From Our Living Room to Theirs: Intimacy and Immediacy in American Politics

Clearly, the Hillary Clinton for President Campaign was a primary affecter of the social media conversation concerning her candidacy (#ImWithHer, #StrongerTogether), as was certainly the Trump Campaign (#LockHerUp, #Killary, #Benghazi, #HillaryForPrison, etc). Surprisingly, unlike in past elections (2004 and Swift Vets and POWs for Truth) 527s and SuperPACs did not seem to do much to engage in the conversation. Unless, of course, some of these SuperPACs spent their money employing internet trolls to leave comments on Clinton social media.

Speaking of unsubstantiated claims, Brietbart News was certainly a factor in the social media conversation. The poster boy site for nonsense in journalism’s clothing has nearly 3 Million followers on Facebook and half a million on Twitter. They claim 45 million readers monthly, but they claim a lot of things.

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Additionally, the 2016 election was perhaps influenced in a way only possible in the Digital Age: Hacking. WikiLeaks
released hacked email correspondence from within the Democratic National Committee, as well as personal emails of John Podesta, Chairman of the Hillary Clinton Campaign. US intelligence agencies have publicly named Russia as the source of the hacks. The emails, while embarrassing, had no particularly damaging information within them. The influence the hacking had over the conversation was the repeated use of sentences in our media (old, new, and social) that had “email” and “Hillary Clinton” in them.

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So far we’ve identified groups with an agenda that steered conversation, but the task becomes considerably more difficult when considering specific “influencers,” but not for lack of involvement. Any number of people weighed in on the 2016 Presidential Election. You can (and I have) get lost delving into the seemingly endless commentary by pundits, advocates, reporters, celebrities (A to D), religious leaders, political leaders and other so called “thought leaders.” If you are feeling particularly masochistic, I invite you to spend some time in the comment sections of any online site. If you’d hoped to take part in a “conversation” on social media, you’d be disappointed and hard pressed to find anyone listening over all the shouting.

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In fact, polling, if it can be trusted at all after some magnificent failures this year, indicates that the majority of voters made up their mind months before Voting Day, before even the first debate in fact. With that in mind, it’s difficult to find that any of the “discussions,” op-eds, endorsements, posts, or tweets had any influence on the election whatsoever. That being said, two figures emerge as perhaps the most influential in the 2016 Presidential Campaign: First Lady Michelle Obama and FBI Director James Comey.

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Michelle Obama gave what was widely regarded as the best and most popular speech of the Democratic National Convention in July. Her speech connected with the audience in ways the campaign had yet to achieve. It was personal, inspirational, and endorsed Hillary Clinton’s character. It gave the campaign a signature line for the future, “When they go low, we go high,” that became a rallying cry all over the internet. It even had some opining for a different First Lady as the future Commander in Chief.

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Excerpts from the speech were replayed on old media, and dominated new media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Michelle Obama is incredibly popular among the coalition the Clinton Campaign sought to build (minority, youth, women) and they used her campaigning liberally on social media to get out the vote of those targeted demographics.

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While Michelle Obama’s influence and use on social media was decidedly intentional, the same cannot be definitively said for James Comey. After having been widely derided by the right for concluding in July that the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server did not support bringing criminal charges, Director Comey re-entered the 2016 Race, 11 days before Election Day, with a piece of old media about new media that ignited social media.

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Announcing that the FBI had discovered emails in a separate investigation connected to the Clinton server probe in a letter he sent to Congress, Director Comey broke precedent and was vague about their contents. Knowing full well his letter was to the American public and not just to Congress, his decision was widely derided by the Clinton Campaign. That announcement was swiftly seized by the Trump campaign and supporters, validating the notion Hillary Clinton is a criminal #LockHerUp. To make matters worse, the emails came from disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner’s (estranged husband of top Clinton Aide Huma Abedin) laptop from an investigation into his sexting a 15 year old girl, validating the alt-right belief of perversion of those in the Clinton camp Clinton with stunningly bizarre conspiracy theories such as #PizzaGate, #SpiritCooking, #PervPrez, #LolitaExpress.

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Of course, the above photo came from Breitbart’s “reporting.” As mentioned before, the majority of voters had most likely already fallen one way or another, but all the work the Clinton Campaign had done since July to frame their candidate as the lesser of two evils on old media and new was destroyed by legitimate news stories on television, shared across social media, and on every newsfeed on every smartphone in the country that all shared the same key words: Clinton, Email, Investigation, FBI. Despite clearing her (again) of all possible wrongdoing 2 days before election day, the damage was done. His base was energized, hers depressed, and undecideds swayed.

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The two key issues in this election can perhaps be boiled down to Clinton’s trustworthiness and Trump’s fitness. Rarely were policy issues at the heart of any debate (between the candidates or between the public). Far more prevalent were comments made by Trump that were seen as disqualifying and actions taken by Clinton that where seen as disqualifying. Those central themes were the center of attack ads online or on television, as well as the themes of social media propaganda created by both campaigns and shared by their followers. The campaigns responded by embracing those attacks. When Clinton was attacked for her record, the campaign made a point to talk about her record and highlight her accomplishments. When Trump was attacked for his un-presidential comments (to put it far nicer than he deserves) the campaign made a point to highlight that he is not a politician and sometimes that what you get when someone tells it like it is.

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The most interesting part of this in my opinion is the point I highlighted in my last blog post that message discipline on social media was less important, if not a detraction, than being personable, engaging, and entertaining. Much has been written about living in a “post truth” democracy after the election, and that’s probably true, but not a new phenomena. Facts always fall to story. The best storyteller is not necessarily the best governor, but the best storyteller will win the election.

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The overall contribution new media has made is that in the 21st Century we are closer to our storytellers, our actors, writers than ever. We feel like we know them because their lives are often played out on our screens and through sites like Twitter we can even sometimes engage with them directly. Tours of their house, family photos and videos are often available to the public just a few clicks away. Fireside chats are to FDR as tweets are to Donald Trump, and I don’t mean that to be facetious or insulting.

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As a reality television star and outspoken Twitter user, voters felt like they knew Donald Trump. They were persuaded by his story, “We don’t win anymore. Make America Great Again.” They felt close to him, warts and all. They did not feel that immediacy and intimacy from Hillary Clinton that social media provides. It’s unlikely to think Trump could have won in the past when it didn’t exist, and it seems unlikely anyone will be able to win without it in the future. FDR knew voters didn’t want him mysterious on a pedestal, they wanted him in their living room, and radio allowed that to happen. The election of 2016 has shown us that voters no longer want candidates in their living room, they want to be in theirs, and social media allows that to happen.

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Get ready for Ashton Kutcher 2020.

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