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How was social media used during the 2020 presidential election?

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… And breathe! The 2020 US Presidential election is over and former Vice President, Joe Biden, will become US President on January 20th. But what have we learnt from this election? Beyond the value of muting microphones during debates and checking you’ve got the right Four Seasons, the real lesson of this election is that social media is here to stay in politics.

Whether it was TikTokers trashing Trump’s rally in Tulsa or Trump’s continual tweeting – social media was an omnipresent feature in both candidates campaigns.

President Trump’s digital approach

Following the 2016 election, much was made of the Trump campaign’s approach to social media. Using firms such as Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s campaign fully embraced Facebook as a key advertising channel in a way that no presidential campaign had before – microtargeting swing voters and suppressing would-be Clinton supporters. And it appears that Trump’s camp was gearing up for history to repeat itself, with then-campaign manager, Brad Parscale, boldly proclaiming in May that ‘for nearly three years we have been building a juggernaut campaign.’

Social media silencing disinformation

Despite Pascale’s confidence, it looks like Trump’s social media approach hasn’t had the same effect it did four years ago. Part of this is down to social media companies taking a more active role in policing their platforms. After the 2016 result, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were held accountable for some of the disinformation their platforms hosted, and which contributed to Trump’s success.

Thankfully, this criticism didn’t fall on deaf ears, with social media platforms generally acquitting themselves well and working to silence disinformation during national election week. For example, Twitter hid certain tweets from Trump alleging fraud.

Memes, memes, and more memes

Throughout the election, social media – in particular, TikTok and Instagram – was also a hub for engaging, humorous political content posted by users, celebrities, political commentators, and influencers. 

The latter’s venture into political content online isn’t unsurprising. Our recent whitepaper, Into the mainstream: Influencer marketing in society’which surveyed over 3,500 consumers, marketers, influencers across the US, UK, and Germany, found that a quarter of all consumers (25%) said they regularly sourced news updates and opinions from influencers over journalists and established news outlets. This rose to more than a third of 16-44-year-olds (37%). Similarly, nearly half of all social media users (41%) said they wanted influencers to voice an opinion on political, social and ethical issues.

This appetite for political content was evident on Saturday 7th November after the announcement of the result. When Pennsylvania reported that the state had swung to Biden, social media exploded with political themes trending widely including a mass of celebratory posts and memes, as well as content looking at what a Biden administration will do.

The 2020 election proved that the trend of incorporating social media into political campaigns started by Obama is here to stay. Both campaigns broke the record for social media ad spending, with Trump pouring $107 million into Facebook ads from January to October. And social media became the battleground for many of the partisan debates on election night.

But social media firms and users mustn’t relax after Biden’s victory. Misinformation still exists and is likely to play a role in future elections. Social media firms will again need to monitor their platforms closely and users will again need to use the platforms to politically organise and spread positive content.

However, increased social media usage in political campaigning has also been shown to have a positive impact, helping to engage an increasing number of the population nationwide and globally in politics with easily accessible content. The 2020 presidential election recorded the highest voter turnout for 120 years, with 160 million participants equalling a turnout of 66.9%. And, by using online tools to communicate campaign messages and developing these techniques into new outlets including incorporating influencers in a meaningful and regulated way, it looks like this trend is only going to accelerate faster.

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