Did social media contribute to making the 2016 US presidential campaign one of the most unpleasant campaigns ever? Partly, yes. But did it also mask credible stories that could have changed the election result?
As a PR professional, I’m fascinated by social media’s ability to propel news stories to previously unprecedented levels but I also wonder if it’s compromising quality.
Fake or Real News?
In the run up to the election, social media was full of news about the campaign but not all of it was based on facts. I even explained in a previous blog how Trump broke all predictable social media “rules” and was winning the social media war. Little did we know back then.
Both Clinton and Trump were under constant attack on social media and not everyone was mindful to stick to the truth.
Sadly, many voters will now be wondering if fake news contributed to the result. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said: “After the election, many people are asking whether fake news contributed to the result, and what our responsibility is to prevent fake news from spreading.” He said 99% of the stories on his site are true. So, only 1% aren’t true, which doesn’t seem like much but now consider how many people get their news from Facebook. It’s well documented that the site is the main source of political news for millennials.
Can you imagine if The Times, Telegraph or the BBC said: “Hey, only 1% or so of our stories are wrong.” Even just one incorrect news story would be terrible — especially on a subject as important as the US presidential elections. Sadly, being 99% accurate, in my eyes, is not good enough. Facebook may not be a newspaper but it’s certainly focusing a lot of attention on publishing news, so surely it should take some responsibility?
Is social media the reason Trump was elected?
The question is whether the small proportion of news that’s fake is enough to make or break a campaign.
This election was extraordinarily close, right until the end. Could we go as far as saying that fake news, no matter how little of it there is, caused the 1 to 2% difference in the election?
Social media sites allow the amplification of content well beyond what a media budget can afford you. Fake news in particular, tends to travel faster than real news because it often stands out as offering something different. It usually tells exactly the kind of bizarre stories people love to read.
I don’t believe social media is responsible for the result of the election but the platform it provided for such stories can’t be ignored.
Do we each live in our own social media news bubble?
Another phenomenon that’s being widely discussed is that rather than social media exposing us to a wider breath of news, it’s keeping us insulated from alternative points of view. The algorithms behind many social media sites tend to show us stories we, or people in our social circle have shown an interest in. This means you’re likely to get your news from the same publications and simply have your own point of view reflected back at you. You’re less likely to be exposed to different points of view. This is hardly going to help people make unbiased decisions about important choices like who they want as their president!
Even the way social media decides what you like may be flawed. Just because I previously ‘liked’ a George Clooney story, it doesn’t mean I forever want to be bombarded by stories about him. And just because I like celebrity gossip, it doesn’t mean I want it to be prioritised over other more serious stories in my news feed. After all, how much thought do people give to ‘liking’ a story? Do they check if what they’ve liked is even true, or are they simply click-happy?
Social media presented a danger in this presidential campaign because articles were delivered so fast, it was hard to fact check. Voters moved from story to story without pausing long enough to consider whether what they’d read was credible.
Both Clinton and Trump were eager to post something outrageous, almost on a daily basis. We were all wondering ‘What are they going to say next?’ But the content which was posted was too simplistic and failed to offer any real depth or meaningful information.
Every time a new media tool achieves this kind of mass scale, the political narrative shifts to keep up and indeed take advantage. That’s PR after all. Roosevelt used radio, JFK and Reagan used TV to their advantage, Obama used the internet and now Trump has used social media. What will the next big shift be? Virtual Reality perhaps?