Special Election Issue

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Ruby Sigmund & Jonah Traub, Co-Editors in Chief

Social media and the shift to online consumption of news has changed the way political campaigns function: candidates need to use their platforms to galvanize their base, shape news outlets, and influence the overall electorate. The 2020 presidential election is a unique case study of two candidates’ contrasting media universes, giving youth voters an insight into the future of politics at national as well as local levels.

Feedback Loops

Every person that consumes media online has what is known as a feedback loop, a cycle by which the same channels of information are used by the consumer to view news, mostly through subscription, “the path by which some output of a system is returned to its input,” according to Dictionary.com. These outlets share homogenous ideological leanings and get their news from similar sources. The average person does not see a piece of information online and try to verify it; rather, they trust in their feedback loop to provide accurate information framed through a lens that aligns with their beliefs.

This principle is also applied to President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden. “[Trump’s] feedback loop from Fox and conservative talk radio is enormously important. He expresses ideas which are then amplified and reinforced by the likes of Hannity and Limbaugh, but it’s also true that they will start a line of argument that Trump picks up, sometimes within minutes of hearing or seeing it,” said Steve Roberts, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

Art by: M. Shapiro

Take, for example, The New York Times (NYT) report on Trump’s tax returns. Below is a showcase of how information spreads and evolves in a short period of time online.

Sept. 27 New York Times Report: “Trump’s Chronic Losses and Years of Tax Avoidance”

Sept. 27 Biden Campaign’s Response on Twitter: Video on Citizens’ Incomes

Sept. 28 Trump’s Response to NYT Report on Twitter: Denial

Sept. 28 Biden and Kamala Harris Release Their Tax Returns 

How do these feedback loops influence voters? With Essex County having the largest gap between Democrats and Republicans (274,385 vs 53,013 according to nj.com), Maplewood-South Orange (MAPSO) tends to follow a feedback loop more aligned with Biden’s than Trump’s. “I get most of my news from PBS, NPR, and the NY Times. I try to get news from multiple sources, but I know that some of the sources are democratic-leaning and how that can influence my opinion,” said Lila Schabacker, ‘22.

Tactics of Candidates 

Trump

Trump’s tactic, intensifying with the shift to virtual connection during COVID-19 and leading up to the election, has been to excite and provoke his supporters into action, creating his own reality in which he decides the narrative and what information is truthful. Roberts noted that “Trump is extremely adept at using social media and always has been…[he] energizes his following but doesn’t reach beyond his base.” Trump’s strategy of dubbing specific outlets and pieces as “fake news” has had implications on the platforms by which he communicates with his voters: both Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to warn platform users of misinformation and disinformation stemming from Trump’s posts. For example, both have placed warnings on posts relating to mail-in-ballots:

Trump’s Misinformation Tweet about Voting-by-Mail with Warning

Trump’s Misinformation FaceBook Post about Voting-by-Mail with Warning (Below) 

Interestingly, although Trump has identical posts on Facebook and Twitter, the platforms vary in which posts they deem to be misinformation.

Trump’s FaceBook Post about Poll Watchers with Warning Trump’s

Trump’s Tweet about Poll Watchers with No Warning 

Roberts said this is due to trying to “limit the negative impact of misinformation while keeping their business models healthy, which thrive on engagement.” These warnings may create more attention around a post, though the impact of the increased traffic depends on the consumer and their opinion on “fake news” and the regulation of speech online. For example, David Mastrodonato, a social studies teacher at Columbia High School (CHS), said “[Anti-Trump forces] point out the ridiculous, absurd and dangerous pronouncements and actions of Trump and the politicos who have attached themselves to him,” speaking to his own opinion on Trump’s tweets and juxtaposing it with Trump’s base and their demand for a laissez-faire media climate. 

