Social media's role in U.S. politics — and the presidential election, in particular — is undeniable.
With the current global pandemic forcing the candidates to rethink how they conduct political rallies, drum up support from voters and even raise funds, social media has become an invaluable resource to both the Republican and Democratic campaigns. Politicians have embraced social media (for better or worse) because it provides the best virtual engagement that a person can address an issue or problem.
Voters are also turning to social media platforms to discover news about each candidate, watch the debates via live streams and share their own political views. Using social media analytics, a myriad of topical sentiments can be gathered and strategists can raise pertinent issues drawn from the unadulterated opinions.
Judging by the amount of coverage in social media — be it in a positive or negative light — most certainly the current Commander in Chief is on everyone’s lips and minds. Trump is mentioned almost four times more than Biden in the media. Volume counts in social media because staying narratively relevant within the voting public is important in getting a message across.
Less than two weeks until the final voting day, netizens are already focusing attention on the states that will play a key role in deciding the presidential election. Across both campaigns, the states of Wisconsin and Florida have continued to generate chatter in social media and forums. Many analysts have pointed out that the winner in the state of Florida has historically been a good indicator of the future president. This sentiment was largely echoed in the tweets and forum threads thus putting the state in the limelight and under more pressure.
The U.S. presidential election undoubtedly receives immense global scrutiny due to its international standing. Being the leader of the world’s largest economy, international diplomacy will always be high on its agenda. Social media is rife with international opinions on the elections, with neighbor Canada unsurprisingly contributing the most mentions. Longtime ally, the United Kingdom, maintains their high interest in cross-Atlantic affairs while their strategic Indo-Pacific partners Australia and India are also keeping an eye on the next POTUS. Interestingly, the people of India have developed an affinity with Democrat VP candidate Kamala Harris whose of Indian descent, while many are also enamored with Trump’s close kinship with their prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Joe Biden’s nomination as presidential candidate for the Democratic Party was obviously open knowledge to everyone, but many rejoiced over his running mate's nomination. Kamala Harris created history as the first American woman of both African and Asian descent to be nominated as vice-presidential candidate. There were more than 1.2 million mentions of her nomination on the day. However, despite the overriding appreciation of her nomination, many still questioned their views on the police system and how Harris had grilled Biden during the Democrat primaries.
President Trump received almost double the number of mentions than Biden after the first presidential debate. Netizens largely focused on a controversial moment where President Trump blatantly refused to condemn white supremacist groups during the debate. This top topic recorded 170,000 mentions, almost double of COVID-19 mentions. So, even though Trump did generate more mentions than Biden, not all of those mentions were positive. That said, the general social media community derided the whole debate as a calamitous debacle, filled with interruptions and constant digression from the questions.
The vice presidential debate was definitely a heated one. The tension between the candidates was evident when Harris shot off a terse warning to Pence for constantly interrupting her. Netizens responded with the fire symbol as the most used emoji on social media. Ironically, topic-wise, COVID-19 was mentioned the most by netizens in relation to the VP debate. COVID-19 was mentioned 63,000 times. Surreally, the next topic was about a fly, yes, an insect. A fly planted itself on the Republican candidate’s head. Once again, a platform to constructively critique the incumbent administration’s policies was sidetracked by an inane insect.
Undoubtedly, a wrench in the Trump campaign team's plan was him contracting coronavirus. A moment of schadenfreude erupted on social media as netizens highlighted Trump's predicament. Comments ranged from well-wishes to conspiracy theories to utter disdain for the outbreak within the Trump inner circle in the White House. There were more than 4 million mentions on the day when his condition was announced. Amazingly, Trump self-declared that he had made a recovery within the recommended two weeks of isolation. This further incensed netizens who felt he was being irresponsible and using his condition as politicking for votes. Social media sentiment revealed that users were as polarised as the president himself.
Despite the delay, the final debate between the presidential candidates served up an array of topics that left netizens discussing endlessly throughout the verbal spar. Once again, President Trump dominated based on 623,000 mentions. He took to task the topic of national security and foreign policy, pushing his victorious narratives in the Middle East and throwing inflammatory remarks towards Biden's close affinities with China, Russia and Ukraine. These narratives resonated in netizens' minds as more than 518,000 mentions of these topics cropped up throughout the debate. Netizens also discussed the topics of COVID-19 and race relations in the U.S., 457,000 and 342,000 mentions respectively, but again President Trump expectedly went on the offensive to debilitate Biden's stature.
Florida has historically been a bellwether state for a presidential election. The state has successfully voted in the next commander-in-chief since 1996. The nation’s third-largest state holds the key to swinging the vote from either party, and many eyes will be transfixed on the citizens making their way to the polls. On social media, the chances of a Republican win was widely discussed with more than 513,000 mentions by netizens. Much of the discussion was focused on voter turnout in the state. Many suggested a suppression campaign against African American voters, while the elderly vote also drew attention in the state.
In contrast, the Biden campaign garnered around 358,000 mentions about a victorious polling day. However, it is interesting to note that a significant narrative within those mentions was about Michael Bloomberg pledging a vast sum of money to the Democrat candidate’s campaign to win Florida. This might lead to a counterintuitive reaction from Florida residents to shy away from Biden because people may be put off by a $100 million media blitz campaign during a tough time such as a pandemic.
In another spectrum of the presidential election, fashion mogul and Chicago rapper-turned-church minister Kanye West fully carried out his promise to run when he launched his campaign website. He has called for his fans and followers to write in his nomination in the ballot and insomuch called his journey to election as a religious motivation. Building his manifesto on biblical passages, West definitely perked some interest from the masses. There were more than 520,000 mentions of West’s independent push to lead America in October. However, the main message being sent across social media was that netizens believed West was just running for presidency to pilfer Biden's votes and help the Trump campaign.
Public opinion is crucial in an election. Voters are undeniably susceptible to prevalent discourses within social media. If the medium is the message, social media during an election is a powder keg of opinion. Based on the sheer volume of mentions and narratives seen in forum discussions and Twitter feeds, President Trump certainly is in the driving seat, making the news and netizens revolve around him.
Surprisingly, in such a critical and history-defining election, Biden has not been as “proactive” in making the narratives and gaining the media momentum during the most unpredictable year.
The Trump campaign has also lobbied hard on bread-and-butter issues during this campaign, such as boosting the local industries and bringing jobs back. The Biden team has gone for broader issues of the Supreme Court and foreign policies. Two distinct topical focuses for voters to debate. This is where one candidate will overshadow the other. But for the sake of diplomacy and cooperation, and especially America’s position as a major global player, hopefully, the shadow is not a long one.