed to participate).
There’s little doubt that Twitter will be a focus of political messaging and activity. But if the ban on advertising holds up, we think its relevance in the professional get-out-the-vote operations will be greatly reduced. This is because these professional organizations often rely upon traditional advertising methods and employ huge budgets to deliver these messages. They are hesitant to make use of methods that might not work - such as organic outreach through guerilla marketing efforts - and they often have to show concrete results to their donors. Banning their advertising on Twitter means the money will move elsewhere and, truly, these organizations are not those that are oft implicated in the various conspiracies out there about social media advertising.
The reason Twitter is under pressure to ban political advertising and, thus, Facebook is as well is because of the numerous investigations and allegations (on both sides) of manipulation of these platforms to deliver false information and “fake news.” There is substantial evidence that Facebook and Twitter were used by professional organizations to get out false messages.
This is true for both sides of the political aisle though the “Russia-gate” allegations that Trump had help from former KGB psychological operatives remains the most potent and popular charge.
Ranging from Putin installing Trump directly to the more evidence-based use of political advertising on Facebook and Twitter to deliver misleading messages, this highly partisan conflict does center around very real problems with using social media as a current advertising medium for politics.
Twitter’s irrelevance in this area could be voluntary in that you won’t see concerted, paid efforts on its platform to deliver “fake news” or misleading information. Indeed, during a grilling session with Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg could not clearly answer the question as to whether or not certain advertising would be allowed.
Obviously, as an open advertising platform, unless Facebook does implement some kind of policy similar to Twitter’s it could play an even greater role in the upcoming elections as it absorbs the advertising dollars that would have gone Twitter’s way.
Yet public pressure could see a policy change on Facebook’s part and both platforms could largely sit out the 2020 cycle in terms of paid advertising thus radically changing the field in many ways and emphasizing organic reach instead of paid reach. We also can’t discount the generally negative view that all of this could have on social media as a source of information in general. If a general malaise occurs and social media platforms are seen as yet another font of sterile political interaction, their effectiveness to deliver messages of any kind will probably diminish.
As utopian as it sounds, many analysts believe it is just that and expect Facebook to largely continue accepting ad revenue in favor of efforts both genuine and disingenuous.
All of this is to say that anyone who thinks Twitter will be irrelevant in the upcoming election cycle seriously underestimates or does not understand the power of organic reach. Though social media platforms have largely moved towards advertising machines in the past several years, they still put a premium on interaction and outreach.
The more people interact with something, the more others join in, and the more people are engaged on the platform. This is the crux of the social media business and 2020 for Twitter should be no different.
What will be intriguing is to see if other candidates can match Trump’s political savvy in this arena in order to harness the free press that comes along with powerful organic reach. All of this will keep Twitter relevant and in the headlines throughout the election cycle as more and more retweets are posted by Twitter’s audience.
Further, Twitter’s much more depersonalized structure allows for more guerilla-style marketing strategies to be deployed than ever before. Eliminating advertising does not get rid of bots and eliminating bots does not get rid of passionate supporters.
The Twitter platform is predicated on mass dispersal of short bits of information and its power in the political arena cannot be denied. From the 2016 election to the Arab Spring and beyond, Twitter’s open forum style attracts attention and its algorithms boost messages that users to interact with it for good or ill. Unless one expects this phenomenon to cease entirely, Twitter has an important and critical role to play in the upcoming 2020 cycle and elections far beyond.