This paper explores the use of social media, specifically Twitter, during the 2016 presidential election. This election was the first-time candidates took to social media to spread their views on current issues, government, and even their running mates. Trump’s twitter is chosen as an example to help show how candidates used Twitter as a tool to spread their agenda and push their narrative on American citizens. By applying the agenda-setting theory you can see how Trump’s tweets helped paint a picture of poor immigration, terrorism, and much more in America, he would then campaign to fix all of the previous issues. Twitter was a free and quick way to share this message to millions of people.
In 2016 our country experienced one of the most unpredictable and untraditional presidential elections to date, involving Hillary Clinton, who could’ve been the first women in office, and Donald Trump, an outspoken businessman from New York. In the past, candidates would use blogs and personal websites to convey their message and gain popularity with American voters. These ads are often funded by super PAC’s or anybody else who has skin in the game. To avoid funding from others, Trump took a different approach when he started to use the free popular social media app, Twitter.
His account started to captivate Americans daily, you couldn’t turn on the news without seeing headlines on the next crazy thing Trump has tweeted. Most people during the election thought he could only hurt himself with his out-of-box tweets but after an unexpected win, one could argue differently. By applying the Agenda-setting theory we can see how Twitter, Trump’s use of Twitter and other social media sites affected the presidential election.
To understand the importance of Twitter as a tool in political elections first, one needs to understand the role it has in American society today. Twitter has 320 million monthly active users, and 100 million active daily users (Asalam, 2018), they are 5 million short of having America’s whole population on Twitter each month. The app allows members to write a short 140-character tweet to share with their followers and if people choose to retweet it then it is also shared with that member’s followers.
Which means one person with 100 followers could voice their opinion on a topic, if another member with 200 followers retweets it, then that would be 300 people who are exposed to the first member’s opinion. If you take that example and relate it to the Twitter accounts of the candidates, millions and millions of people are exposed to one tweet. For a free application, they provide a massive platform and give a gigantic reach for people to voice their opinions and share information. This particular election was dubbed “The Battle of Twittersburg” due to the sheer amount of political battles that polarized not just Americans but people all over the world. Since there are 320 million monthly active users’ politicians and other news channels started taking advantage of its reach to push their political narrative and agenda.
The agenda setting theory is a theory that discusses how the mass media influences in making a certain issue a public agenda. (Zain 2008). In other words, they focus on only a few issues to deceive the public into thinking those are the most pressing and important issues going on. Walter Lippmann first acknowledged the theory when he noticed the vital role mass media can play in influencing the setting of a certain narrative in the publics head. (Lippmann, 1922:9 9-16).
Whether it was a well thought out plan or dumb luck, Trump did a great job of using the agenda-setting theory to his advantage throughout the election. He used his Twitter account to push his party’s narrative in such a way that CNN and other news channels felt obligated to report it to the American people on a daily basis. Trump took the phrase “free press is better than no press at all” to a whole other level, he had such a harsh and vindictive tone on Twitter his election staff revoked his power to create his own tweets.
Aljazeera (2015) a middle eastern news company reported: “Donald Trump is the best example of someone who is incredibly gifted at getting free media coverage… anytime you see a politician pulling off, or trying to pull off, a student or make a bold proposal, of loss of the reason behind that, is for the free media.” Although a lot of people didn’t agree with his views he drew attention from all over the world, without Twitter his presidential campaign would’ve had a very different outcome.
The main narratives during the election were Corruption, immigration, and Fake News, you can find a plethora of Trump tweets that address these. According to Landero (2016:22), The media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues. One example of this during the election was Trump’s fixation on Hillary’s past corruption, he started to use the term Crooked Hillary in his tweets when addressing the situation. On November 3, 2017, in the midst of the Russian investigation he tweeted “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems…” (Trump, 2017).
Twitter’s retweet function allowed users to spread the tweet and it quickly caught on in the mainstream media and news sites. He successfully drew the attention away from himself and onto Hillary Clinton with a simple 140-character tweet. Soon one of Trumps main promises as president would be to send Hillary to jail. Unfortunately, it took away time from more important topics like immigration, health care, and gun control but that is why Trump was very good at manipulating the America people through an application like Twitter.
Another way he pushed his agenda was by using the hashtag #Fakenews to call out all of the news channels that would report false information that put him in a bad light. Again, this hashtag caught on like wildfire and soon half of the country started to be concerned with seemingly credible news sources like CNN and the New York Time. These are two examples of how Trump pushed two narratives of corruption and fake news on the American people through twitter. He started to focus and talk about these issues more and more throughout the election.
Through Twitter, he convinced America their greatest threat was fake news and Hillary Clinton, instead of the more pressing issues that should’ve been addressed. He planted the seed in their heads than presented them with a solution to win their vote, this has been a tactic in politics for a long time. In the past before social media, media could choose what story to run in their paper for the public to read. The information in the story was all the public had to form their opinion, after a few days the story would spread around and generate reactions from the people.
This was a good tool in politics because they could control what information the public saw which would help them manipulate their view on a certain topic. Twitter streamlined this whole process for politicians, they can now pick up their phone and reach millions of people with a quick tweet, those people will retweet it and soon Trump’s agenda would be seen by millions in only a few hours.
As shocking as it was for most to see ex-TV host and New York businessman, Donald Trump, win the election, some predicted it months before due to the media’s reaction to him and his out-of-box campaign style. Walter Lippmann (1922) said ordinary citizens can no longer judge public issues rationally as the mass media constructs interpretations for them. This is bothersome due to all of the news sources and media that are out in the world today, although most are credible they have the ability to only show the side of the story that benefits them the most. The 2016 election is a great example of this, by applying the agenda-setting theory you see how Trump pushed certain narratives through Twitter to benefit him in the election.