Social Media’s Victory in the 2016 Presidential Election
Professor Gina Gemmel
December 12, 2017
Social Media’s Victory in the 2016 Presidential Election
There has been a lot of talk since the 2016 presidential election because of how unique it
was compared to all the previous ones. Only recently has social media started to play a
significant role in political campaigns, which can clearly be seen with Donald trump’s campaign
in the 2016 election. This paper examines articles written by Michael Barbaro and Christine
Lagorio-Chafkin for the New York Times alongside academic journals written by Gunn Enli and
Frida Ghitis for the European Journal of Communications and the World Politics Review,
respectively. Regarding social media, many tend to focus on its rise in popular culture, the
following of people of people that it tends to bring, and its use by the candidate or its political
party. Although there are people who argue that Trump’s political views and ideologies are what
gave him an advantage, Trump’s social media is what led him to victory.
For one thing, it is clear that social media is generally on the rise in society, today. A
majority of researchers would agree that the rise of social media has been prominent in these past
few years. Michael Barbaro, author of “Pithy, Mean, and Powerful: Donald Trump Mastered
Twitter for 2016,” states how social media is free and can relay information to the public in a
quick way. Barbaro points out how this can be useful, especially as it slowly substitutes for
“costly, conventional” methods. As an example, Barbaro mentions how rival campaigns
acknowledge the advantage Trump has because of his millions of Twitter followers and how he
gets more mentions and retweets compared to other candidates. Gunn Enli, author of “Twitter as
Arena for the Authentic Outsider: Exploring the Social Media Campaigns of Trump and Clinton
in the 2016 US Presidential Election,” takes this further, believing that social media can easily
reach the masses and serve as a main source of information. Enli reminds us that new platforms
have emerged while existing ones have expanded. Christin Lagorio-Chafkin, author of “Reddit
and the God Emperor of the Internet,” has a more specific focus on social media, claiming that
Reddit has become one of the most significant websites on the internet. Lagorio-Chafkin
observes how Trump’s subreddit “The_Donald” has gained around 300,000 members (It has
over half a million now as of October 2017). On the other hand, Frida Ghitis, author of “Trump’s
Victory Was Aided by Russia’s Weaponized Social Media Campaign,” takes on a different
focus: WikiLeaks. Arguably a type of social media, WikiLeaks grew to a significant size such
that it could be used to weaponize information. While all four authors believe that social media is
on the rise, Barbaro and Enli focused on Twitter’s rise. On the other hand, Lagorio-Chafkin puts
his focus on Reddit’s development, and Ghitis puts her spotlight on WikiLeak’s potential
because of its size. With its unsurpassable ability for communication, it is not surprising that
social media has become one of the internet’s forefronts.
All the authors portrayed their own opinion on social media’s popularity; my personal
opinion coincides with their general idea: that social media is on the rise. The authors differ in
that they each focus on one of social media’s many different aspects. Barbaro notes how its
ability to quickly relay information can be useful and cheap; I can send a snap on snapchat or
direct message an individual on Instagram, and the message would be delivered instantaneously
on the recipient’s mobile device. Enli takes this further, stating how social media can even be the
main source of information for many individuals. I agree with Enli’s extension based on results
found by the Pew Research Center. This organization found that two-thirds of U.S. adults get
news from social media rather than regular news outlets or newspaper, which were the former
methods of obtaining information. Lagorio-Chafkin takes a closer look at the rise of a specific
social media: Reddit. Likewise, Ghitis points to a specific social media: WikiLeaks. Lagorio-
Chafkin and Ghitis focus more on a specific outlet within social media, while Barbaro and Enli’s
view the social media’s rise in general. Overall, I agree with all the authors. In this day and age,
social media is inevitably rising. Taking a step back from the evidence that these authors point
out, it was clear to see how social media has taken a hold of society. When I was young, a
portion of my peers were just using Facebook. Now, not only are more people on social media,
there are more social media to choose from such as Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook,
Twitter, etc. The list continues to grow. Not only are more people using social media, the amount
of social media outlets is rising as well.
Social media’s sphere of influence is clearly large, and Trump has shared in some of its
success, as indicated by the supporters through one of his social media, Twitter. The number of
followers a user has usually reflects the popularity of that individual in a particular social media
outlet. Enli simply shows us the vast size of Trump’s Twitter following. She notes how Trump
has over 17.6 million followers compared to The New York Times, which only has 1.2 million
online subscribers. Barbaro agrees and describes these supporters, pointing out how this team
backs Trump even when his tweets were clearly inappropriate. Barbaro describes Trump’s
following on Twitter as a “SWAT team of devoted supporters.” This loyalty, he claims,
originates from Trump’s candidness and style. Barbaro illustrates this extreme loyalty by
pointing out Gary Forbes, who recruited volunteers to send out daily e-mails, emphasizing
Trump’s messages. The two authors would clearly agree with each other about the importance of
Trump’s Twitter supporter’s growth.
