The COVID-19 pandemic gave this year’s presidential candidates the opportunity—and the time—to revamp their social media strategies and rally young voters. But did they miss their chance?
The impact of social media on American elections has been front-and-center in pundits’ minds since Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic 2018 primary upset, when, according to The New York Times, the then-28-year-old took on fellow Democrat Joseph Crowley for his spot in the House—and won. “The race was not close,” the Times reported curtly.
More tongue-in-cheek commentary from the Times: “The last time Mr. Crowley, 56, even had a primary challenger, in 2004, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was not old enough to vote.”
It didn’t take long for pundits and party leaders alike to take an interest in Ocasio-Cortez’s knack for digital campaigning. While the Times indicated that the now-congresswoman won support from progressives in her district by attacking Crowley’s “role in the leadership, and the fact that he was the head of the local Democratic Party machine,” numerous reports pointed to her social media prowess—and she has maintained a reputation for being something of a Twitter guru. NBC News reported in January 2019:
Less than three weeks after being sworn in as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez already has more Twitter followers than Speaker Nancy Pelosi, more interactions than Barack Obama, one of C-SPAN’s most-watched congressional floor speeches of all time and a ubiquitous nickname that doubles as her Twitter handle — “AOC.”
Indeed, many have taken notice of how naturally AOC interacts with supporters—and critics—online, and it’s quickly become a pillar of her success. “If Cory Booker is pretty good at Instagram as far as politicians go, the vibe’s still sometimes like your Bible study leader is giving you a college campus tour,” BuzzFeed’s Katherine Miller wrote in November 2018, according to NBC. “Ocasio-Cortez uses Instagram like the rest of us do—reflexively, incidentally.”
But it seems not everyone in Washington has AOC’s Instagram instincts.
Take, for example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before two Senate committees in April 2018, where the members of the Judiciary and Commerce panels attempted to grill the tech mogul over concerns about “social media privacy and the use and abuse of data” on his platform.
The lawmakers found themselves grossly unprepared.
But it was more than just not doing their homework: through their lines of questioning, many senators made clear that they lack a basic understanding of how social media companies operate, including how various platforms license users’ data and how they turn a profit. Vox reported in April 2018:
Is Facebook a monopoly? Does Mark Zuckerberg think it has a liberal bias? Why am I suddenly seeing chocolate ads all over Facebook? Do I have as many friends as I think I do? Is Facebook spying on the emails I send via WhatsApp?
Those were just some of the questions senators asked of the Facebook founder and CEO during a hearing on Tuesday.
CNN’s Dylan Byers remarked that “on multiple occasions, it seemed like lawmakers were simply asking Zuckerberg how Facebook worked,” leaving “questions about the extent of Facebook’s data monitoring and why the company hasn’t been more transparent with users how their data is used and how it’s been abused” unanswered.
In this case, Americans—and their right to privacy—suffered from legislators’ lack of technological savvy. But the confusion surrounding social media doesn’t stop on Capitol Hill. If reports from outlets like The Guardian and CBS News are accurate, it seems the “techie” gene hasn’t made its way to the Trump Train, either.
According to CBS, Trump’s return to the 2020 campaign trail in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this summer following months of coronavirus-related lockdowns was “trolled” by teens on social media who claim they played a part in the president’s stunningly low turnout. “In the weeks leading up to the rally, TikTok users started spreading the idea of registering for free tickets with no intention of going—in hopes that they would take seats away from Trump supporters, and leave the president speaking to a hollowed-out stadium,” CBS reported.
It seems their plan, which The Guardian said quickly went viral both on TikTok and among K-pop fans on Twitter, worked. According to The Hill, the Tulsa Fire Department said a measly 6,200 attendees showed up to the event, while Trump campaign officials—as well as the president himself—had been bragging that upwards of 1 million supporters requested tickets to the June 20 rally.
Perhaps those “supporters” would be better described as “pranksters.”
As the president and his allies in Washington continue to miss the mark online, lawmakers with more social media savvy are capitalizing on their losses—and, in the process, reaching young people once thought to be apathetic to politics. Responding to a tweet from Trump’s then-campaign manager about the dismal Oklahoma rally, Ocasio-Cortez went so far as to “shout out” to members of Generation Z.
Moments like this show the powerful impact social media plays in the politicking of the digital age. Candidates simply cannot ignore young people any longer, and part of reaching the newest generation of voters is finding them where they are: online.
Of course, that’s not to say politicians aren’t trying. According to Vox, Joe Biden is rallying influencers on platforms like Instagram and TikTok in an attempt to build what some have likened to a digital grassroots movement. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has become known internationally for thousands of headline–making tweets that The New York Times alleges have “reshaped the presidency” as we once knew it.
But it’s not clear that the septuagenarians’ campaign strategies are connecting with the younger voters that Ocasio-Cortez has so easily captivated. According to a Sept. 17 analysis of NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls conducted since January of this year, “younger voters overwhelmingly say they will choose Joe Biden over Donald Trump,” but “they’re not all that enamored of Biden, either.”
“Overall, Trump’s favorability and job approval among younger generations are fairly grim,” NBC News reports. “But while Biden isn’t as starkly disliked as Trump, he is far from beloved. Just 26 percent of Gen Z voters view him positively, and 41 percent view him negatively, for a net negative rating of minus-15 points. Among millennials, it’s 29 percent positive, 41 percent negative, for a net negative rating of minus-12 points.”
Thanks largely to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s presidential candidates had the chance—and the time—to revamp and master their online strategies and connect with younger voters that they’ve so far failed to enthuse. Was it an opportunity wasted?
And now, with weeks to go until voters hit the polls, is it an opportunity that third-party candidates like Libertarian Jo Jorgensen will try to seize?
It’s certainly something to watch out for as November draws closer.
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This article was first published Sept. 27, 2020.