Donald trumps rivals on social media, but will it mean votes?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday. Mr Trump has 5.76 million Twitter followers, followed by Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton with 5.17 million.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday. Mr Trump has 5.76 million Twitter followers, followed by Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton with 5.17 million.PHOTO: REUTERS

US presidential hopeful adept at using Twitter to ignite controversy, grab attention

When Donald Trump tweets, it often means another 24 hours of the Republican front runner dominating the news cycle.

"He would not be where he is today without the amplification of social media, especially Twitter," said social media strategist Mindy Finn. She has worked on the presidential campaigns of former president George W. Bush and Mr Mitt Romney, the Republican Party's nominee for the 2012 election.

With less than two weeks to the first caucus vote in Iowa, presidential candidates, like Mr Trump, are going all out on social media this election season using Facebook, Twitter and even Snapchat to spread their campaign messages.

But while the platforms are the same, their strategies are different.

Experts agree that while most candidates are targeting their base, using the platforms to rally organisational support and recruit advocates to get others out to vote, Mr Trump is basically using it to grab attention, which some say may not translate into votes.

Mr Trump's strategy, said Ms Finn, is to go to Twitter, ignite a controversy, dominate the news cycle and use the opportunity to talk about other things. He has tweeted fabricated statistics on black violence and an image of fellow Republican candidate Jeb Bush with a swastika. He took a shot at both President Barack Obama and the black community after the Baltimore riots, saying: "Our great African American President hasn't exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!"

Experts say the importance of using social media has grown over the years as more young people turn to it as their top news source. A study by the Pew Research Centre last year showed that about 61 per cent of millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) got their political news from Facebook, while only 37 per cent received that news from local TV.

"Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, these things can be the entirety of the information for those who judge you," said Mr Joe Rospars, founder and chief executive of Blue State Digital, who served as chief digital strategist for President Obama's campaigns.

The question of course is how to use these tools to a campaign's advantage. Experts say that being seen as authentic is important but challenging. "It's about controlling the message and creating a brand that is managed and scripted, yet a medium like social media demands authenticity," said Ms Finn.

"There are candidates who are not comfortable such as Jeb Bush - not as comfortable as a candidate like Donald Trump," she added.

On the Democratic side, experts think Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has done well to convey an authentic down-to-earth image, an area where Mrs Clinton has generally struggled.

One metric to assess the success of a candidate is the number of Facebook likes and Twitter followers. Mr Trump has 5.76 million Twitter followers, followed by Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton with 5.17 million. In contrast, Mr Bush, the former governor of Florida, has only 425,000.

On Facebook, Mr Trump has more than five million likes, Mrs Clinton two million, and Mr Bush again trails behind them with just over 300,000 likes.

Explaining Mr Trump's popularity, Ms Finn said: "Donald Trump is able to wade into entertainment and celebrity the way that other candidates could not think of doing."

Other candidates usually use social media to galvanise supporters.

"For President Obama, it was not just to reach people, but to mobilise an army to inspire them to come to the field office and inspire more people," said Mr Rospars.

The same strategy is being employed by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is focused on the organising aspect and uses Facebook groups as virtual offices.

While experts seem to favour this more targeted approach, they are slightly more hesitant about endorsing Mr Trump's methods.

"Maybe his group is so big it can inefficiently still help him win," said Mr Rospars, who is adopting a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to whether all those "likes" will add up to votes for Mr Trump.

"It's just a different math," he added. "It's a celebrity versus a political math."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline 'Donald trumps rivals on social media, but will it mean votes?'. Print Edition | Subscribe