23 February 2016

How Donald Trump has used social media to outplay his opponents


Last night I saw Donald Trump speak in Atlanta, Georgia. Tonight I’ll follow him to Elko in Nevada. Such is the life of your average political junkie living day to day on the campaign trail, except, of course, I’m not on the campaign trail. Following Trump from state to state means not even having to set foot outside the house.

One of the abiding memories of this American election will be the front row seat I’ve enjoyed at practically every public appearance by the Republican’s leading candidate. Every night on Youtube, the #Live channel carries Trump’s rallies as they happen. They usually occur sometime after midnight UK time and are totally unedited, bracketed by neither introduction nor ‘post-game’ analysis. They are simply a fixed camera pointed at a podium. It is, in other words, a very raw feed and, in these days of boiled-down news, it is a welcome change and often compulsive viewing.

Part of the compulsion you can attribute to Trump who, it turns out, is a consummate stump politician. Dare one suggest he works crowds better than any of the other Republicans and Democrat nominees? Permission to scoff as people usually scoff when I make that bold statement but Trump handles crowds with a skill I’d previously associated with that ‘great communicator’, President Bill Clinton. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz might garnish their rhetoric with the sacred name ‘Reagan’ but it’s Trump who finesses crowds in that way that made the Gipper a legendary campaigner. He delivers speeches that are blue-collar friendly: plain, stumbling, often wildly digressive, sometimes playfully crude but also self-consciously fawning, grandiloquent, and inspired. It really is no accident that he’s leading.

How he’s achieving this is one of the more undocumented aspects of the campaign. Notice how he invests time in non-traditional media outlets. No other candidate uses new media as well as Trump. For every scathing adjective directed his way you could substitute one that more accurately describes what he does: ‘connected’, ‘dynamic’, ‘responsive’, ‘interactive’. Donald Trump is a ‘disruptive technology’ in the world of political campaigning. His techniques defy conventional wisdom. Remember that escalator ride when he launched his bid? Of course you do. It was ridiculous. It was memorable. It was spellbinding. It also explains why the rest of the Republican field are struggling to match his pace.

Trump has thus far been uniquely served by Youtube. Live feeds from the other campaigns are non-existent, sporadic or poorly planned and promoted. Hillary Clinton has raised $188 million in campaign contributions but evidently nobody thought to invest a fraction of that into the mobile cellular technology to live steam every campaign event straight to Youtube. Her website is stylish but as flat as her rivals’ sites where traditional political campaign literature has undergone transformation into pixels without embracing the possibilities afforded by deploying technology in a twenty first century media-rich campaign.

Whether by design or accident, Trump appears to have a technological advantage over the other candidates. His rallies are routinely broadcast by ‘Right Side Broadcasting’ who describe themselves ‘a small media company with nine employees’. Smallness often means adroitness and smart thinking. Right Side are on the leading edge of innovation. Youtube permitted live streams only quite recently, though they first announced the feature back in 2011. In terms of rolling the technology out to all users, it only really found traction in the past year as it responded to the growing appeal of Twitch, a rival video service in the niche market of streaming video games. (Watching other people play video games might sound a long way from the primaries but such is the nature of technology when it disrupts. This technology allowed Swedish Youtube star Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, aka ‘PewDiePie’, to earn $12 million in 2015 simply by playing games to his loyal and enormous audience.)

As Right Side Broadcasting are proving, that same technology can bring live political rallies to our homes. But aside from Trump, the candidates don’t seem to have realised this. Doesn’t it seem odd that we can watch live video streams of penguins in Australian zoos but we can’t watch the leading Democrat candidate for the American presidency when she’s giving a speech in Nevada? Even Martin Shkreli, ex-CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals who raised the price of HIV drug Daraprim by 5,556 percent, currently streams live on Youtube; surveilling his social media in order to taunt his fans with his wealth and fame whilst on bail after his arrest by the FBI for securities fraud.

Marshall McLuhan famously said the ‘medium is the message’ but if the message isn’t on our chosen medium then it’s as good as that message simply not existing. Whilst PewDiePie, Shkreli and Trump leverage the new technology and make their messages known, Rubio, Cruz, Sanders, and Clinton sit at the periphery. I hardly know them yet feel I know Trump too well. I understand his tics and mannerisms, his humour and hubris. I can tell you which parts of his routine he repeats nightly (picking out three members of the audience to suggest they’d protect the rest if armed with handguns in a terrorist incident) and I can tell you the new material (the much commented anecdote about General Pershing and pig’s blood).

Adopting the technology is only part of the challenge for any candidate. It also matters how they use it. Even when they adopt Twitter, the likes of Hillary Clinton have been too locked in a conventional mindset. Trump has been a celebrity for much of his life so, perhaps, there’s a reason why he currently has 6.3 million followers on Twitter. Yet this hardly explains why the former First Lady, former Senator, former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has nearly a million less. Instead, Trumps experience on The Apprentice reflects a deeper difference between the two candidates. Just consider the character of this recent tweet by Trump.

Now consider one of Hillary’s latest tweets:

Notice how Hillary uses social media to promote her candidacy? Her twitter feed is articulate, respectful, ‘on message’ but it also has the personality of chipped cement. Trump, on the other hand, uses social media the way most of us understand it: fierce, scurrilous, bossing, and, yes, sometimes even using it to troll his rivals. He understands that social media is about immediate responses and sometimes brutal authenticity. His feed is dynamic, reactive, but also clearly written in the voice of the candidate and, most likely, by the candidate.

The 2016 Presidential Election marks the point when the online and offline realities are no longer separate. Trump perhaps wins in the real world for the same reasons he wins online. Hillary has only tweeted 4313 times compared to Trump’s 30,900+ tweets. That discrepancy is no accident. Bernie Sanders, much loved among the media-savvy youth, has a growing 1.48 million followers and has made 6,886 tweets. Ted Cruz has the smallest following with just 836 thousand, but has amassed an impressive 14.2 thousand tweets.

Most mainstream politicians have behaved like most of the mainstream media. They adopt these new technologies but in that indulgent way to say they ‘get it’. Usually it means a single Periscope broadcast before moving on. The same can’t be said of political activists. America under Obama has seen the Tea Party indulge in ‘off the grid’ political discourse. Improved technology has meant a growth in well produced political commentary closely aligned to party and movement. It counters the balanced (those on the right would say ‘liberal’) narrative coming from the mainstream. Trump’s success is really being achieved back to back with that underground. For all the talk of Barack Obama using social media to energise his campaign in 2008, he never used the technology to his advantage in quite this way and that, really, shows the scale of the challenge to Trump’s Republican (and possibly future Democrat) rivals.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.