The following story was reported during The Student Journalist Program’s five-day Summer Newsroom Workshop in August, 2016.
You may have heard old sayings about the power of the pen. Today, it’s all about the power of the tweet. Social media has pushed the 2016 campaign beyond door knocking.
Running many politicians’ and businesses’ social media accounts are teams of employees called social media strategists. The field gained a lot of attention after the 2008 Obama campaign, and today they are the ones who send out the Facebook messages, create the campaign graphics on Snapchat and sometimes start Twitter wars. These are the people who are trying to influence what appears in your news feed.
But there’s little concrete evidence that their strategic messages are getting people to the voting booths.
Some say this could be detrimental for Trump’s campaign, as it relies heavily on social media influence. Although he has more than 11 million Twitter followers, he has a seemingly absent ground game. In other words, the campaign has substituted traditional campaign methods, like door knocking and phone banking, with social media.
Nikki Usher, an assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, believes that having a ground game remains crucial.
“Showing up at people’s homes and knocking on their doors is the single most effective way to get somebody to show up to vote,” she said.
In 1998, Yale University professors Alan Gerber and Donald Green found that just one in-person conversation boosted voter turnout by 20 percent. According to the Federal Election Commission, the Clinton campaign has more than 600 staffers, while the Trump campaign totaled less than 100 overall. This means six times the amount of potential face-to-face interactions with the Clinton campaign.
Any proof of the impact of social media engagement, in comparison, is murkier.
“Can you get people energized about a candidate and excited about a candidate and get donations? Social media’s great for that. But whether that actually translates into direct voter action, I’ve got to stress we do not have any evidence of that.”
The reason for this lack of evidence is that there is no way to track what social media strategists call a “return on investment” -- whether or not the message a strategist releases actually influences someone to do what they intended.
Hillary Clinton’s digital operation is made up of more than 100 staffers, according to Mashable. Among other things, this team runs all of the campaign’s social media accounts to engage people with Clinton’ campaign, while trying to overcome the challenge that many people find her unlikeable or untrustworthy.
It is hard to say just how impactful the efforts of either campaigns’ social strategists will go.
Usher said the only way to quantify this return is to “track everybody that is on a social media platform, follow up with them, and then engage in some sort of survey in why they took the action that they did.”
There are other barrier social strategists face. Individual users can personalize their newsfeeds making it difficult for campaign messages to land on the screens of the Americans they’re trying to bring to the polls.
“You are likely to have friends with similar views and follow news outlets that reflect your opinions,” said Alissa Arford, director of online strategy at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.
“If you have friends who are very extreme in their views and you don’t agree with them you may even decide to stop following them or hide their posts. If you’ve crafted your social media experience to only see posts you want to see, how effective are the negative posts made by the other candidate?”