By Tricia Drevets
Although social media has been around for the past two U.S. presidential elections, it has become a driving force in the 2016 presidential election.
Because of the flood of posts, tweets, memes and videos used throughout the campaign, more Americans feel involved in this election than ever before. At least, they have more information than ever before.
At the second presidential debate on Oct. 9, the moderators used questions from Facebook and referred to Twitter on a regular basis — and with good reason. Facebook currently claims about 1.6 billion active users each month – an increase of 60 percent from the 2012 election. Twitter boasts about 385 million active monthly users, a jump from 185 million in the last election.
Both the Clinton and the Trump campaigns are adept at using social media. Both candidates routinely take to their social media accounts – even at the well-publicized time of 3 a.m. — to send a message directly to their followers. And why not? It is quick and you can’t beat the price.
A Pew Research Center study in July found that the candidates’ social media posts outdistance their use of websites and emails. The study also reported that nearly one-fourth of American adults rely on social media posts as a way of keeping up with election news.
Another recent Pew study found that two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds – those coveted millennial voters – view social media as the most helpful way to get political news and information. Nearly 45 percent of the study participants reported that they had learned something new about the election during the past week though social media.
There is no question that we have more information about our presidential candidates than ever before, and that we have it streaming 24/7. However, when I wake up on the morning after the second debate to find a prominent “news” story shared on social media claiming that Melania Trump’s blouse is a sign she is supporting Hillary Clinton, I am ready to say, “Enough is enough.”
Posts and tweets are becoming the news rather than commenting on the news, I grumbled. In this Instagram-fed world, what is happening to the real issues our country is facing?
With a growing sense of frustration, I began to ponder and then research how technology has changed the presidential campaigns of the past. It turns out that technology has reared its head twice before in our presidential electoral process.
Prior to the 20th century, the American campaign trail was all about making personal appearances. However, slowly but surely, an invention by Guglielmo Marconi began to change all that. Like so many inventions that have transformed our world, radio was first thought to be a novelty.
In 1916, Lee DeForest, a Highbridge, New York inventor and radio buff, hosted his own amateur “radio telephone” show of phonograph music and conversations. Looking for new material, he arranged for The New York American to supply him with election return figures, which he then read over the air.
As his bedtime approached, however, DeForest felt the need to predict a winner in the race. Unfortunately, as a daily newspaper was to do decades later with the Truman-Dewey race, DeForest got it wrong when he forecasted that Charles Evan Hughes had defeated Woodrow Wilson!
Radio gained in popularity and proved to be much more than a toy. America’s first radio station, KDKA, was brand-new when it broadcast the returns of the 1920 presidential election. Soon thousands of other stations were licensed and on the air, and Americans began purchasing radios for their homes.
In the 1920s, radio became part of the presidential campaign, giving the candidates an opportunity for them to talk directly with voters in their own living rooms. New Republic magazine predicted that the 1924 campaign would be fought primarily by radio. Nation magazine called 1924 “the radio year,” but it also predicted in an editorial that the “fad” would be over by 1928.
Calvin Coolidge, who went on to win the election in 1924, gave a final campaign speech that was broadcast on a record 26 stations across the nation. His radio audience was estimated as the largest in history to be gathered to listen to hear one speaker.
Radio changed up the campaign trail. Candidates who were used to giving boisterous stump speeches at railway station or country fairs found that they needed a quieter, more conversational tone when speaking to a radio audience.
In that final campaign speech, Coolidge apparently hit the right note when he remained non-partisan and simply urged his listeners to vote. He concluded with a warm “To my father, who is listening in my old home in Vermont, and to my other invisible audience, I say ‘good night.’”
Several decades later in the 1960 campaign, another new form of technology had a major impact on the presidential election. The first televised presidential debate gave voters an up close and personal view of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
With both a voice to listen to and a body to look at, voters were drawn to Kennedy’s apparent youth and vigor. Even though the two candidates were only four years apart in age, Nixon, who had been suffering from a bout with the flu, looked sallow and weaker than Kennedy did to many viewers of the flickering back and white broadcast.
Throughout the rest of the last century, TV went on to place an emphasis on sound bites and appearance. The candidacy of Ronald Reagan, in particular, blurred the line between politician and celebrity. Bill Clinton also was a master at using media to his advantage, and he became the first president to set up an official White House website.
Today, as the Internet continues to transform the way we do things, it is somewhat reassuring to realize that we have been through the shake-ups technology can have on our election process before.
However, those past changes seem mild compared with what we are experiencing now. When this bizarre election is over, we will have some reflecting to do. Do we really want our presidential candidates to be just another part of a never-ending stream of often shallow information – and misinformation? How much can we trust what we see and read on the Internet?
The upside of social media is that it provides us with unfiltered information, but the downside of social media it provides us with unfiltered information. Has social media dumbed – or numbed – us down to the point that we don’t even care about the real issues we need to solve? In other words, are we letting technology control us, or are we controlling technology?
In the meantime, I have one strong statement to make. I refuse to read more about Mrs. Trump’s blouse.