2016 Is Not the 'Social Media Election'

Imagine that you are a foreigner dropped into America with no prior knowledge of the 2016 presidential race. Now imagine that you have to determine the frontrunners of the election based solely on social media.
03/09/2016 12:48 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2017

Imagine that you are a foreigner dropped into America with no prior knowledge of the 2016 presidential race. Now imagine that you have to determine the frontrunners of the election based solely on social media. Who would you guess is winning the race? Would you guess that it's the man circled in pictures marching behind Martin Luther King, or the man who is photoshopped onto popular villains and placed in charts being compared to Hitler? How about the woman who is constantly being referred to as a liar, as Monica Lewinsky's ex-boyfriend's wife, or as the person responsible for the Benghazi attack?

I find it ironic that this election is being referred to as the "Social Media Election," given that social media is thus far doing a terrible job predicting actual results. While scrolling through Instagram, I often find Bernie Sanders portrayed as our generation's hero: endorsed by countless celebrities, photoshopped onto Superman and Dumbledore, placed next to Dr. Seuss quotes and onto pins with the slogan, "Feel the Bern." The pictures that I find most bizarre are the ones contrasting Bernie with Hillary; Side-by-side stock photos are accompanied by captions portraying Sanders as cool and trendy and Clinton as robotic and out-of-touch. One of these posts had the topic, "can you roll a joint?" written on top. Under Hillary's picture was a messy looking, uneven joint, while Bernie's was perfectly and evenly rolled. At first, it's easy to dismiss these posts as nonsense, but that becomes increasingly difficult as you see them over and over again, shared and liked hundreds and sometimes thousands of times.

Now let's take a look at Donald Trump's Twitter: a popular topic of conversation amongst pundits, journalists, and my grandmother's friends during their mahjong games in Boca Raton. The New York Times goes as far as to say that it's "a centerpiece of his campaign." But while it's true that Trump has significantly more followers, mentions, and retweets than any other candidate, a quick search of #Trump will show you that Twitter users overwhelmingly do not like Trump. If the conversation isn't about his misogyny, then it's about past comments that he's made about Republicans being stupid, or about his anti-American immigration policies. Photos of Trump as Voldemort or in a KKK hat dominate Instagram. One viral Instagram even shows the Queen of England telling James Bond to make Trump's death "look like an accident."

If social media responses to candidates could determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential race, it would undoubtedly dub Bernie Sanders the ultimate winner, and both Hillary and Trump big losers. Surprisingly, these sentiments are not translating into reality. Donald Trump is surging and Bernie Sanders is not delivering the revolution that he promises. In the age where social media is given credit for uprisings and revolutions, why doesn't it make a difference in U.S. politics?

Social media is overrated. The 2008 election, which was also deemed "The Social Media Election," relied largely on social networking to educate the public, replace other outdated forms of media, and as a platform for candidates to communicate with voters. But it was also new, flashy, and very misunderstood. What we've learned is that young people--those most likely to use social media platforms in the first place--don't vote at nearly the same rate as older demographics, and social media use does not correlate with likelihood to vote at a significant level. According to Pew data from 2008, it didn't even significantly affect how much thought people gave to the election.

While social media sites may have transformed the style and means through which we discuss politics--with national debates citing questions from Youtube and Twitter--it's not actually shaping the national story. And it makes sense: While the GOP debates, for example, are far more entertaining than substantive, they are still infinitely more helpful to voters than photoshopped pictures of Sanders and Trump. The same goes for the countless op-eds, news articles, and CNN panels that the typical American can't escape throughout the election season. So yes, Trump tweets a lot and Instagram is brimming with posts about the election, but to say the election is defined by that reality is too simple--voters have way too many avenues to educate themselves about the candidates to take Bernie holding a joint all that seriously.

Plus, the existence of politics on social media in the first place is more an extension of sentiments and attitudes that already exist than it is a movement in its own right. The young demographic that dominates social media forums enjoy discussing politics the same way they enjoy discussing the most recent episode of The Bachelor. They unite over Bernie the same way they unite over Leo winning an Oscar or Kanye being a jerk, and they do so not to make a statement, but to contribute to a community that behaved the same way long before Sanders and Trump entered the 2016 race.

While the rise of Obama, Trump, and Sanders shocked the political universe, their successes can be attributed to deeply ingrained sentiments that have little to do with Instagram or Facebook. Perhaps social media has put the election more in our face; perhaps it's ironed-out some of the grittiness of political organizing. But political conversation doesn't equal participation. Tweets don't make presidents and Instagrams don't start revolutions--votes do.