In the age of social media, voters still need journalists

The American public got more of their news from social media than during any prior presidential election, according to a new Pew study. With 75% of Americans online, and of those, over 70% on Facebook, the public found news and talk about the 2016 presidential campaign in their Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts. As my research suggests, political campaigns like social media because it allows them to talk directly to the public, bypassing journalists, whom they always distrust and dislike.

The question is: what kind of information does the public get directly from the campaigns?

In an ideal world, the presidential campaigns would provide the electorate the opportunity to reflect on the issues that face the country. They would learn the candidate’s policy positions and vision for how to tackle those problems, and evaluate the candidate’s character and attributes as they auditioned to be one of the most powerful leaders in the world. 

My research team and I analyzed Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and how they used social media during two phases of the campaign season. 

The first stage ran from October 2015 through January 2016, when the candidates began to introduce themselves and their positions to the public. We call this the surfacing stage. We then looked at the primaries stage from February through June 2016. We did this analysis as part of the Illuminating 2016 Project, analyzing all of the presidential candidates’ social media messages on Facebook and Twitter through the entirety of their campaigns. 

We use computational approaches to analyze the messages. This requires creating categories to describe the messages, having people read and tag a sample of the messages, and then using computer software that looks for patterns and features in the messages that share the same category. The software then generates algorithms—basically a set of rules for what to look for in the messages so as to assign them to the proper category. 

Our algorithms are generally more accurate than people. For the categories we focus on, the algorithm is accurate around 75% of the time. 

Our analysis suggests that the public did not get the information they need to make a good voting decision. We still need journalists to push candidates to answer the hard questions and provide the public with a deeper understanding of candidate views and character because the candidates won’t necessarily provide that themselves.

Trump less likely to talk issues online

There are stark differences in the ways Clinton and Trump used social media to strategically construct their vision for the country.

Clinton often produced almost three times as many messages as Trump about the issues, such as education, the economy and women’s issues.

Indeed, the main candidates for the Democratic Party were more likely to post messages on policy and issue matters than the most popular candidates for the Republican Party. This is true if they are posting messages that articulate their own policy positions or attack others’ policy positions.

The style of Trump’s posts on the issues is distinct when compared with Clinton. Where she routinely provided reasons and facts for her positions, Trump offered broad generalizations or generic claims with little evidence. Take for example, these posts from Clinton on Twitter. By comparison, Trump’s positions were declared rather than reasoned. Additionally, he often retweeted messages from supporters instead of articulating his personal stance on issues:

Trump is not consistently negative

Political pundits and campaign watchers declared Trump to be profoundly negative. Some have predicted this was one of the most negative campaigns in history.But when you look in aggregate rather than anecdotally at each candidate’s individual social media posts, you get a different picture.

During the surfacing stage, when the candidates need to introduce themselves to the public, Trump advocated for himself more frequently than did Clinton on social media, and he attacked more, but not disproportionately so. When looking at the primaries, though, a noteworthy change occurs. Clinton attacks more than Trump on Twitter, at nearly twice the rate. It’s not until May that Trump goes on the attack – primarily against Clinton. This coincides with Trump becoming the presumptive nominee for the Republicans. Once he starts to attack Clinton, he stays on the attack.

When you look at the substance of the attacks, there are noteworthy distinctions. Trump’s attacks are often personal. In February, for example, Trump primarily attacks Bush, but Rubio and Cruz are not spared

Yet, while Trump provides only thin policy claims, he is not constantly on the attack, unlike the public perception of his Twitter stream. Indeed, Clinton tends to be more negative than Trump on social media. 

We still need journalists to rigorously cover campaigns and the public to read those accounts

With the public increasingly getting information directly from the candidates themselves on social media, what they get is of limited breadth and depth to make effective judgments about who is the best candidate to lead the country.

Our democracy still needs journalists to cover campaigns, ask the candidates challenging questions, and hold candidates to account for their claims and actions. And the public needs to take the time to seek out quality journalism about the campaign. Candidates, on their own, tend to focus on their image and character and provide a rosy portrayal of their policy positions. But, that’s not enough to make a good decision for whom to vote.

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