Social Media’s Role in the 2016 Presidential Election

One big takeaway from the 2016 election is how powerful social media has become as a campaign tool — allowing candidates to both push out their message and respond directly to criticism. Because of it, campaigning may never be the same, says Joel Penney, social media expert and assistant professor in the School of Communication and Media.‌‌

Illustration of a bird made up of election-themed icons.

“In the past, candidates relied on the press to carry their attacks and counterattacks through traditional means of releasing statements, holding press conferences or going on talk shows. Now social media provides a direct conduit to the public without any journalistic intermediaries,” tying into the public relations principle of controlling the narrative, says Penney, who has been studying social media in politics since the 2008 election.‌

Overall, the election showed that platforms like Twitter empower politicians while weakening the role of the press, Penney says, adding that Senator Bernie Sanders’ popularity grew through social media, becoming one of the biggest social media stories of 2016.

“Sanders was relatively unknown when he entered the race, but he managed to build a surprising amount of support very quickly through social media promotion and electronic word-of-mouth, such as hashtags like #FeelTheBern,” says Penney. “The Sanders social media ‘movement’ really draws attention to the grassroots promotional power of social media.”