Is it a good thing that Donald Trump will be our next President? Should Hillary Clinton have won? What should be most important, the popular vote or the Electoral College? One thing that everybody in the US can agree on is that this has been one of the strangest elections ever. There are a number of reasons for that, and one of them – which experts are still struggling to get to grips with – is the internet. How did it contribute to shaping events? Would things have been different without it? What is it likely to mean for elections in the future?
Too close to call?
One of the striking features of this election is just how wildly predictions varied before the vote, and just how wrong most of them turned out to be. It follows similar problems with polling during the run-up to the UK’s referendum on leaving the EU in June, and the UK general election the year before that. One thing that may be going wrong is that polls may be warped when people who have just participated in them share their experiences with others online, potentially influencing other participants. There are also issues with increased voter awareness of poll results, which could lead people trying to join the popular side or, conversely, reacting against what seems like a done deal.
Campaigning in a new world
As the internet has shaped the behavior of voters, it has also changed the way that campaigns are targeting them. Each candidate in this election ran a social media campaign and used social media analysis to determine how it was going down. They didn’t always get it right, however. Hillary Clinton alienated voters rather than making them feel empowered when she repeatedly advised them to look things up online. Donald Trump ended up being temporarily banned from his own Twitter account by his campaign team after repeatedly getting in trouble with his undiplomatic remarks. Crucially, social media increased the visibility of campaigns by third-party candidates, and this may have made all the difference in determining the outcome of the election.
A post-truth election?
The Oxford English Dictionary recently announced that post-truth is its word of the year. This stems in part from the ease with which false information spread during the election campaign. Some of this developed as rumor, some of it came from agents provocateurs who may or may not have been supporting particular candidates, and some of it came from politicians themselves. While it could be assumed that the internet would discourage lying by making it easy for people to check their facts, it turned out that it had the opposite effect, with people placing more trust in stories that were popular and assuming that meant that they must be true.
With all this is mind, it may surprise you to learn that only 58% of eligible voters actually cast their ballots in the presidential election. With turnout so low, can any president really be confident of having the full support of the people? It has often been suggested that online voting might persuade more people to take part, and this year Alaska offered this option to all its citizens, helping them work around difficult weather conditions in some areas. Work is ongoing to study how the Alaskan vote turned out and to determine how it affected voter engagement and whether or not there was any increase in electoral fraud.
Across the campaign as a whole, the person who got the most coverage on social media by a long way was Donald Trump. Much of it was negative, but overall the most important factor may have been visibility – even if they’re not 100% sure about his character, people feel more comfortable voting for somebody whom they feel they know. Even if you don’t think he tops the list of president IQ rankings – when for Barack Obama, IQ proved a significant factor – there’s no denying that he made some smart moves to get the top job.
Gearing up for 2020
What does all this mean for the next presidential election, in 2020? If the Alaskan experiment turns out to have worked well, the chances are that we’ll see online voting become an option in many more states – perhaps even all of them. We’ll also see the campaigns focus much more on social media, but it’s likely that no actual candidate – no matter how smart – will be allowed to get directly involved with that. What will happen with information and fact-checking is less clear, however, because the internet is in an era of flux, with new publications rising to prominence as others lose support. It may well be that by 2020, users will be wise to the risks of relying on social media for facts and will have a better idea who they can trust.