Biden

Biden, on the other hand, has “round edges,” said Roberts, “and that personality is inherently less effective on social media.” Biden’s tactic is to appeal to a broad coalition of voters, ones that may or may not have supported him at the onset of the race but would rather have Biden in office than Trump. While Trump’s posts tend to be direct, an embodiment of his aggressive demeanor that his voters tout as “anti-politician,” Biden’s tend to be campaign-managed, informing consumers on how to vote and urging supporters for donations. Mastrodonato explained his viewpoint, that “the Biden candidacy is weak but it probably will be strong enough. Biden has no analogous discourse, no comparable media strategy [to Trump]. Maybe he doesn’t need one.” 

Biden’s strategy comes mostly as a response to Trump and his political allies. The Biden campaign sells merchandise such as stickers that say “I paid more income taxes than Donald Trump,” as an attempt to capitalize on the release of Trump’s tax returns, and a “Truth over Flies” fly swatter, in reference to the fly that garnered attention by landing on Mike Pence’s head during the Vice-Presidential debate. “The Biden campaign listens for trends and watches the social media landscape to be up to date with who they’re campaigning to,” said Zoe Mckay, ‘23. 

Opinions of Tactics

CHS students have varied opinions on the disparate media tactics of both candidates: 

Trump’s campaign divides Americans, and the Biden campaign seems like they are trying to inspire Americans and are based in fact,” said Emmylou Ethan, ‘24. 

Both campaigns are posting a lot of negative adverts about the opposing side rather than trying to build up their own reputation. I think it makes them look childish,” said Schabacker.

“[Trump] posts his thoughts [on Twitter], which is what [it] is for, but not for the president. I think it makes him look very childlike,” said Leah Glass, ‘24.

“Biden and Trump clearly understand who is voting for them and the type of person they are…both clearly know what to do to get their supporters to think they are the best person,” noted Jakhi McCray, ‘21. 

All of these opinions, however, come from the same geographical upbringing and community ideologies, bringing rise to the importance of what media students choose to consume.

Historical Analysis

The usage of social media in the political sphere is not the first time that technological innovation has allowed politicians to speak more directly to voters on a large scale.

During the late 1940s and ’50s, the emergence of television allowed for new possibilities to expand the field of news, including the switch from radio broadcasts to televised debates, which in 1960, allowed for one of the first televised presidential debates in history, between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy (JFK). 

While participating in this debate, there was a stark contrast in the appearance of both candidates. Kristie Thomas, a social studies teacher at CHS, commented that at a moment where “politicians are [made] so much more accessible,” Kennedy appeared on stage with a “made-for-TV image,” while Nixon appeared with a “5 o’clock shadow.”

The televised debates allowed Kennedy to seemingly make eye contact with the viewers at home, show his charm and charismatic nature, and display the traits that could, in the people’s eyes, make him a good president. Nixon, despite giving a strong performance as a debater and politician, paled in comparison, and missed his opportunity to get intimate with the American people and gain their trust and support. The televised debate provided each candidate with an opportunity to become more personal with the electorate, and do so in a way that had never been done before.

Photo courtesy of David Mastrodonato, a social studies teacher at CHS.

Another technological innovation that worked to make politicians seem more accessible to the public, was the 1979 launch of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN), a non-profit television network that broadcasts the proceedings of Congress.

In his 1989 book, “Making Laws & Making News,” Timothy E. Cook proposes the idea that through developments like the creation of C-SPAN, the media had “become so ubiquitous [on Capitol Hill] that observers have expressed concern over the appeal of [its] spotlight – that it may affect the distribution of power and alter the way the chamber conducts its business.” Cook explained that the then new broadcasting of congressional proceedings allowed for congressional members to talk directly to the people and gain exposure. In doing this, members of Congress are motivated to sponsor bills and make statements that appeal to the public, putting a greater emphasis on being newsworthy than had previously been the case. 

In Conclusion

Social media and its predecessors have all worked to provide politicians and candidates with more of a direct connection to the citizens of the United States. Matthew Borkowski, a social studies teacher at CHS, commented that he is unsure “if these [technological] advancements have helped make candidates seem more approachable,” pointing to the unknowns that still surround social media in politics. At the very least, social media has certainly provided candidates with more direct ways of speaking to the people, and has given them more opportunities to demonstrate their appeal. 

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Designed by: Matt McBride