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Social Media’s Victory in the 2016 Presidential Election

Social Media’s Victory in the 2016 Presidential Election

Kaelan Wong

Professor Gina Gemmel

English 161

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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Student 10

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

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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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Works Cited

Barbaro, Michael. “Pithy, Mean and Powerful: How Donald Trump Mastered Twitter for 2016.”

The New York Times. The New York Times, 5 Oct. 2015.

Burleigh, Michael. “The Great Escape from Globocop: MICHAEL BURLEIGH on How Donald

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.

Shemzu. “Why Do Trump Supporters Call Themselves Centipedes? r/EnoughTrumpSpam.”

Reddit, Reddit, June 2017.

Shontell, Alyson. “Really, There Is No Such Thing As Bad PR.” Business Insider, Business

Insider, 28 Feb. 2011.

Talbot-Zorn, Justin, and Leigh Marz. “Donald Trump is Not ‘Authentic’ Just Because He Says

Things.” Time, Time, 10 Oct. 2016.

Student 13

Williams, Armstrong. “The Moral Origins of Donald Trump’s Rise to Power Part One.” The

Hill, The Hill, 23 Aug. 2016.

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