Candidates struggle with new social media

Candidates struggle with new social media
© Greg Nash

Snapchat, Periscope and Meerkat aren’t living up to the hype in the 2016 elections, with the candidates struggling to harness the power of the increasingly popular social media platforms.

At the start of the campaign season, media outlets predicted the web 2.0 platforms would play a major role in electing the next president. Politico called 2016, “The Meerkat election.” CNN wrote, “New technology is poised to upend politics just in time for the 2016 presidential campaign,” referring to the Meerkat and Periscope livestreaming apps. The New York Times wondered if 2016 would be the “Snapchat election.”

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With just over two months until November, none of the platforms have emerged as game changers for the candidates.

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE’s campaign initially didn’t have a Snapchat account, while Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHouse Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally House Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally It's about the delegates, stupid MORE rarely posts on hers. Periscope’s only big moment in politics came during the House Democratic sit-in, when members used the app to bypass blacked out cameras. And Meerkat doesn’t even focus on livestreaming anymore. 

“I think looking back on it, when you look back on it at articles a year or so ago calling 2016 the Meerkat election, it almost seems like parody now,” says David Uberti a writer at the Columbia Journalism Review who has covered political media. 

“I don’t think they’ve really supplanted more traditional forms of media outreach as they were sort of heralded a year ago,” Uberti continued, referring Snapchat and livestreaming apps. 

Representatives from Snapchat, Meerkat and Periscope declined to comment for this story.

Yet despite their slow adoption in politics, the social platforms are growing rapidly. 

Snapchat has a current valuation of $20 billion and over 150 million users. Periscope has hosted 200 million broadcasts, and most experts generally agree that livestreaming and video apps are the future of social media.

“The premise that Periscope and Snapchat were paradigm shifting is true in general. In specific, not so much,” said Alan Rosenblatt, senior vice president of digital strategy at turner4D and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. 

Snapchat at least, has given a clear glimpse into just how impactful it can be. Twice as many 18-24 year-olds watched the first GOP debate on Snapchat compared to TV. 

But while the social platforms are catching fire with the public, the general prediction that livestreaming apps would upend the elections hasn’t come to pass. 

“Despite the buzziness and the shiny sort of new aspect of this that journalists and campaigns like, campaigns sort of tested this out and they sort of filtered out throughout the campaign season,” said Vincent Harris, a Texas-based political strategist who ran Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales MORE’s 2016 digital campaign for president. 

In December, Trump experimented with Periscope, hosting Q&A’s on the app before dialing before dialing back his coverage to primarily rallies and campaign events. Clinton’s first Periscope featured former Olympic figure skater and Hillary Clinton filming a Clinton rally, but moved to more conventional filming of rallies and events. 

Harris criticized that style of using livestreams.

“What’s the point of just livestreaming things that are on CNN anyways?” he asked. “The purpose is to build a relationship with your audience on your social platforms where they feel like they can get exclusive content, behind the scenes content and where they can see things they can’t see on CNN.”

Experts say politicians aren’t alone in struggling to incorporate livestreaming technology.

“Live video a tool that everyone really has, that no one has really cracked yet. “Not campaigns, not brands, not really anyone,” said Arielle Goren a political communications expert. “Everyone has this tool, quite literally at their fingertips, and everyone is trying to figure out how to make the best use of it.” 

Goren said part of the reason campaigns haven’t figured out how to make the best use of the video tools is because they haven’t had the time or resources to devote to them. 

History suggests that politics takes time to get used to new digital technology. Twitter was created in 2006 but didn’t become a political mainstay until the 2008 and 2012 elections. There also was a gap between Facebook’s development and the embrace of the platform by political campaigns. 

Some political organizations are finding success with video apps, however. Revolution Messaging, a political strategy firm that ran Bernie SandersBernie SandersButtigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' Buttigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' The generational divide of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party MORE 2016 digital operation, took advantage of new social media technology to help them gain an edge with younger demographic groups. 

“[These tools] gave us the ability to engage with and reach out to young voters,” Revolution Messaging CEO Scott Goodstein said. 

“We basically added kerosene to the organizing tactics that other people were using by adding digital media in directly to where the consumer we were trying to reach was,” Goodstein said.

“I don’t understand why campaigns don’t go where voters are instead of trying to drive voters to the campaign's official YouTube page or the campaign’s official website versus operating in the social media that people are spending dozens of hours each day going through their newsfeeds or watching and consuming content inside Snapchat.”

Harris recalled an instance where Periscope helped boost exposure for Rand Paul’s 2016 campaign. 

The campaign recorded a 12-hour livestream of Paul in Iowa on Periscope, following him on the campaign trail all day.

“It was one of the highest days of mentions of Senator Paul and of website traffic to RandPaul.com,” Harris said. “If this is done right, and campaigns are creatively and actively using this, there are tangible benefits in terms of website traffic, dollars, etc., etc.”

Clinton and Trump are also buying ads on Snapchat. The two have previously made use of customizable geotags for events. 

All of the social platforms are likely to eventually make their mark on politics. But with two months until Election Day, it’s unlikely that time will be in 2016.

“There truly will come a point where we’re Facebook Live, Periscope, Snapchat first. Where everyone’s been wrong on is when that day is,” Harris said. “We have been slowly creeping there and it hasn’t been as quickly or instantaneously as I think that journalists and very young campaign operatives would have liked and hoped, but we’re getting there.”