It is objectively true when both Barbaro and Enli claim that Trump’s following on
Twitter is growing. Barbaro describes their loyalty with interacting with Trump’s tweets through
likes and retweets. I think that whether this loyal interaction is agreeing and retweeting or
disagreeing and retweeting, the publicity that Trump gets is good for his campaign. There is a
famous saying that says that no publicity is bad publicity. According to Alan Sorensen, an
economics professor at Stanford, this is partly true. Getting his name out puts some attention on
him. Although some might learn about him and decide not to vote for him, it is still better than
being ignored as an unknown name on the ballot. The bad publicity only aided Trump since he
was not well known before the campaign. However, Sorensen explains bad publicity is bad for
individuals if they are well known. Because Trump is now the United States president, he falls in
the latter category, as shown by current presidential approval ratings. During the campaign,
Twitter’s count of followers undeniably shows the growth. I agree with both authors that
Trump’s Twitter following grew, which shows his popularity on social media, helping him make
his name known during the campaign.
Even within the growing number of Trump supporters in social media, there are different
types of these followings that exist over the internet. Lagorio-Chafkin asserts that the sizable
following on Trump’s subreddit has created a community amongst themselves. Many of these
supporters identify as Islamophobic, troll liberals, and/or consistently bash Hillary Clinton. They
even had their own slang words and inside jokes that only the community understood such as
“MAGA” (Make America Great Again), “God Emperor” (Trump), memes, and nicknames like
“Pedes.” Trump supporters called themselves “pedes” which is short for centipedes. Because of
this terminology’s casualness, the origin is unclear as Trump supporters are seemingly describing
themselves in a derogatory way. Even supporters themselves do not know the origin; they are
simply following the herd mentality. Many Reddit users speculate that they are perhaps
referencing the human centipede, where individuals acted as one unit. Whatever the origin, these
words and many others create a jargon much like a loaded language. Lagorio-Chafkin describes
the subreddit as having the ability to serve as a safe space for Trump supporters. He notes that at
some point, this following was like a cult. Ghitis identifies another social media on the other side
of the spectrum. She suggests that WikiLeaks is not as much of a community and is more used as
a weapon because of its ability to reveal information to the masses, which hardly come together
to interact with each other through this platform. Although these two sources are at completely
opposites ends of the spectrum regarding the interaction between people who follow social
media, there are social media outlets exist somewhere within the spectrum.
The interaction spectrum in social media can be seen through Lagorio-Chafkin and
Ghitis’ juxtaposition of the two different supporter types that can be found on either end of this
spectrum. Lagorio-Chafkin describes the followers of The_Donald, a subreddit, in which there is
a lot of interaction within the group, mimicking a community. On the contrary, Ghitis describes
how WikiLeaks’ followers interact with one another to a much lesser degree. Again, both claims
by Lagorio-Chafkin and Ghitis have evidence and do not seem faulty. I believe that they are both
right. I view these two examples as merely polar opposites of a gradient in which many other
social media outlets lie. For example, with Snapchat, there is more interaction between users
than WikiLeaks. However, Snapchat is typically used for one-on-one communication, so there is
less interaction than a subreddit where everyone interacts with everyone else in a group setting.
Neither Lagorio-Chafkin or Ghitis are wrong; they are simply two ends of a continuous
spectrum. Social media with more interaction have more of a lasting impacting than social media
with less interaction. WikiLeaks, an outlet with low interaction, affected the election at one point
in time: the release of the e-mails; however, with The_Donald, there was continuous discussion
about the e-mails and what they can discover from them. The community was even discussing
the e-mails on election day. Trump chose to be very involved with Twitter, a social media outlet
known for its many possibilities of interaction such as retweets, likes, and mentions. It was this
choice of social media and its lasting effects that gave Trump an edge during the presidential
By now, it is quite clear that social media is rising, and Trump has risen along with it.
