4 Ways Social Media May Have Influenced the 2016 Presidential Election

by Diana Prodan

From secret social media groups to live rally videos and everything in between, social media played a huge role in the 2016 election. As digital marketing, and specifically, social media continues to grow, it’s important to take a look and how different aspects may have impacted the 2016 election and use those tactics in future elections at every level of government.


Have you ever wondered why certain people’s posts always pop up in your social feed while others don’t? This has to do with algorithms. These days, the main social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – all use an algorithm that decides what will be shown in your news feed. While it is unknown exactly what is prioritized in these algorithms, there are two things that do help get your post in front of others: high engagement and sponsored content. As social media becomes more of a “pay-to-play” type of platform, paid social media posts will definitely begin taking a priority over the organic content. On the organic side of social media, posts that have high engagement – likes, comments, shares – are the ones that are more visible in people’s news feeds, which gives priorities to people or companies with large followings and to viral content. In the Presidential election specifically, both candidates used social media extensively. While their narratives greatly differed, both used sponsored content to reach targeted groups of people.

Deeper Audience Insights

As social networks grow and expand their audiences, they continue to gather more and more data on people, which allows for more in-depth and sophisticated audience targeting. The business side of social media is built on the premise that advertisers can use their targeting tools to reach specific audiences with their messages. Citigroup analysts predicted that this election cycle would result in quadruple the amount of digital ad spend than the 2012 election, with Facebook and Google being the largest recipients. That statistic speaks to the overall shift towards digital marketing. But social media advertising isn’t the all-encompassing “throw something out and hope it sticks” methods of the past. These days ads can be targeted to specifics like you political leanings, your age, your ethnicity, and even something as specific as your browsing history. Facebook Insights can even create audiences that look like the current audiences of a company, organization, or political candidate. Interested in finding out why/how you were targeted by a certain Facebook sponsored ad? Find an ad in your news feed, go to the top right corner of the ad and click on the gray arrow. A menu will appear with the option, “Why am I seeing this?” When you click it, a pop-up will appear with an explanation of how this ad was shown to you.


Ideological Filters

Throughout the election, there was a lot of talk from every side of the political spectrum about the bias of the news, especially social media, during the election cycle. Turns out, it could have been a self-created bias. As social media networks continue to tweak their algorithms to tailor to personal tastes, there may be an unintended consequence: you may be put into a bubble that keeps you from being exposed to information that could have differing viewpoints on your own. Facebook itself has explained how it tailors a person’s newsfeed to each user. So as a social media algorithm optimizes a person’s feed based on their preferences, so it would likely sway in whatever political direction a person aligns with. While a social network, on the whole, may be neutral, a specific person’s feed will likely sway towards their own beliefs. Targeted ads are especially biased, and are meant to be – the advertiser chooses the group of people that they want to reach.

Fake News Articles

An issue that has been discussed extensively post-election was the existence of fake news that was especially prevalent on social media during the election season. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has addressed the role of possible fake news on the network and what effect it may have had on the election. In his post, he said that “more than 99% of what people see is authentic” and that “only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.” That being said, a Buzzfeed News analysis of the crucial final three months of the presidential campaign found that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. Whether these fake news stories would have had a significant effect on the outcome of the 2016 election is unknown, but what we do know is that Facebook is already working on a process to allow the community to flag hoaxes and fake news to improve the quality of content on the network.

We may not know how each piece specifically played into the 2016 campaign results, but we do know that social media will continue to have a great influence on politics in the future, and not just on the national scale. Social media now spans every generation and is shaping the new world of political advertising. Politicians at every level of government should start looking towards social to help sway their campaigns in the near future.