How do politicians use Twitter? Applying social media principles to politics

As a political science and advertising/PR double major, I am particularly interested in how my two chosen fields of study intersect. So, when I was given the opportunity to choose a research topic for a paper in my Research in Advertising and Public Relations Class (CAP 115), I decided to research how, if at all, the Twitter presence of candidates for political office impacts how the public perceives their personality. I am currently conducting primary research about this topic with a group of classmates in order to expand upon my conclusions, but my secondary research did reveal that the use of Twitter by political candidates has an effect on how they are viewed by the public.

The 2016 election was, obviously, extremely divisive and incendiary, with negative rhetoric being spewed by both sides. One of the most prominent vehicles for political vitriol was Twitter; both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton used Twitter in unique and strategic ways to meet specific purposes. Here is an example of a Twitter interaction between the two candidates, which, according to Variety, were some of the most retweeted Tweets during the election cycle:


Basically, although this was not the only purpose of Twitter use for these candidates, it was definitely used for some good, ole-fashioned political mudslinging. Personally, I found that interactions like these made them look like angry high schoolers engaged in a petty Twitter fight. Other people may have felt otherwise. Inspired by my (somewhat morbid) fascination with how political candidates used Twitter, I directed my research attention to finding measurable impacts of Twitter use on public opinion.

According to Politico, the technological age of politics began, in effect, when President Barack Obama took office. His team was the first to really master the use of social media, a tool which they used to their advantage. For example, upon his 2012 re-election, the following Tweet was shared from Obama’s Twitter account, becoming his most retweeted ever:

It is plain to see that this tweet was extremely popular, generating almost a million retweets, and how it could positively impact Obama’s image. This shows a more intimate side of his personality than one would receive through the news media. This Tweet shows you Barack Obama, husband and family man, instead of Barack Obama, President of the United States. This sort of imagery can contribute to a more positive opinion of his personality.

In the 2016 election, Donald Trump used social media in an extremely unique (and successful, considering that he won the election) fashion. Trump sent out controversial Tweets that generated news cycle attention and made him more relatable to the public, as his Twitter style seemed more like an average person than a presidential candidate. This strategic use contributed to the image he presented to his supporters, which, while extremely divisive, was popular enough to get him elected.

Twitter provides a unique method of candidate-constituent interaction. It allows a more personal insight into the life and personality of the candidate, because it eliminates the “middle man,” in this case the news media, which normally serves as the gatekeeper in these sort of interactions.  As more and more people become active on social media, these opportunities for politicians to engage their constituents on Twitter are becoming increasingly important.While my research lacked specific measures of how a specific Tweet/specific Twitter presence of a specific politician impacted public perception of their personality, I am hoping my primary research (surveys and focus groups) provide more insight into how certain Tweets cause people to perceive the personality of candidates. Regardless, it is clear that Twitter use for public officials is becoming increasingly important. Thus, politicians should master their Twitter use in order to make themselves more marketable (and thus electable) to the public.