From June 2016 through January 2017, I immersed myself in social media during one of the most contested, controversial, and unconventional elections in recent history. The polarization that normally occurs in elections was amplified due to the nature of the 2016 Presidential election. This meant more people were involved, with greater passion, and more vocal about their views. Fear of the opposition, and determination to win, resulted in a greater quantity of biased and in some cases misleading news stories. These circumstances created an ideal condition for engaging in and learning about the forces at work in our political system. This article provides some insights into what I learned.
In February 2016, I created a dedicated Twitter account for the Political Resource Group. At the time, it seemed to me (and others) that Bernie Sanders was going to win the 2016 Democratic Party Primary. He had a way of mobilizing and inspiring people based on traditional Party values and positions. The Twitter account was an effort to support Sanders in the Primary and follow news of the national election.
Bernie Sanders was not only filling stadiums with enthusiastic Democratic Party supporters, but also had the broad bipartisan respect and trust of top Republicans. He was bringing in many Independents and third-party voters to the Democratic Party movement. So, a Sanders win in the Primary election would most likely result in a win for the Democratic Party, not just in the presidential race but with a revitalized party, it’s fair to assume other down ticket wins would be inevitable. His unifying message would unite the country.
The Democratic Party was experiencing a renewal, while at the same time, the Republican Party was splintering into various camps as the original 17 presidential candidates were slowly being taken out of play by Donald Trump. Trump was offending long-time Republicans and also critical of the Party. It was believed that Trump would certainly leave the party in shambles.
Make America Scandinavian Again
Sanders ran a positive campaign with a promise to ‘Make America Scandinavian Again’ by advocating expanded support of public education and healthcare services paid for by reducing our multi-trillion dollar military budget. Sanders also proposed a jobs program that would help rebuild our crumbling national infrastructure. Public education initiatives similar to what Sanders was recommending were already working in Republican states like Tennessee.
Had Sanders won the general election, by this time, a week after being sworn in, we’d likely have executive actions supporting universal single-payer healthcare, paid maternity leave, accountability on Wall Street, expanded consumer protection, an end to consumer exploitation by the pharmaceutical industry, energy independence through renewable sources of power, education for all, and high speed trains from coast to coast.
One need not speculate as to the kind of America Sanders would have worked to create. The index of the world’s best countries (mostly Scandinavian countries) offers a very real look at what kind of society is created by the policies Sanders was advocating. Sanders didn’t really use the phrase ‘Make America Scandinavian Again’ but he talked about some of the lessons we could learn from the success of Scandinavian countries.
In the summer, when Sanders didn’t win the Primary election, I became a little concerned. I’m just as excited as the next person about the possibility of having a woman president. It would be great if the U.S. weren’t among the last nations in the world to have a woman head of state. Yet, for some reason, Hillary didn’t inspire the same conciliatory response from Republicans as Bernie Sanders had. She was unable to attract former Sanders supporters who were instead looking to Jill Stein of the Green Party as someone to carry the torch of progressivism.
From March through June, I’d posted about 50 to 150 tweets (and retweets) per month. By July, I became concerned about the election, and got more active — with 721 posts that month. My content balance was about 70% right leaning with 30% far-left leaning.
My thinking was to provide tweets that would be popular among a broad range of people, while also exposing people to content they might not otherwise read in their own ‘echo chambers’ of news and content designed to reinforce their existing views rather than challenge it. For that reason, I had trouble getting a good following. Posting a tweet that wasn’t lock-step behind the predominant narrative on one side or the other would result in losing a few subscribers. Slowly I built a following of independent thinkers who were seeking to be informed and even challenged rather than being coddled. The number of followers maxed out at about 370.
By August 2016, numerous ‘unfortunate events’ (largely preventable) were resulting in an unexpected decline in support for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Mother Jones tried to help out by publishing an article “Hillary Clinton Is One of America’s Most Honest Politicians.” (1 Aug 2016) This and other similar articles were met with skepticism by those who believed that Hillary was lying to the FBI and the American people. Meanwhile, efforts were made by the mainstream media to make Trump look bad, such as spreading the story that Trump kicked a baby out of one of his events. Unfortunately, this story was false, and a retraction was posted by the Washington Post on behalf of numerous news agencies. (6 Aug 2016) There are some other similar examples to these, but suffice to say, such efforts tended to backfire and feed into Trump’s narrative about the ‘lying media.’
The chances of Trump wining increased daily. In August I posted over 2,600 tweets that month reaching over 722,000 people, and resulting than 3,728 profile views. These were largely an effort to prod those in power to quickly correct their course, and urge the news media to be careful about posting incorrect news reports. I also turned up the volume on the message from third party candidates, which included writing the article “Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin, Jill Stein and Third Party Impact in 2016.” (15 Aug 2016)
In September, I posted 500 tweets and had 252,000 impressions with 933 profile views, but it started seeming more and more likely that Trump would win. By October I posted only 49 tweets. It was clear that Party leadership wasn’t heading the numerous pleas from me and others to correct some obvious strategic campaign mistakes which would later be articulated by a YouTube sensation known as Jonathan Pie.
The many last minute opportunities to save the Democratic Party and the election were overlooked or rejected — such as a strong appeal to the progressive base by choosing Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren as a running mate. Instead, the chosen strategy was to quickly move center, and win the support of disenfranchised or disgruntled Republicans. This obviously alienated progressives even more, further eroding the base of Democratic Party support.
With over 6,000 tweets (13,900 including retweets) reaching 1.3 million people in a fairly short span of time, I was able to listen and learn much from the full spectrum of people involved in the election. From alt-right to alt-left and everyone in between. I saw desperate attempts among extremists on both sides to win no matter what. By each side not listening to the other side, significant blind spots and vulnerabilities resulted for everyone.
One of my more popular tweets is an image I created for Thanksgiving 2016. It shows the water cannons, armored vehicles, and military assaulting Native Americans who were wanting to protect their land and water by protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). I’d created the image in a way that I hoped would be embraced by those on the right and the left. That image struck a nerve with everyone.