This is a key year for Western politics. By the end of 2016, we will know whether the UK will decide to leave the EU and who will serve as US President Barack Obama’s successor. These campaigns illustrate that politicians need to cultivate a positive reputation online to appeal to digitally-savvy electorates.
TV and politics
The rise of TV in the mid-20th Century changed the global political landscape. This provided political parties with platforms to broadcast their agendas to vast voter bases more effectively than ever before. The effect of TV on politics can be illustrated by the 1960 US Presidential election, which featured the first American Presidential debate to be screened on TV.
This contest saw Democrat John J Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon, who had served as Vice President in the previous administration, compete for the Oval Office. History.com writes that as a seasoned statesman, Nixon had the advantage over Kennedy, who at that point was just a one-term Senator, allowing Nixon to lead in public opinion polls heading into the Presidential debates.
The first debate was broadcast by CBS to an estimated 70 million viewers. Experts suggest that the candidates were evenly matched on the policies, but while Kennedy appeared handsome and fresh-faced, Nixon looked drained after recently suffering from flu. While radio listeners declared Nixon the winner, TV viewers handed the victory to Kennedy, who went on to clinch the Presidency.
Rise of online media
Back in 1960s, there were very few media outlets. Consequently, CBS’ coverage dominated the 1960 US Presidential election narrative. But the emergence of new digital platforms has allowed media to cultivate an even greater influence on politics, with smartphones particularly allowing users to access political news on the go. Increasingly, the world is becoming a smartphone society. According to Ofcom two thirds of UK adults now own these devices, providing a significant share of the population with near-instantaneous, 24/7 online politics coverage.
In other words, online media political reports now reach a large swathe of the electorate continuously, allowing them to shape how viewers perceive campaigns. If a crafty politician captures the attention of local or national press, they will generate significant media coverage. Considering the fact that these outlets are seen as trusted sources of information by Google, the world’s largest search engine, this content comes to the attention of an even wider swathe of the electorate, further influencing opinion.
Social media and politics
We have also seen the rise of social media, particularly Facebook. According to Journalist’s Resource, evidence suggests that social media activity has a huge influence on political opinion. The outlet notes that a 61 million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilisation found that certain Facebook messages among friends “increased turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes.”
Arguing its case, Journalist Resource cites the 2008 US Presidential election. US News notes that this election, which saw Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain compete for the Oval Office, was the first time a candidate (Obama) harnessed the power of social media to fuel their campaign. Obama won the under age 25 demographic, who are most likely to be receptive to social media campaigning, by 70%. Considering the fact that this was a candidate’s best performance in the under 25 demographic in history, Obama’s social media campaign was a major factor in his victory.
Name recognition and influence
There is a strong connection between ‘name recognition’ and political influence. Boris Johnson has an incredibly high public political profile as Major of London which has allowed him to shape the way the media frames the UK-EU referendum debate. The Times for example, went with the headline “Boost for Out Campaign as Boris Backs Brexit.” And as the BBC noted, even Europe’s media saw Johnson’s endorsement as a boost for the Brexit campaign, despite their wish to see the UK remain in the EU.
Nowhere is the power of media in politics more evident than in the US 2016 Presidential Primary elections, which have seen the meteoric political rise of New York billionaire Donald Trump. Due to his career as a reality television star, Trump already had seriously high name recognition. Coupled with a raft of controversial statements, his campaign has received major press coverage.
Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman reveals that in 2015, “Donald Trump got 23 times the coverage of, say, Bernie Sanders [who is running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination]” Consequently Trump has dominated the race; at present he has 996 delegates (state representatives who are bound to vote for a candidate at a party’s national convention, where they select their general election standard-bearer), more than any other GOP candidate. Republicans need 1,237 delegates to clinch the nomination outright, meaning that as Trump recently said, his nearest rival US Senator for Texas Ted Cruz, is “mathematically eliminated” from clinching the nomination.
Trump’s extensive media coverage has had the opposite effect nationally. His incendiary rhetoric, which has been broadcast to the nation by major media outlets, has alienated voters from certain demographics e.g. Hispanics. CNN reported in March that in hypothetical general election match-ups, both Democrats easily beat Donald Trump. In other words, Trump’s controversial policies and high name recognition could work against him, as they have facilitated national media reports which have allowed the New York billionaire to develop a negative image among general election voters.
Hillary vs. Bernie
Media outlets have played a large role in the Democratic Primaries too. Due to her former positions as First Lady and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had near-universal name recognition going into the Primaries. In contrast, as the US Senator for the State of Vermont, Bernie Sanders had very low name recognition, allowing Clinton to dominate press coverage. At present Clinton leads Sanders by 2,165 delegates (including party grandees who vote at the convention called ‘superdelegates’) to 1,357, with candidates needing 2,383 to secure the nomination.
But Sanders’ liberal economic platform e.g. his free University tuition policy, has resonated with millennial (those aged 18 to 29) voters. Al Jazeera reports: “Sanders boasts a considerable edge over Clinton with the young voting demographic… winning as much as 83% of that vote in some states.” This has allowed the Vermont Senator to become a force to be reckoned with on social media, as millennial voters flock to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to endorse their chosen candidate.
Sanders’ campaign slogan, “Feel the Bern,” has become an incredibly popular hashtag on Twitter, allowing him to build up grassroots support that has given the Senator the means to compete with Clinton nationally. According to the Huffington Post, this has allowed Bernie to close the gap in national opinion polls, from 60.8% vs. 4% in January 2015 to 50.2% vs. 42.4% at present. The Vermont Senator may have received little press coverage, but strong social media activity from his supporters has made him a formidable opponent to Clinton.
Politicians tread carefully
The rise of online media outlets has transformed politics. By accessing their vast audiences online, as well as reaching out to digitally-savvy voters via social media, aspiring politicians can broadcast their messages to a broad swathe of the electorate.
But with the 24/7 coverage of modern online media, the political news cycle can be incredibly fast. Sometimes, a politician’s careful online message can be lost amidst a flurry of sensational headlines, as Labour MP Naz Shah recently found out. As a politician’s public profile rises, the more media scrutiny they are likely to attract, which could damage their online reputation and ultimately, their chances of being elected.