Here is a picture of Donald Trump and his supporters in the midst of a pledge of allegiance that looks scarily similar to a Nazi salute.
And here is a video of him telling reporters about how he reckons he could murder someone in public without losing votes.
These are just two of many well-reported examples of Trump saying and doing incredible things – and getting away with it. All of which begs the question…
How is he doing it?
The reasons are probably myriad, and include the simple fact that he just hogs the news agenda more and more with every passing outburst. But social media could be playing a role, too.
I’ve written before about how Facebook can have an echo-chamber effect.
The point I made was that when we engage with a post, Facebook logs it and remembers to show us more like it in future. This means we tend to close, rather than broaden, our horizons in terms of the things we look at online.
And it could well be that this effect is allowing Donald Trump to get away with far more than he would’ve been able to without it.
What I’m suggesting is that people following, commenting on and engaging with Trump may be indulging in a kind of mutual reassurance that some of his ridiculous ideas actually aren’t all that ridiculous.
And because they tend to see more and more of the same things, they may be exposed to fewer sources of information contradicting it.
It’s certainly true that The Donald has a far greater social media presence than his competitors for the Republican nomination or the Democrats he could face in the Presidential run. His Facebook following is about double his nearest rival, Bernie Sanders, who has about 3.3m followers to Trump’s 6.1m*.
And his engagement is through the roof.
Here’s a content analysis of Trump over the last year (via Buzzsumo)
That’s 23,733 average shares.
And here’s the same for Sanders:
That’s 11,447 average shares on content. Less than half.
So not only are Trump’s supporters seeing more and more of Trump’s own content – the stories about him elsewhere on the web are getting viewed more, because more people are sharing it more often.
But Facebook isn’t just about reading – it’s about talking. Those who are regularly engaging with Trump content online will tend to just be talking to each other.
That’s because people who support, say, Sanders, will be engaging with Sanders’ content and will be having a whole different conversation on his page.
All of this just fuels a situation where people of opposing political views just don’t talk to each other. And without proper debate, people can get away with saying stupid stuff unchecked.
And that’s what Trump is doing.
Every time Trump wins a state https://t.co/PuUh0fE2iT
— BuzzFeed (@BuzzFeed) March 2, 2016
Of course, it’s also true that the rise of social media has seen a reversal of the ‘third way’ politics typified by Blair and Bill Clinton, in favour of more extreme politicians. And this may also be due to Facebook’s echo chamber.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn here in the UK, for example, was very much driven by an incredibly vocal and active social media community. One which is still campaigning now under the name Momentum.
The idea that Facebook can win elections would have sounded crazy just a few years ago. Now it seems like a pretty reasonable – if arguable – assertion.
In the UK, the Conservatives spent £1m more than Labour on Facebook ads in their victorious 2015 general election campaign. Correlation rather than causation, of course, but still quite telling.
And while we don’t have access to the kind of money the candidates in the US election are spending, it’s a fair bet that it’s not nothing.
Any Facebook marketer will tell you that anyone who can combine sensational content with a big ad spend is onto something huge. With his deep pockets and big mouth, Trump seems to have found the golden combo.
*It should be noted that Sanders actually has two pages of about 3m each, but it seems fair to assume a large proportion of his supporters will be following both, so adding them together wouldn’t be a fair representation.
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