Candidates control their own social media. What message are they sending?

Posted By: Jennifer Stromer-Galley, Jerry Robinson, PatrĂ­cia Rossini | Thursday, July 28, 2016

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We live in the age of social media. Indeed, many of us likely saw something about the Republican and Democratic conventions on Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram over the last few weeks.

A recent Pew Research Center study finds that the public is getting more of their news this election cycle from social media than ever before.

This finding makes sense since 87 percent of the American public is on the internet today. Over 70 percent of those internet users are on Facebook. Although only about 20 percent of them are on Twitter, journalists and political commentators are heavy users. So, Twitter impacts much of the news and information the public sees.

In light of these enormous changes in the way Americans get their news, it seems reasonable to ask: What is the public getting from the campaigns on social media?

Ideally, presidential campaigns provide the electorate the opportunity to reflect on the issues that face the country. The best campaigns for our democracy are ones where the candidates offer clear, detailed policy positions. The public can then evaluate and choose which candidate they think will best serve their interests as president.

As we shift out of the primaries and conventions into the general election, our project, Illuminating 2016, analyzed social media messages from Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to see how they used Twitter and Facebook during two phases of the campaign season.

The first stage ran from October 2015 through January 2016, when the candidates began to introduce themselves and their positions to the public. We call this the surfacing stage.

We also looked at the primaries stage from February through June 2016, when each state’s Republican and Democratic parties held caucuses or primaries to pick which one from the many candidates running should be the eventual nominee.