Trump won thanks to social media
© Hill Photo Illustration/Garrett Evans

Post-election, much of the OMG-how-did-Trump-win analysis has focused on old-school tactics, such as scheduling and polling.

Did Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain MORE’s schedule avoid Wisconsin? Did pollsters give proper weight to various voter groups in random sampling?

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Overlooked amidst this tactical navel gazing is a clear, undebatable win-loss calculation: Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Trump Jr. declines further Secret Service protection: report Report: Mueller warned Manafort to expect an indictment MORE won social media. Simply put, Trump’s campaign was more engaged with voters. He mastered Twitter by embracing immediacy (right now), transparency (unvarnished expression), and risk (rather than caution).

To be clear, I am not claiming causation, that Trump won because he was better at social media. Twitter skill alone does not determine political outcomes. But understanding social media certainly is helpful, if not essential, in assessing the 2016 presidential election.

I am director of the social media analytics lab at the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. As scientists, we looked at trends and metrics:

  • Overall, online interest in candidate Trump was three times higher than Clinton, according to Google trends analysis. Trump was the most Googled candidate, and also most mentioned on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Trump had 4 million more Twitter followers than Clinton.

  • Clinton’s social media engagement increased somewhat by the third debate, but by then many voters had made up their minds. 

Meanwhile, the public’s trust in mass media dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history. Fewer than one in three Americans have confidence in the media to “report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” Among Republicans, trust of media is lower than the norm.

Nearly half of television viewers — 42 percent — do not bother to watch campaign commercials, according to research done by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and Stanford University.

Only one of four younger voters said they used TV ads as a source of political news, said a survey commissioned by a group allied with Republicans.

In the context of widespread distrust of mass media while many voters tune out political TV advertising, social media engagement by candidates and campaigns rises to new prominence in politics.

Cynics like to revert to that over-used quote about showmanship: “There's no such thing as bad publicity,” often associated with circus promoter Phineas T. Barnum.

I specialize in metrics, not psychology, so I defer to others to discern P.T. Barnum’s premise as it relates to the 2016 presidential election.

However, based on what I know about metrics, I suggest a behavioral change in social media habits that I believe would benefit our Republic. As social media consumers, we should resist limiting ourselves to an echo chamber of like-minded voices.

Four of 10 social media users blocked or minimized content due to politics, according to Pew research. More than eight of 10 say they ignore political posts they disagreed with.

In a pluralistic society, healthy social media engagement should be unafraid of competing views, even welcome them.

Dr. Laeeq Khan is director of the Social Media Analytics Lab, Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.