Online activation: The role of citizen engagement on social media in the 2016 presidential campaign

Posted By: PatrĂ­cia Rossini, Jennifer Stromer-Galley | Tuesday, August 02, 2016

When 74% of Americans are on Social Media, it is not surprising that political campaigns use them strategically to create a desirable public image, attack opponents and, of course, engage supporters in ways that are aligned to their goals. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook enable campaigns to reach a broader audience and communicate with supporters in their digital habitat. In this context, engaging supporters is key for a successful social media strategy. In fact, social media can be especially advantageous for candidates seeking to mobilize supporters to get involved with the campaign.

By urging supporters to act on behalf of a candidate, campaigns get not only free labor, but also and more importantly enthusiastic advocates who willingly encourage their networks of friends, family, and community members to get involved in the campaign and vote for the candidate on election day. This potentially inexpensive power of social media to facilitate word-of-mouth campaigning can be more effective than expensive television advertising.

In this article, we investigate how presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump leveraged social media to engage supporters strategically by looking at how they used "calls to action" in two stages of the 2016 race: the surfacing stage (from September 2015, to January) and the primaries stage (February to June).

Messages categorized as calls to action are those aimed at engaging supporters in digital and traditional ways - sharing campaign content, attending to rallies, donating money and voting, for example. We use computational methods to categorize each candidate's messages. In short, our algorithm's accuracy range from 75% to 85%, which is more accurate than human content analysis when they categorize a sample of candidate social media messages.

Front-Runners Do Not Equally Engage Supporters Online

When looking at all communicative strategies used by both candidates in the period, it is clear that Clinton and Trump are less concerned with engaging supporters than they are with building a positive image and derailing their opponents on social media. Engagement messages accounted for roughly one out of five social media posts made by Clinton's campaign during the entire period. Overall, she used calls to action twice as much as Trump.

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During the surfacing stage, Trump urges his supporters to act significantly less often than Clinton does. In fact, calls to action account for only 6% of all his messages on Facebook and Twitter within this period, while Clinton tries to engage supporters in 17% of all her social media posts.



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Clinton especially engaged her supporters in the surfacing stage by encouraging them to get involved digitally, with pledges to share personal stories and campaign content, watch events online, engage in roundtables and participate in Q&A sessions.

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Trump's campaign becomes more focused in engaging supporters during the primaries, but is still behind Clinton's efforts. For Clinton, advocacy and attack messages are the two most used types, while calls to action are a close third. In Trump's case, attempts to engage supporters are considerably less frequent (12%), falling behind advocacy, attack, and informative messages. If we look at the volume of calls to action, Clinton urges her supporters to act by about twice as as many messages during the primaries.

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In February when the primaries began, Clinton was more likely to use social media to get out the vote than Trump. This time period is crucial as this is when the early states set the tenor of the campaign to follow. The wider the margins of victories for candidates, the more likely money and support for the other contenders dwindles, allowing the nomination process to reach a conclusion more quickly. By March, though, her appeals had dropped to the same rate as Trump.

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Throughout the primary voting season, Clinton also urged her supporters to get involved in traditional ways: showing up at campaign events or rallies, holding house parties and debate watches, and she does it at twice the rate of Trump. These activities are essential for campaigns, as those people who are motivated enough to show up at an event are more likely to give money and support the candidate in other ways.

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Clinton also pledged her supporters to get involved digitally: sharing messages with friends, watching online videos, and getting involved. Overall, Clinton's call to action account for 19% of her social media presence during the primaries stage. Trump's campaign doubled the use of these forms of engagement in the same period - increasing the rate of calls to action from 6% to 12% during the primaries.

Our analysis suggests that Trump's campaign was initially not invested in mobilizing supporters to engage with his campaign and therefore neglected the use of calls to action during the surfacing campaign. The scenario changes with the primaries when the Republican nominee used social media slightly more often for calls to action. Conversely, Clinton's campaign emphasized citizen engagement throughout the entire period. During the primaries, calls to action accounted for 19% of her social media presence and became the third most used message type - behind advocacy (37%) and attacks (22%).



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If campaigns ask, will citizens come?

Our analysis has demonstrated that although campaigns can use social media to engage supporters in several ways to expand their reach, candidates sometimes neglect these affordances. That is the case for Trump's campaign. The Republican nominee was not focused on creating opportunities for supporters to engage with his campaign and seldom used social media for calls to action. Rather, Trump prioritized messages advocating for himself, attacks and informative messages - the most frequent message types used by his campaign. To the extent that social media enables candidates to preach beyond the converted by facilitating word-of-mouth campaigning, our analysis of Trump's messages so far suggest that the real estate mogul is neglecting citizen engagement to prioritize image construction and negative messages.

Conversely, Clinton's campaign attempted to leverage her social media presence to engage supporters in digital and traditional ways. While calls to action were not as central to her campaign as they were for Sanders', the former Secretary of State concentrated her efforts in creating a participatory environment by asking supporters to engage discursively in roundtables and ask questions, as well as other forms of digital and traditional engagement. Even though calls to action are behind more strategic forms of communication, such as advocacy and attack messages, they are significantly more central to Clinton's strategies than Trump's.