How Politics became Social

What do Barack Obama, Jeremy Corbyn, and Donald Trump have in common? Whilst, this sounds like the opening to a very bad joke, these three men are prominent examples of how social media has transformed politics. An ever-growing number of the world’s population are now on social media, with Facebook claiming over 1.5 billion active users each month. However, it’s only recently that politicians and their strategists have realised the power of this group, and how they can tap into the billions of conversations happening online all over the world. Politics and politicians are no longer just the preserve of the traditional media, but of every person with access to the Internet.

“When you think about it, it was like he was going up against Google and Yahoo. And he won.”

Barack Obama will be remembered in history for many reasons, but perhaps not for kick-starting politics and social media’s blossoming (but sometimes unstable) relationship. Obama and his team masterminded the “Facebook Election”, generating a huge groundswell of support among young voters — 70% of all Americans under 25 voted for him, an astonishing number. A comparison between Obama’s social media numbers and his Presidential rival John McCain’s is even more astounding. Obama’s YouTube channel attracted 97 million video views, and 18 million channel visits, whilst McCain managed to clock up only 25 million views and 2 million visits. An even more staggering fact, particularly from our 2016 lens, is that McCain’s Twitter profile had only 4,600 followers. Compare that to his Republican contemporary Donald Trump, who at the time of writing has 7.68 million followers. Obama showed that an effective use of social media can engage with fans and initiate a movement that grows louder and stronger, particularly in the melting pot of emotions that is an election campaign. Obama managed to build his brand from a relatively low starting point, before riding the wave of emotion his movement created into office. He was mostly unheard of on a national level before the campaign to win the Democratic nomination against the established Hilary Clinton. She possessed all the traditional power tools needed to succeed in politics: a record of competence, years spent campaigning for the party and in party circles, and a heavyweight political name. Ranjit Mathoda notes that Obama’s election, in which he defeated these two established party figures, was an upset; “when you think about it, it was like he was going up against Google and Yahoo. And he won.” This underlined the power of social media in politics, and how it can be used to break all the old rules.

The accidental leader

Many have, unfairly, labelled Jeremy Corbyn the accidental leader of the Labour Party, because of the way he was transformed from unknown backbench rebel to the most famous Labour politician in the country by a swell of grassroots support. There are a multitude of explanations for this rise, but the least reported reason is again the incredible momentum provided to his campaign by social media. The Corbyn campaign grew from an online petition, started by a small number left-wing activists who were frustrated at their voice not being heard and wanted a candidate to represent them in the leadership election.

Once Jeremy Corbyn entered the race, this determined group of activists organised a small social media team to deliver an organic campaign that spoke honestly to its fans, and without the political jargon that had become so prevalent in UK politics under the Blair/Brown and Cameron administrations. This organic campaign energised a movement that had been lacking a voice, and gave them a platform from which to be heard. At one point, his campaign hashtag #JezWeCan was being shared every 25 seconds, an incredible feat for a UK party leadership election. Additionally, Corbyn’s Twitter handle was mentioned 10 times more than his nearest rival (Andy Burnham) throughout the campaign, further highlighting the momentum provided by social. Much like Obama, Corbyn used this momentum to sail to an overwhelming election victory, becoming the most unlikely leader of a British political party since Margaret Thatcher.

“The Ernest Hemmingway of 140 characters”

Whatever you think of Donald Trump, one thing you cannot deny is the incredible reach and power of is social media output. He has over 16 million followers across his three main channels; Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. On the one hand, he is the complete opposite to both Barack Obama and Jeremy Corbyn, but his campaign shares one trait with both of their successful ones: an authenticity and honesty to his fans. He posts numerous videos to his followers, live Q&As on Periscope, and live-tweets events, all of which allow fans direct access to him on a regular basis. Perhaps his most important asset is his Twitter account, in which he notoriously writes most of the Tweets himself. Indeed, Trump delights in his personal popularity on the platform, dubbing himself “the Ernest Hemmingway of 140 characters”. This has got him into numerous difficulties and troubles, much to the delight of meme-makers worldwide, but ultimately his Twitter feels real to fans and gives them another direct line to him. This all feeds into the movement, and adds to the cult surrounding him, helping to explain his meteoric rise in popularity amongst Republican voters. This notoriety on social has also enabled him to capture the continued attention of the media, supplying him with an extraordinary amount of free publicity. Before Jeb Bush exited the race to become the Republican nominee, he’d spent nearly $30 million dollars on television advertising. How much had the wealthy billionaire Trump, who seemingly has an unlimited supply of funds, spent? The answer, just $300,000. Or 1% of Bush’s total. Social media transforms the ability of fringe candidates (no matter their personal resources) to compete with established politicians by destroying the traditional tools used to gain political power.

The three wise men

Barack Obama, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have all shown how the power of social media can be harnessed and used for political gain. They each were political outsiders on the fringes of their parties, who used social media as the basis of their campaigns on the way to victory (victory for Trump being classed as the brink of the Republican nomination at the time of writing). They underlined that social media and the Internet is the new force in reaching voters and winning elections, just as radio and TV were before it. The interesting lesson, which both politicians and brands can learn from, is that the key to each of those victories was a willingness to be open and direct with their audiences. They beat the establishment because they spoke both for and to their people, creating an organic movement, which provided a wave they were able to ride on. Social media has revolutionised the way we live our lives, and it appears to have also completely altered the political landscape forever.


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