On election night, voters won’t just curl up on the couch and turn on the TV. In the last hurrah of a contentious election season, they’ll fire up laptops, tablets and smartphones — and sometimes all three — to spend the evening in the company of election-obsessed friends and followers around the country.
Together, they’ll fact-check statements, trade barbs, guffaw over the latest Internet memes and nervously chew on what remains of their fingernails.
“In the pre-internet age, these used to be consumer experiences. People consumed stuff coming out of their TV or radio,” said Lee Raine, director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center. “Now it’s very much a participatory experience. People want to talk to others who are doing the same thing or observing the same thing or they want to yell at other people doing the same thing or observing the same thing.”
Take Trump supporter Gayla Baer-Taylor, 49, from Knightstown, Ind., who describes herself on Twitter as “coffee drinking, highly opinionated, political junkie.”
For the last 16 months, she has been glued to social media to stump for her candidate, attending Trump rallies streamed on Facebook Live and chatting up fellow Trump supporters on Twitter. As returns roll in, she’ll be throwing a “watch party” on Facebook, a single post where she and her friends can comment and engage with each other. She’ll also follow developments on Twitter to share highlights with her Facebook friends.
The 2008 contest for the White House was dubbed the first social media election because of the influential role played by Facebook and Twitter, online services that either had not existed or barely existed four years earlier. By 2012, social media, with its catchy memes about Big Bird and “binders full of women,” had completely disrupted the age-old rhythms of political campaigns.
This presidential election is social media on steroids, with higher engagement than anyone has ever seen. Sure, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton hit the campaign trail to make speeches, shake hands, have breakfast in small-town diners and kiss babies. But their permanent campaign stops were on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, where the candidates can reach voters through their smartphones and the voters can reach right back.
Baer-Taylor says social media — particularly the visceral immediacy of live-streaming video — has transformed election-year politics, forging stronger connections between campaigns and supporters by whisking people into the middle of the action, from broadcasting distant rallies to informal Q&As with campaign officials. Both Twitter and Facebook live-streamed the presidential debates. Last week, Trump’s campaign launched a nightly program on Facebook Live that includes a link to solicit donations and scrolls the names of donors.
“I think people look at the candidates more like their neighbors because of the social media and the social interaction,” Baer-Taylor said. “It’s like you are bringing the candidates right into your living room or they are sitting at your kitchen table with you. I really think that a lot of people who follow Trump especially think he knows them by name.”
Facebook and Twitter may be social-media mainstays, jostling for the attention of voters, but social media now has a third-party candidate: Snapchat, which on any given day reaches 41% of all 18- to 34- year-olds in the U.S. The relative newcomer says its younger users have been immersed in the election, too, with nearly two-thirds following it closely. Snapchat has fed that interest with a steady stream of election filters and political features produced by campaign veterans.
At Facebook, the election was the No. 1 topic of conversation on the giant social network in 2015 and undoubtedly will be again this year, said Robert D’Onofrio, Facebook’s director of data communications. Some 116 million Americans of voting age have piped up on Facebook so far in 2016. That’s more than 75% of registered voters talking about the election, D’Onofrio says.
“On election day, nearly everyone who goes to the polls will have engaged on Facebook during the election cycle,” he said.
Among those Facebook users is Lee Ann Moyer, who will be watching election returns with her family in Portland, Ore. To create a communal experience while the grown-ups obsessively track what’s happening on Facebook and Twitter, Moyer and her husband will stream election results from a laptop onto their dining room wall, using an old projector and Amazon Echo for sound.
“Everyone gets their information from their own device, so this is a way to keep everyone together even as they do their own thing,” says Moyer, a 37-year-old speech-language pathologist and marketer whose husband works for a software company. “There’s a lot of shouting out of people’s tweets or so-and-so just posted such and such.”
Moyer says she, like so many, has been glued to social media during the election.
“I think hearing people’s stories of why they are supporting whoever they are supporting has been super positive,” says Moyer, who is a Clinton supporter and will be wearing a pants suit on election night , as will her sister and both of their infant daughters. “It’s a historic election, and I think there is a lot of enthusiasm for that.”
Some people see more bad and ugly than good in the crush of election-related content on social media. A contentious presidential race and political polarization have been a combustible mix. While a solid chunk enjoys engaging with friends and strangers across party and ideological lines, others, not so much. More than one-third of social media users say they are worn out by the tidal wave of politically charged content, and more than half say their online interactions with whom they disagree are stressful and frustrating, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
Beth Feldman, who runs her own public relations agency in New York and supports Clinton, plans to spend election night toggling between CNN and MSNBC, with her computer in her lap and smartphone at the ready, hanging out in private Facebook groups with fellow Clinton supporters — just as she has done from the primaries to the debates.
She says it’s her “secret sisterhood of suffragettes” where she can share her thoughts and reactions with like-minded men and women whom she says have kept her “sane and semi-calm in what has proven to be a frightening roller coaster election ride.”
“People say hysterical and insightful things and it makes me happier,” says Feldman. “I’d much rather be in a group where we are all on the same side than be heckled.”
Grateful as she is for the camaraderie of her Facebook groups, she thinks the outsized role played by social media during the election has been “damaging.”
“So much false and misleading information has been pushed out to millions of people that even mainstream media outlets have taken the bait and reported it as if it were true only to have to backpedal and retract it,” she said.
Rebekah Maddux El-Hakam, a 39-year-old worship pastor, singer-songwriter and recording artist from Houston, says she has spent more time on Facebook and Twitter during the election cycle but she, too,”burned out quickly.”
“There is so much negativity and false information being sent around. It makes my head hurt,” said the mother of four. “I’ve done a lot of research to come to my own conclusions of the truth and I’m just tired of the tone of this entire presidential election. I can’t watch anything with my children around, so Twitter will be a good place for me to keep up with the polls on election night.”
via USA Today