Tired of the constant flow of political jargon, rhetoric and hyberbole clogging your Facebook news feed?
If so, you’re not alone—besides being one of the most controversial and polarizing elections in American history, the 2016 election charted new territory in terms of social media.
Social media emerged as a tool to influence voters during the 2008 Obama campaign. Obama had over 2.5 million Facebook supporters and 115,000 Twitter followers by November 2008, far exceeding the social media reach of opponent John McCain. On the day of the election, Obama supporters received three texts reminding them to vote. Obama’s success with millennials and minority voters is largely attributed to his social-media savvy campaign.
Given the success of social media in campaign efforts, Trump and Hillary embraced this strategy and took it to a new level. Political ad spending increased 20 percent percent from 2012, and social media spending accounted for more than half of the digital media budget. This increase in social media funding marks a significant shift in campaigning, as Facebook and Twitter are becoming political battlegrounds for many voters.
This year, the candidates were especially concerned with Facebook. According to a study by the Harvard Kennedy School, certain messages posted on Facebook increased voter turnout by over 300,000 votes in a 2010 congressional election. Hillary’s relative failure to capture the millennial vote compared to Sanders led her to pursue a social-media heavy campaign, as more than a third of people aged 18-24 indicate that reading something on social media would influence their vote. Hillary also embraced Snapchat and Instagram to reach even more millennial voters.
So, millennial or not, you undoubtedly noticed an increase in political Facebook posts. Facebook has become a news source in and of itself with an audience of more than 200 million people. This has led to a new branch of news sources created specifically for Facebook with little relevance outside the realm of social media. Many of them you have most likely heard of or seen on your news feed: Occupy Democrats, Fed-Up Americans, Right Alerts and more. The viewership of these sources rival established news sources such as CNN and the New York Times. The point of these home-grown Facebook pages is to get viewers to share the post in front of them, not necessarily to read further or even “like” the page.
The emergence of Facebook-specific news sources has only exacerbated the polarizing effects of the election. These Facebook posts are given short, concise titles that skip to an ideological point. After liking or sharing one of these posts, Facebook shows people stories most relevant to them based on their demonstrated opinions and ranks newsfeeds so that the most important stories are highest. As people continue to like and share Facebook posts that align with their political ideologies, their newsfeeds streamline to fit the user’s beliefs and become increasingly polarized. Ultra-right Facebook pages are especially gaining traction and viewership on Facebook, and many have developed into lucrative companies.
For the 44 percent of the population who read or watch news on Facebook, this election was alarming. Looking to Facebook for news has the potential to make people more narrow-minded as Facebook posts become increasingly tailored to each individual’s beliefs. So as you log onto Facebook and scroll through your Newsfeed, take each overzealous political post with a grain of salt—this is the election Facebook wants you to see, not necessarily the reality.
Gillian Samios is a Trinity freshman. She is a member of the social media and outreach team in the Duke Political Union.