In 140 characters or less, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s tweets have the power to reach into the homes of potential voters through their 10.1 million and 12.8 million Twitter followers, respectively.

This form of communication through Twitter is demonstrative of how social media can be used to send a direct message to thousands of people across the country, without the necessity of advertisements or use of other mediums, University of Wisconsin professor of life sciences communication Dietram Scheufele said.

Throughout the 2016 presidential election, campaigns have used social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and even Snapchat as ways to connect with millions of online users in an effort to convey their messages.

With trending hashtags like #Hillaryforprison and #dumpTrump, the 2016 election has been one of the most heated and hate-filled in recent history. Though personal attacks against individual candidates’ families and characters is as old as America’s democracy, UW senior lecturer of life sciences communication Michael Flaherty said the level of such attacks has been shocking.

Presidential campaigns make final bid to win over UW studentsEngrossed in their cellphones, approximately 20 students sit in a room filled to the brim with “WI Back Her” posters, Read…

This is the first election where candidates don’t shake hands at a debate, where a candidate gets booed at a fundraiser that’s supposed to be a “light-hearted evening” and one of the first instances where violence has been breaking out across the campaign, Scheufele said.

“We’ve reached a point where social media has really kind of reinforced existing divisions and maybe made them worse,” Scheufele said. “It’s going to be really difficult as a country after this election to come back together as a country and find common ground again.”

Effectiveness of social media

President Obama used social media effectively throughout the 2008 and 2012 elections to advertise his platform and raise campaign funds, Flaherty said.

Although Obama’s campaign demonstrated how social media could be used as a powerful fundraising tool, Trump’s campaign has been able to break a number of new fronts to show how social media can be used for more than just fundraising.

There has never been a national campaign like Trump’s, where daily tweets are turned into a national story, Flaherty said. Trump is a “professional showman” who understands the importance of marketing media.

“He’s kind of a shock jock,” Flaherty said. “He really says shocking things on purpose to drive ratings, and he’s good at it, but at some point if you want to be president of the United States you can’t just be lighting the fire everyday and hoping that no one’s going to check your facts.” 

“At some point if you want to be president of the United States you can’t just be lighting the fire everyday and hoping that no one’s going to check your facts.” Michael Flaherty

The attention Trump’s campaign has received can be explained in two ways, Scheufele said. Trump avoids the media because he sees it as crooked or biased and instead chooses to send his message directly to voters. In this way, he doesn’t even have to go through a journalist.

Trump has also used social media as a way to build the Trump brand and create a personality cult around him, rather than the Republican party itself, he said. Essentially, he has stopped all other forms of fundraising and is just fundraising online.

Trump’s online fundraising is more favorable toward his campaign than to the Republican Party’s campaign. Trump’s online fundraising directs 80 percent of its proceeds to his own campaign, while leaving on 20 percent for other Republican campaigns.

Obama’s campaign appeared to be “new and refreshing,” however, Clinton has not been able to garner as much enthusiasm for her campaign, Flaherty said. Aside from being the first female presidential candidate, Clinton’s campaign has only told voters things they already know about her.

Voters have cultivated negative reactions toward Trump because of his own actions, Flaherty said, and not necessarily because of anything Clinton has done herself.

“It will be interesting after this election to see the analysis of how many people were motivated by social media to move from one camp to the other — I don’t know how that’s going to play out,” Flaherty said. 

A divided medium

While the use of social media as a fundraising tool in the presidential election has raised millions in campaign funds, its also effectively divided supporters of the two candidates into two passionately driven groups, Scheufele said.

Social media has separated Americans with its portrayal of people who support “crazy” Trump and those who support “crooked Hillary,” Scheufele said. Not only do groups passionately oppose the other candidate, but each side truly believes that the other is bad for the future of America.

If Trump and Clinton supporters were asked if they believed the other campaign was out to destroy America, one quarter to one third of partisans in each group would say “yes,” Scheufele said.

Scheufele said research has shown hearing information from one side of an argument and not from both sides of an argument makes people less knowledgeable about the purpose of America’s democracy.

Clinton has been the focal point of attacks on social media for years, Flaherty said. For 20 years, media outlets have continuously been used to question not only her character but whether she is a true law-abiding citizen.

It’s not to say that Clinton’s “nose is clean,” but it’s an example of how social media has been used as an effective campaign strategy to disprove her character, Flaherty said. These kind of attacks have caused both presidential nominees to be questioned, and it’s the first time public approval for both presidential candidates is less than 50 percent.

But the social media attacks on the candidates aren’t the only thing that makes America look more politically divided then it actually is.

If someone were to examine the polls, they would find that Americans are not as polarized as social media would lead people to believe, Flaherty said. Even on issues where there is a lot of disagreement, like trade, Americans are more unified than one would think.

It all comes down to how questions on these issues are phrased and presented on social media. Trump often talks about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and his presentation of the deal is what people object to, Flaherty said.

In the past, social media has been used to spin issues and people often object this distorted version of the issues and not the true facts.

“Social media takes this to a new level of rhetoric and reinforced values upon which people vote and form their opinions,” Flaherty said.