Why the Presidential Candidates Like Social Media Better Than Traditional Media

Why the Presidential Candidates Like Social Media Better Than Traditional Media

A photo of Hillary Clinton taking a selfie with a voter.
The presidential candidates are using smartphonres as a way of ignoring traditional media. Photo © Ethan Miller / Getty Images

"Follow me on Twitter". "Be my Facebook fan." Media pros are constantly making these pitches for followers. So it's no shock that the 2016 presidential candidates are doing the same.

But the candidates are doing more than just using social media to post selfies from a rally or to update voters on the location of the next campaign event. They're using tools like Twitter and Facebook to avoid the glare of traditional media.

While the most successful politicians have long learned how to use media to win elections, social media takes their efforts into overdrive. But there's important information that's lost along the way.

Social Media Allows the Candidates to Be Instantaneous

Sure, holding a news conference to make a campaign announcement looks presidential. You get to stand at a lectern, ideally with an American flag over your shoulder. It's one way to allow the voters to get used to the idea of seeing you in power.

But that's becoming a relic. It's a lot faster to post what you want to say online, especially if you're targeting an opponent. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio tweeted on March 2:

"#TwoWordTrump: Con Artist".

While Rubio has elaborated on that thought elsewhere, he didn't need to schedule a news conference, set up a sound system and alert the media to make that claim publicly. He sent it out to his 1.3 million Twitter followers in an instant, hoping it would be retweeted around the country before his GOP rival Donald Trump would have a chance to respond.

Candidates Can Hide Behind Their Accusations

Donald Trump was already a master at personally using the media to his advantage. But he is also an expert at using social media to further his campaign.

"I will be using Facebook and Twitter to expose dishonest lightweight Senator Marco Rubio. A record no-show in Senate, he is scamming Florida," read a Trump Tweet on March 7.

Despite Twitter's 140-character limit, Trump was able to describe Rubio as "dishonest" and "lightweight" and accuse him of holding the record for Senate absences while scamming people in Rubio's home state of Florida. Trump got a lot of content in that one tweet.

The biggest benefit is that Trump doesn't have to immediately answer for what he said. At a press conference, pesky news reporters would ask him to back up his accusations with facts. "Why is Rubio dishonest?" "Are his absences from the Senate, which are common for a member of Congress running for president, really record-setting?" "How is Florida being scammed?"

Using social media allows a candidate like Trump to avoid answering those questions. It's like lighting a stick of dynamite and then running for cover before the explosion. The candidate is safe while the rest of the political scene blows up.

Candidates Can Make Vague Promises

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton may be more used to the pitfalls of the traditional media spotlight than any other candidate. She was with husband Bill Clinton during all of his controversies starting with his 1992 presidential race, when most Americans didn't even have Internet access, through the White House years before launching her own political campaigns.

So when she tweeted on March 4:

"Let's put the dream of starting and running a thriving small business within reach of every American," it sounded great. Even the Republican candidates would agree with her idea.

But the problem is its emptiness. While Twitter or even Facebook isn't a place for detailed policy discussions, voters aren't likely to see much value in a tweet supporting small business without some meat behind it. This dream might mean making bank loans more available or giving small businesses tax credits. We don't know because she didn't say.

After a few days, the Clinton tweet had nearly 1,000 re-tweets and 2,500 likes, so someone appreciated what she typed. Still, those are paltry numbers compared to her more than 5 million Twitter followers. But if the message resonates that Clinton is "for" small business, then it's a victory for her even if voters don't know the details.

Why This Trend Is Bad for the Election Process

Social media has definitely altered the 2016 presidential election and it may have changed politics forever. Without sounding like a curmudgeon, it's hard to see the merits of social media in advancing the political process, other than to simply deliver updates and photos from the campaign trail.

There were undoubtedly critics when TV replaced newspapers as the medium of choice when covering the candidates. Worthy, smart politicians had to worry about their physical appearance, their voice and the ability to make their proposals brief and easily understandable to the masses.

But the benefit of TV was that viewers could look into the eyes of the candidates. Famously, in the 1960 presidential race, viewers who watched the first televised presidential debate liked what they saw in John F. Kennedy compared to Richard M. Nixon. They believed Kennedy won the debate, in contrast to those who listened to it on the radio who believed Nixon had prevailed.

So TV may have altered the 1960 race. But whether it was Nixon later saying "I am not a crook." during the Watergate scandal or President Bill Clinton saying, "I did not have sex with that woman," referring to Monica Lewinsky, there is value in witnessing these historic moments with your own eyes.

In contrast, social media can easily become a propaganda tool rather than a way to inform the public. It's not the fault of Twitter, Facebook or other platforms, it's just how politicians manage to manipulate reality to further their own ambitions.

Social Media Doesn't Reach Everybody

You might be surprised that for all the talk of social media reaching everybody right in the palm of their hand, the fact is it doesn't. There are millions of people who are missing a candidate's message.

Trump has between 6 and 7 million followers on Twitter. That large number is a reason to brag, at least in terms of social media. But consider these numbers: During a typical week of 2016, the three broadcast TV networks' evening newscasts reached a combined audience of nearly 25.5 million viewers.

Trump's Twitter following doesn't look nearly so large. If he did an interview solely on the third-place CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, these weekly ratings show that Trump would reach 7.6 million viewers, more than his Twitter following.

Other politicians have a smaller reach. President Obama's Twitter following is roughly 6 million, Clinton's is 5 million and others, such as Democrat Bernie Sanders have between 1 and 2 million. In contrast, pop music star Taylor Swift has 72 million Twitter followers, so you can see that the presidential campaign is operating in just a small corner of the social media universe.

Social Media Doesn't Allow for Many Questions of the Candidates

Political candidates don't have to answer questions when they use social media. That's just the way they like it, but that leaves voters without critical information they need before they fill out their ballot.

When Republican candidate Ted Cruz posted on Facebook on March 4:

"For 40 years, Donald Trump has been part of the corruption in Washington that you're angry about..." before linking to an article in the Conservative political publication The Weekly Standard that touted Cruz's debate performance.

But there was little evidence provided that tied Trump to corruption, particularly in Washington, where Trump has never served. A similar post from the same day showed a Cruz interview on CNN, but that still didn't provide complete facts to back up his claim. That post contained a comment from a reader saying:

"Cruz you are in the middle of that Washington corruption..." which the Cruz campaign definitely didn't want to see, but it too, did nothing to provide an argument about anyone's alleged corruption.

That's why traditional reporters are so needed. They may be accused of bias when it's convenient for politicians to do so, but they are fact-checkers. They can also dig for previous interviews when a candidate said the opposite of what he or she is saying now.

It's then up to voters how to use that information when making their decision. But the voters can't make an informed choice without knowing all of this.

What the Future Holds for Presidential Races

Back in the days of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, media critics used to moan over the seven-second sound bites on TV. Today, those seven seconds sound like an eternity to make a point. Reagan and Clinton were both considered to be masters at communicating in a face-to-face way. It's hard to know how they would have handled a smartphone.

Whether it's school bullies or political bullies, social media allows people to send outrageous, hurtful and false posts. Politicians didn't need a new tool for lying, but they sure have found it. It's hard to imagine a return to respectful disagreements over the issues when personal attacks are what will get attention.

If seven-second bites are too long, someday a 140-character tweet may seem long-winded. That could mean emoticons become the way to reach the voters who politicians want to sway.