PR Meets Politics: How 2 Candidates Are #Winning at Social

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By Aaron Motsinger

With Super Tuesday in recent memory and our nation in the thick of primaries, caucuses, campaigning and endorsements, it’s pretty much impossible to altogether avoid election rhetoric. One of the places it’s become increasingly difficult to dodge is on social media.

In the ‘08 election, and even as recently as last year, there was only one prolific politician truly nailing social media and using it to full effect – Barack Obama – and look where that got him. Much has been made about how President Obama used “new media” to his distinct advantage as early as 2008, and Obama decidedly broke the Internet during the crucial moments of the 2012 campaign.

Obama’s unprecedented success has forced the hand of this year’s candidates, who have been given no choice but to acknowledge the upside requirement of being present, engaging and strategic on social media. Two candidates in particular, Donald Trump on the Republican side and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, have embraced that challenge vigorously, albeit with polar opposite tactics and with varying results. Both are anti-establishment candidates and (fittingly) both are running social campaigns in parallel, non-traditional ways.

Don’t mistake this blog for an endorsement for or rebuke of either candidate, although I do encourage you to watch John Oliver’s recent, largely inarguable segment. Love him or hate him, the way Trump leverages social media is fascinating and… dare I say… brilliant. He’s ridden a tidal wave of tweets, short video clips and social engagement to become the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. As my colleague Matt Isaacs put it, Trump uses Twitter as a hate machine. Judge as you will, but it’s an effective hate machine.

Trump is trying his damnedest to prove the long-espoused theory that any publicity is good publicity. I’m not mischaracterizing things by saying his Twitter feed is chock full o’ insults, false facts, exaggerations, accusations, lies, more lies, a heckuva lot of caps locking, and even a Mussolini quote or two. And you know what? It all does exactly what it’s intended to do. He has the media following his every update and regularly gets opponents riled up. He has built an undeniable brand on social, catalyzing more engagement than any other candidate. We’ve never seen a politician behave this way on social and we don’t know how to handle it. It may not all be positive sentiment, but what do you see trending on Twitter and Facebook every time Trump posts something controversial or participates in a Republican debate? “#TRUMP.”

Once things are out there in the social sphere and echoed thousands of times, fact-checking becomes mostly irrelevant. Here is my fear: If this recipe propels him to a nomination or the presidency, we’re going to see more of this type of social media warfare in future elections. Social media discourse can be just as influential and intellectually stimulating as discourse IRL. But when wild inaccuracies are rewarded and socially insensitive sentiments retweeted, we run the risk of not only ruining American politics even more than it already has been, but also degrading the value of social media for all other purposes. Let that marinate.

On the flipside of the two-party spectrum, you’ve got anti-establishment Democrat Bernie Sanders. Say what you will about him being an aging, “out of touch” socialist, his campaign has also been taking social media seriously and testing the boundaries of what’s feasible (or even acceptable) on social channels. #FeelTheBern has arguably been the most virally successful social gimmick of the cycle thus far, drawing in college student and celebrity supporters far and wide.

Sanders’ followers have also been known to turn to Tinder – yes, Tinder – to stump for him. That strategy got shut down before it became a true trend, but talk about thinking outside of the box. In having his staffers focus (and spend) on social success via Facebook and Instagram, I’d argue that Sanders has done more via social media to alter his perceived public image than any other candidate. Even his conspicuous presence on reddit is indicative of how grassroots his campaign has been from the very beginning.

We’ve seen good, bad and just plain ugly from presidential candidates on social media this election year. It remains to be seen what strategies will ultimately win out and carry a candidate to the White House, but one thing’s for certain: This election is going to define the role and timbre of social media on politics’ biggest stage for decades to come.

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