How politicians utilize social media

October 28, 2019 — by Michael Wong

Politicians increasingly rely on social media to discuss their stances and advocate for their beliefs and campaigns.

Since Barack Obama’s presidency, the usage of online mediums such as Twitter by politicians to communicate with constituents has exploded. Presidential candidates for the 2020 election, in particular, have focused on their social media impact to expand their base and sway voters.


In a dramatic moment during the first Democratic Presidential debate, Senator Kamala Harris attacked front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden on the issue of race.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said to Biden, “but it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation … And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.”

Busing, she said, took her to school every day as a part of the second African American class being integrated into public schools in Oakland in the late 1960s.

In a matter of hours, Harris’s 4-minute interaction with Biden dominated social media and news headlines, many declaring her as the outright winner of the debate.

“Kamala Harris won the first Democratic debate, and it wasn't even close” declared an op-ed by Phillip Klein of Washington Examiner the same night.

“Kamala Harris Seizes the Moment. Again,” another article from that night read, penned by Russell Berman of The Atlantic.

As a result, Harris’s support shot up from 7.9 percent of likely voters to 16.6 percent. Meanwhile, Biden’s dropped from 41.5 percent to 35.4 percent.

But a closer inspection into their stances on busing reveals that both candidates have similar opinions. Harris’s contention was that Biden did not support busing back in the ‘70s, while Biden claims that he supported voluntary or court-mandated busing. However, neither one of them supports federally mandated busing anymore.

In other words, Harris garnered support by focusing on a 1970s issue in 2019, an issue both of them seem to agree on today. Evidently, the media’s portrayal of candidates has a far-reaching effect for long-shot candidates.

Businessman Andrew Yang exploded onto the scene after his interview on comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which has amassed more than 4 million views. Over the nearly two-hour episode, he introduced his campaign to the American public, discussed his flagship “Freedom Dividend” plan and appealed to Democratic voters who had never heard of him.

“Everything is up and to the right since the Joe Rogan podcast,” Yang’s campaign manager Zach Graumann said in an interview with Daily Beast. “That was the key. That was the moment.”

Politicians in general have recognized the power of social media in generating viral moments.

In 2007, former-president and then-senator Barack Obama became the first leader globally to use Twitter. He now has a total of 109.8 million followers, the most on the entire platform, and his widespread usage has transformed the way politicians can directly communicate with their constituents on a variety of issues.

In fact, by the end of his first term, 78 percent of global leaders were on Twitter. By 2018, 97 percent had accounts.

With 66.1 million followers, President Trump has Twitter as his chief political weapon. His frequent usage has gained him public ire and ridicule.

For instance, an earlier clash between establishment Democrats and five of the younger progressive Congresswomen dubbed “The Squad” was quelled by a tweet from Trump calling for the five progressives to be sent back to where they came from, a tweet Democrats united behind, deriding its racial overtones.

For most politicians, these tweets are severely damaging and consequential to their aspirations. Especially with the limited words and characters available, ideas can be easily misconstrued. Candidate Pete Buttigieg’s recent endorsement of former-Justice Anthony Kennedy for his bipartisanship received fierce backlash as others lamented conservative decisions in other important cases.

Despite the potential risks, having a social media presence and being able to grab headlines and gain air time is invaluable to expanding voter base. In the case of Trump’s potential impeachment, six of the current candidates who are current senators will be removed from the campaign trail as they participate in the proceedings, so they must engage online to remain relevant.

Still, the effects of social media are nonetheless fleeting, and candidates cannot depend on a singular moment. After failing to create any more spectacular moments in the last three debates, Harris has fallen out of the spotlight and regressed back to around 5 percent support, according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll on Oct. 24.

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