There are even different types of individuals who support Trump in terms of their involvement
levels. Still, there are some individuals that may argue that Trump’s great policy promises, rather
than his use of social media, allowed him to rise to power. One such person is Armstrong
Williams, an author for The Hill, who states how America was concerned about its decline, the
economic despair from a decade of recession, and the Islamic fundamentalism’s rise as a credible
challenge to Western hegemony. Williams claims that in this time of economic and political
stagnation, Trump’s bold promises seemed to be a “strong wind,” and for the Americans, it
seemed as though any direction was better than no direction. An example of this can be seen in
an article written by Michael Burleigh, a writer for the Daily Mail. Burleigh claims that Trump’s
promise to only militarily intervene in the United States’ interest would make us a “new,
multipolar, world order.” That is not to say that the United States would not intervene to aid
other nations. However, the implication of such changes would be a decrease in military activity
and therefore, a reduce in its budget. It is interesting to note that despite these statements made
during his campaign, the United States military budget has only increased since his election.
During the presidential campaign, some opponents truly believed that the Trump’s success was
due to his great policies and his willingness to provide direction when the country was in a time
of stagnation and recession.
It is true that America was not in the best of positions at the time of the election;
however, the nation assumed that Trump was the only candidate that offered direction.
Therefore, it may have seemed as though William’s claim of Trump’s promises to make America
great again were a determinant to his rise to power; in fact, Burleigh most likely voted for Trump
due to his plans for the allocation of government funding. Despite this, I disagree that policies
are what made Trump so successful. Hillary Clinton had solid policy plans as well. Clinton
aimed to provide free education for the poor, create paths to citizenships for immigrants, fight for
equal pay, keep middle-class taxes stagnant, raise the minimum wage, expand background
checks for gun sales, and increase federal infrastructure funding. If policies were the case, it
would be a simple count of Democrats and Republicans. Democrats and Republicans have their
own ideology, and certain candidates’ policies usually represent their party’s ideologies. Instead,
Trump was successful through the delivery of his plans for policies. Clinton had a very
professional and traditional way of expressing her plans through advertisements. Trump
manipulated social media in such a way as to gain more voters to his side of the campaign.
No matter how well social media is growing in this society or how strongly connected the
following that it brings is, Trump’s application through manipulation greatly altered the success
in his political campaign. Authors Barbaro and Enli researched Trump’s Twitter during the 2016
election. However, they have different juxtaposed opinions on Trump’s Twitter usage. Barbaro
asserts that his tweets in these past years have been pithy and mean, but powerful. Barbaro
reminds us of the time Trump tweeted about Kim Novak’s, Arianna Huffington’s, and Bette
Midler’s lack of physical attractiveness. Yet, his dominance is still prominent with eight times as
many mentions as other Republican rivals and twice as many retweets as Clinton. On the other
hand, there is Enli’s view of Trump’s Twitter. She claims that it can be viewed as him being
amateur, authentic, and non-professional, which can be a counter-trend in the political campaign.
Enli views this as a positive thing to see in a politician. Enli sees Trump’s tweets as a
combination of gut-feeling impulses rather than the professionalism shown in Clinton’s tweets, a
way to be understood and connected to the people. Enli admires this different approach to
Twitter as a social media. She states how these actions showed that Trump “knew how to get
media coverage.” Either way, both Barbaro and Enli see how Trump’s utilized the respective
techniques that the researchers identified to gain more exposure in mainstream news. Trump’s
methods on Twitter were more focused on his own political campaign.
At first glance, it may seem that Barbaro and Enli have alternate views on Trump’s
Twitter use; however, I believe that they are simply describing two perspectives of the same
entity. Barbaro sees Trump using Twitter to mock and tease, so he describes him as being pithy
and mean. I agree that some of his tweets can be categorized in such a way. On the other hand,
Enli observes Trump using Twitter to speak his mind, so he views him as being an authentic non-
professional, which she argues should be appreciated in a politician. I concur with Enli’s
evidence, but not necessarily with the appreciation for it. Because both positions have evidence
that supports these ideas, in my opinion, Trump is all of what is described above. Trump is pithy,
mean, and authentic. However, I disagree with Enli’s positive interpretation of Trump’s
authenticity. Often, philosophers define authenticity as one who lives life according to one’s
reasoning, thereby exhibiting one’s identity (Talbot-Zorn). This closely resembles stubbornness
and narcissism, which is not a good trait for someone in a leadership position. Both Barbaro’s
and Enli’s claims are structurally sound. They only seem contrary to one another because they
are describing two sides of the same coin.
