When you open up your Facebook News Feed these days, what do you see? Most would say a picture posted from their close friend, a status update from their crazy uncle, or a video posted by a celebrity they follow. But if you think a little harder, you start to realize there’s much more. A shared meme making fun of Hillary Clinton. A story with a headline that calls out the sanity of Donald Trump. An online test that will tell you which candidate you should vote for. A coworker you’ve never heard talk politics suddenly sharing an article and status about a particular candidate.
As the 2016 election arrives, these types of posts will saturate your News Feed with more urgency and declaration toward one side or the other. Publishers push content more frequently with more bias. Friends, coworkers, celebrities, and political elites blast our News Feed with a call to vote, make a stand, and pledge an allegiance. Comment sections have become bitter debate stages filled with polarized views.
In many ways, Facebook has become another “blue state” in the 2016 election, used to influence the way we think and behave. Political advertisers and content publishers have realized the importance of this social media outlet and launched aggressive campaigns to influence our decision. While this phenomenon has existed in the previous two elections (2008 was known as the Facebook election), Facebook’s influence has never been more impactful than now.
Facebook Has Become the Home Where Readers Live
In the past, audiences consumed content through a dedicated readership to certain publishers or used their search engine to browse content at their convenience. Consumption of content was decentralized as readers tended to visit different outlets for short periods of time. As Facebook continued to update its site, it started to provide publishers with widgets that reminded users to share and like content. As these tools became more viable, it became clear that Facebook was changing online readers’ behavior. Facebook became not just where readers visited but where they lived.
As readers started centralizing into one space, advertisers and publishers rejoiced as they could now funnel their resources into a primary medium that targeted the majority of readers on the Internet. This was further reinforced as Facebook continued to lead the Internet in broader trends such as the shift to mobile consumption on smartphones. According to Facebook in July 2016, Facebook has amassed over 1.57 billion mobile users, 1.03 billion of which are active every day.
For publishers and political advertisers, this has become one of the most strategically important trends in the 2016 election. According to the Wall Street Journal article “How Facebook Is Dominating the 2016 Election,” Citigroup projects that political ad spending on Facebook would surpass spending on Google this year, reversing a historical pattern. In an era where paid search is consistently the most dominant form of digital ad spending, Facebook’s rise to the top is quite the accomplishment.
The Nature of the News Feed & The Curation Effect
As readers continue to shift into using Facebook as their primary source of content, it is important to understand the way in which they aggregate it. One of the most attractive features of Facebook is giving users the ability to customize their News Feeds to curate content that aligns with their top interests and preferences. Due to the curated nature of the News Feed, users have the ability to pre-select the publishers and people they follow. This has created a situation where users are consuming content that continually reinforces their existing views and often motivates them to share it with others. You may notice that many of your friends rarely share political content that favors the opposing view. This is not a coincidence.
Since users are able to curate their News Feed with reinforcing content, they naturally eliminate the majority of their exposure to opposing content and instead promote content that favors their view or brand. This has proved to have a great influence on the 2016 election as the Clinton and Trump campaigns have faced great difficulties in targeting their opponent’s supporters effectively with advertisements. The curation effect has created a tough barrier to break, as most users do not want to view conflicting or challenging content but would rather spend their time enjoying content that confirms their value toward a political movement and brand.
One result of this curation effect has been the creation of Facebook media companies that exist solely to produce biased, click bait-centered, and often misleading political content that targets an already partisan News Feed.
The majority of these sites are independently run and have varying degrees of editorial content, usually promoted by eye-catching headlines such as “You Would Never Believe What Trump Just Said,” above a picture of a smug looking Donald Trump or “How Criminal Can Hillary Be?” with a picture of Hillary Clinton behind prison bars. The purpose of these catchy headlines is to attract the maximum amounts of clicks, likes, and shares — in which these media companies have been wildly successful.
Despite their questionable credibility, many of these sites have attracted traffic rivaling that of traditional mainstream outlets. Cumulatively, it is estimated that these types of hyper-partisan sites reach tens of millions of people on a daily basis. Their effect on the American electorate and social forum of Facebook has been immense. The amount of shares and likes these sites are driving have made their content the foundation with which many users base their political opinions. This has further increased the polarization effect and resulted in an electorate that is often entering ideological conversations based on misinformation.
The Decline of the Traditional Ad Spending Influence in a Facebook World
The traditional thought in political elections is the candidate who wins is often the candidate who ran the most effective propaganda campaign. In order to do so, candidates raise millions of dollars that are used to fuel large-scale campaigns using advertising mediums such as television, radio, and print. The majority of these advertisements are focused around traditional political campaign strategies such as motivating voter turnout, influencing battleground states, or reinforcing a political brand.
In the 2008 election between Obama and McCain, we saw the introduction of Facebook and social media as a disruptor to the conventional political advertising strategy. Many called the 2008 election “The Facebook Election,” attributing Obama’s victory to his mastery of using social media to target youth voters, resulting in him securing the largest percentage of 30-and-under voters since exit polling began in 1972. This trend continued into the 2012 election where Obama was victorious, having outspent Romney 2 to 1 in terms of online advertising dollars.
The 2016 election has been a much more potent force online than its predecessors, and Facebook is at the center. For the first time in a presidential election, Facebook was used as the medium to source debate questions for Clinton and Trump at the second debate. Trump used Facebook Live instead of cable TV to issue an apology after a viral video created negative attention. Clinton has turned to Facebook to reach out to specific audiences and answer town hall-style questions.
Each candidate has shown a fluency in social media similar to Obama — but on a much larger scale. For Trump, his online presence and potency on Facebook allowed him to successfully rally support and energize voters to win the Republican Primary despite his clear disadvantage in advertising spending. Even Hillary, who has outspent Trump almost 3-1 in political advertisements, has found that her spending advantage has not been especially advantageous due to Trump’s online strength.
Outside of Facebook’s custom tools that allow advertisers to target specific users, demographics, or groups of supporters, the lure of Facebook to political candidates is the ability to go viral and influence different types of audiences in an instant. If you check any of the core mainstream media outlets, you will often see at least three to five articles with headlines that mention Trump or Clinton. Publishers have realized that content featuring these two candidates is viewed and shared most often. This has led to a saturation of political commentary and content across Facebook, which in turn has served as a constant influencer to the online American public.
The Result Effect of America’s New Blue State
The massive shift in the way people consume content has led to Facebook becoming one of the primary influencers in the 2016 election. Media companies are being created with the sole purpose of pushing out hyper-partisan political content to serve as influencers. Americans now have the ability to curate their News Feed around reinforcing content that essentially eliminates their exposures to opposing ideas or values. Candidates who are able to tap into the potency of online media have found a new way to energize voters and create political movements overnight. The result has been a fundamental change in the political discourse of America. Facebook has become the newest “blue state” serving as one of the primary ways people share and consume content.