Presidential Campaign

Stop blaming Facebook for Trump’s election win

Getty Images

Facebook didn’t decide the election. And Donald Trump is certainly not going to be the next president of the United States because of his ability to wage a successful Twitter war with celebrities and news outlets.

Since the “surprise” results of the 2016 presidential election, we have been inundated by stories of how social media limits political discussion to likeminded others, is based on algorithms that limit exposure to diverse news, and is responsible for spreading fake news. Did these factors play a major role in Trump’s White House victory? 

{mosads}We have been researching the social effects of Internet use since the late 1990s. The suggestion that social media are responsible for large-scale social change is great for our business! Nothing spurs communication research like an old fashioned media panic. But as experts in that business, we are all too familiar with exaggerated claims about technologies’ social implications. Just as the internet does not make us socially isolated or more stressed, Facebook and Twitter feeds did not decide the election.

Despite media coverage that suggests otherwise, few social media are ubiquitous. While most Americans are on the Internet, and about 70 percent of online adults use Facebook, other social media sites, including Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn, are used by less than a quarter of the adult online population. When people are asked if they “get their news” on Facebook or other social media, about half say “yes,” which is less than a third of all online adults.

Yet this exaggerates the role of social media as a source of hard news on public affairs. Many Americans think the Kardashians and their local sports teams qualify as “news.” When asked to recall where they got their news concerning a specific hard news issue, TV and radio dominate as sources. The average Facebook user clicks on only 7 percent of the hard news content available on their feeds. Far more Americans get their news from television than from social media.

We would need to ignore a half century of communication research to accept that real, or fake, news through any media simply changes opinion in favor of a story or ad. Fake or sharply negative news may even produce a boomerang or backfire effect that strengthens opinion in the opposite direction the story intended.

There is no evidence that Trump supporters dominated the social media landscape. In fact, when we collected data on what social media were used by potential voters, Hillary Clinton supporters were significantly more likely to be on both Twitter and Reddit, two platforms that the media often associated with Trump enthusiasts (33 percent vs 21 percent on Twitter, 14 percent vs 9 percent on Reddit). Only a fifth of Trump supporters ever visit Twitter and less than 10 percent ever visit Reddit. It is hard to imagine that this paltry level of engagement could swing an election.

The argument that social media encourages people to interact in ideological silos more than they did before is not supported by evidence. Studies have consistently found that Facebook use is associated with knowing a greater variety of people from all walks of life. While anecdotal evidence looking at hateful tweets and Reddit threads may suggest that such content is upsetting to some, there is simply no systematic empirical evidence that this type of engagement was a defining feature of the election.

If media did play a role in deciding the results, it was in the mass media where Trump outperformed. As if we needed reminding, a reality TV star is going to be the next president of the United States. And Trump received a significant boost from mass media coverage

So what was responsible for Trump’s win? The internet, or more precisely, the lack of it, may still have been a deciding factor.

In comparison to prior presidential elections, preference for Democratic or Republican candidates among key demographics was relatively similar. While Clinton secured more support from women and performed worse among young voters than Barack Obama, the gap between the candidates was not dramatically larger than in other recent elections. Yet, one key demographic strongly diverged from prior voting behavior.

Those without a college-degree backed Trump by a 9-point margin (52 percent to 43 percent). In 2012, people without a college degree expressed almost equal support for the Democratic and Republican candidates. But, what is truly shocking is Trump’s 39-point advantage among whites without a college degree, 67 percent support to Clinton’s 28 percent. That is the largest margin of support among this demographic since 1980. An important fact about this group: they are the most likely to be among the 15 percent of Americans who do not use the Internet. Among those who are online, they are the least likely to be on social media.

Americans’ attitudes toward diversity are changing. Since early in this century, rates of tolerance toward ethnic groups have fluctuated, with views that frame immigrants as a burden sharply concentrated among those who see themselves in direct economic competition: white men without a college degree. No wonder Donald Trump’s message resonated so strongly with this demographic.

Trump’s message of intolerance pushed him to victory, not social media algorithms. It may not be a coincidence that the same demographic that is most likely to be disconnected from the internet was most likely to vote for Trump.

Having ties to people in different walks of life builds tolerance. Those who remain disconnected from the internet are also the most likely to be socially isolated and to have the least diverse personal networks. The roots of intolerance affect us all.

A recent study shows how since 2001, in the United States, as opinions toward immigrants have declined, so have incidents of informal helping behavior on the street. This trend in altruistic behavior over the same time period has moved in the opposite direction in Canada, where positive public opinion toward diversity and immigrant groups remains high. Few think that the policies of President-Elect Trump will do much to reduce inequality or improve tolerance toward diversity. His actions will only exasperate inequality and feed intolerance. These effects will be experienced every day in our neighborhoods and on our streets and be shared by all Americans. 

What is to be done? Sure, let’s improve the algorithms behind social media and search engines. But lest we forget, the roots of intolerance are tied to inequality, and it was inequality and intolerance that decided this election. The narrow majority of those who elected Donald Trump into office are led by those who are the most disconnected, on and offline.

This is not the time to shun social media. Rather, let’s get everyone connected so those who are isolated can hear others’ voices.  


Keith Hampton is professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University. Eszter Hargittai is professor in the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research at the University of Zurich.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags 2016 presidential election Barack Obama Donald Trump Facebook Hillary Clinton media Reddit Social media TV Twitter
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video