Trump’s social media use also resulted in attacking the opposing political rival. Lagorio-
Chafin describes how the tightly bonded community created by Trump’s subreddit on Reddit
could work together to make great progress in his campaign. Lagorio-Chafkin emphasizes that
when Clinton’s thousands of e-mails were released to the public by WikiLeaks, the subreddit
community combed through them to look for the e-mails that could be incriminating and/or give
Clinton a bad image. Furthermore, although it is impossible to ever find out, Lagorio-Chafkin
thinks that it is not hard to believe that these hundreds of thousands of individuals spent a few
minutes at the polls after spending months discussing about it. Similarly, Ghitis views
WikiLeaks as a method of attack on the opposing political rival; however, this attack has less of
a direct connection to Trump. The thousands of e-mails’ source released by WikiLeaks is
Russia’s Democratic National Committee (DNC) hack. Ghitis claims that this country’s
intervention was a key factor to Donald Trump’s presidential election victory. She reports that
Trump set out to win over Bernie supporters, utilizing their acrimony towards the Democratic
Party after it was revealed by the e-mails that the party was favoring Clinton. The party was
further wounded when the DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was forced to resign because
of the hack. Ghitis explains that since the e-mails’ release, Trump’s many conspiracy theories
gained the impression of believability, further blurring the lines between fact and fiction, giving
the Democratic Party a worse reputation. Social media is not just a one-way street where
information is laid out to the public who reacts to it. Social media can also be used to progress
towards a political party’s goals.
I noticed changes in social media and its tendency to attack political rivals as the 2016
presidential election was nearing. Through my own experience of the election, it is clear that
both Lagorio-Chafkin and Ghitis are correct in that social media has the power to be used as a
weapon in a presidential campaign beyond just the passive method of distributing propaganda.
An example of a political party’s active attack with social media that Lagorio-Chafkin would
point to is the use of “The_Donald” followers to scan through the thousands of e-mails released
by WikiLeaks to look for incriminating material against Hillary Clinton. Similarly, Ghitis would
exhibit the way that WikiLeaks allowed for Bernie supporters’ transformation to Trump’s side
and Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation. I would agree with both authors that social media
can be used to aggressively attack an opponent to gain political power. Personally, I spend some
time on YouTube each day. I distinctly remember that as the time was nearing election day, most
ads on videos were aggressive political ads by Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. As opposed to
earlier ads where candidates bolstered their own image, I clearly remember Clinton having ads
attacking Trump and the words that he had said in the past. With political influence being seen
on Reddit, WikiLeaks, and YouTube, it is not hard to believe that social media can be used to
take an aggressive approach in a political campaign.
Nicola Sturgeon, who is the first woman to hold both the position of the First Minister of
Scotland and the Scottish National Party leader, states that “Social media is natural to me, and
it’s a very immediate way of saying something. It’s the way politics are done these days. In
modern politics, you can’t ignore that even if you wanted to. I can’t imagine doing politics
without it.” Although an election’s typical influences are the voter’s background and
identification with the candidates, the voter’s party identification, the voter’s view of the
incumbent’s previous performance, and the candidates’ ideologies, social media outlets are on
the rise as a big influence on voting behavior. A lot of researchers really accentuated social
media’s importance on the election. Social media is clearly on the rise and Trump, whether he
initially had planned it or not, took full advantage of it, as evidenced by the skyrocketing
numbers of supporters he had during the campaign. While some opponents may argue that
despite this, his strong policies led him to victory, it is obvious that social media was not a
passive assistance to his campaign; in fact, Trump used social media to gain territory and wound
his opponents. While this paper mainly focused on social media’s influence of the election, it
may be important to note how the analysis of other influences of voting behavior may be
advantageous for further research that relates to Trump’s success.
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The New York Times. The New York Times, 5 Oct. 2015.
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Trump’s Rise to Power Could Be America and the West’s Salvation.” Daily Mail Online,
Associated Newspapers, 12 Nov. 2016.
Carroll, Lauren. “Hillary Clinton’s Top 10 Campaign Promises.” PolitiFact, 22 July 2016.
Enli, Gunn. “Twitter as Arena for the Authentic Outsider: Exploring the Social Media
Campaigns of Trump and Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential Election.” Sage Pub,
European Journal of Communication, 2017.
Ghitis, Frida. “Trump’s Victory Was Aided by Russia’s Weaponized Social Media Campaign.”
World Politics Review, World Politics Review, 10 Nov. 2016.
Greenwood, Shannon. “In 2017, Two-Thirds of U.S. Adults Get News from Social Media.” Pew
Research Center’s Journalism Project, Pew Research Center, 5 Sept. 2017.
Lagorio-Chafkin, Christine. “Reddit and the God Emperor of the Internet.” The New York Times,
The New York times, 19 Nov. 2016.
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Reddit, Reddit, June 2017.
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Hill, The Hill, 23 Aug. 2016.
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