Like, Re-Tweet, Repeat: Candidates' Top Messages on Social Media

Posted By: Patrícia Rossini | Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Gage Skidmore/Flickr


Social media measures--likes, shares, retweets--are carefully tracked as ways to understand impact. For example, the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has over 11 million followers on Facebook and 12 million on Twitter. Hillary Clinton trails her celebrity rival, with 7 million on Facebook and just shy of 10 million followers on Twitter. These large follower numbers allow the candidates to reach beyond their own follower networks, through re-tweeting on Twitter and sharing on Facebook, to those of their followers, giving the candidates even greater visibility and impact.

Metrics such as Facebook's likes and Twitter's re-tweets are important for campaign managers to understand the type of content that resonates with their audience. Because re-tweets and likes are relevant features for the social media ecosystem, Illuminating 2016 features the current five top re-tweeted messages and the five most liked Facebook messages during the campaign so far. In this blog post, we take a closer look at this feature to understand what types of messages are most like to be retweeted on Twitter and shared on Facebook.

What we find is that even though attack messages are not the main type of messaging  used by Trump on social media, most of his top retweeted and shared messages on Twitter and Facebook are attacks on opponents, the news media, and others. Conversely, although Clinton produces sometimes as much as 1.5 times as many messages on social media compared to Trump, she is much less likely to appear in the top five most retweeted or shared posts. This is because she generally had been getting fewer of these engagement behaviors with her social media in the three months we did this analysis. The Republican candidate enjoyed more popularity on both social media platforms, generating 42 out of 65 (64%) top re-tweeted messages and 53 out of 65 top liked posts, (81%).

We analyzed 130 messages featured at the Illuminating 2016 website during 13 weeks, from August 1st to October 31th - covering the post-primary phase that marks the official presidential campaign period.

Going negative

When looking at message types, the overall view shared by journalists and citizens that Trump's campaign is negative on Social Media becomes clear.  In fact, 57% of his top re-tweeted messages are attacks, which suggests that adopting a negative tone resonates well with his audience.

Moreover, when Trump goes negative, he is mostly targeting his opponent’s image. That was the case for 79% of his attacks. When posting positive messages to advocate for his own candidacy, Trump also tends to focus on his image: 66% of his advocacy top-tweets are focused on building his character.

Clinton’s top re-tweeted messages are also more negative. Roughly 60% of her featured tweets are attacking Trump. Another interesting fact is that the Democratic candidates shifts her focus when attacking and advocating. For negative messages, her main focus is Trump's image, the focus of 10 out of 14 attacks. For advocacy posts, the emphasis is evenly distributed between character-building and her positions on the issues - corroborating our prior analysis on  the primaries that the Democratic candidate is more likely to focus on issues than her Republican opponent.

Different platforms, different messages

On Facebook, likes can be seen as a barometer of public reactions towards candidates' messages. Unlike re-tweets, likes do not necessarily increase a message's visibility. However, likes express an affinity or a reaction to a Facebook post and may contribute to enhancing its organic reach - that is, the probability of a post appearing on the Facebook wall of users who like the page without being sponsored.

For Donald Trump, the most liked messages are evenly distributed between posts advocating  for himself and those attacking his opponent, her party or her surrogates, with 26% each. Like on Twitter, most of his advocacy and attack messages are image-focused (78%). In other words, his posts that either advocate for him on his image or attack his opponent’s image are liked more than policy posts.

Hillary Clinton had twelve featured messages within the 13-week period. Her message types were somewhat evenly distributed, with Advocacy, Calls to Action and Ceremonial accounting for 25% each.



Social media provides valuable for campaigns to analyze, shape and adjust communicative strategies online. In this blog post, we analyzed the type of content that draws attention and promotes engagement of Clinton's and Trump's supporters by looking at the top-retweeted and top-liked messages on Twitter and Facebook.

Negative messages are by far the most featured message type for both candidates, which suggests that the overall negative tone of the 2016 elections is also resonating well among Clinton's and Trump's supporters. As for the focus of these messages, our analysis corroborates previous findings, demonstrating that image is the main target of Donald Trump's top messages - either to attack or to advocate for himself. Despite the fact that Clinton is generally more focused on issues, when it comes to top messages, her featured attacks are also focused on image.

Even though top re-tweets and top-likes do not present a clear picture of what campaigns are doing on social media, they are relevant insofar as they demonstrate what type of messaging promote citizen engagement and may help shape campaign communication. In this sense, as this electoral cycle is being frequently labeled as "the most negative campaign" of America's recent history, it is not surprising that attacks are also the most used type of messaging in candidates' top-retweeted and top liked messages on social media.