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Twitter's impact on 2016 presidential election is unmistakable

Matt Kapko | Nov. 4, 2016
Twitter has been a nonstop news machine during this year's contentious presidential election, but will the popular social network even exist the next time Americans hit the polls?

Twitter encourages discourse … for better or worse

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that social media fuels widespread polarization and partisan animosity, and the associated debates turn off more people than they attract. Twitter is a popular outlet for contentious political conversation, but it isn't alone. "Political content is as prevalent on Facebook (where users mostly follow people they know personally) as it is on Twitter (where users tend to follow a wider mix of connections)," the report reads. 

Social media enables conversations that never would have happened without it, according to Irina Raicu, internet ethics program director at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. "But the unfiltered aspect of social media has also led, on some platforms, to some very toxic exchanges — toxic enough to drive people completely out of the conversation," she says. "We have also seen that social media can enable the easy, fast and widespread dissemination of misinformation."

Twitter makes political discourse more accessible, but the 140-character limit also means it's virtually impossible to share in-depth policy proposals on the service, Raynauld says. "This is oversimplifying the context of campaign discourse" and makes it difficult for people to get a greater understanding of the candidates' cornerstone ideas, he says. 

Twitter has been particularly important to young adults, a group that now represents an equal share of the electorate as the baby boomer generation, according to the Pew Research Center. "Certainly they're on Facebook, and people are talking about the election on Facebook, but Twitter has really taken center stage and kind of pushed Facebook off to the side, especially with younger voters," says Laura Weir, executive director of international education at Florida SouthWestern State College.

Future politicians will likely take cues from both Trump and Clinton on Twitter and apply lessons learned to future campaigns, according to Raynauld. "I suspect that politicians will go even more personal when it comes to politics in upcoming election cycles, where they will really let their personality shine through to show they're not part of a machine, and that it's really them talking."

The outcome of the 2016 presidential election should influence future politicians and their social media strategies, as well. Trump has consistently generated media coverage from traditional outlets thanks to his tweets. However, much of the associated reporting was "negative and came as a result of issuing inflammatory tweets," Rice says. Clinton may have been more active on Twitter, but her account was also "more heavily managed by the campaign and did not seem to be as successful at generating news media coverage." 

Will another election play out on Twitter?


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