—Karen S. Hoffman
Since the 2012 election cycle the role of digital politics continues to evolve. Now the story is all about social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are all venues for candidates to communicate with voters. (All declared, and soon to be declared, candidates have Facebook and Twitter accounts.) Hillary Clinton leads on Twitter with over 3.7 million followers. Donald Trump is not far behind with just over 3 million. Rand Paul has the most “likes” on Facebook with over 2 million. There is good reason for the candidates to use social media tools. Pew reports that in 2014, 71% of adults online use Facebook. Sixty-five percent of those share, post, and comment at least sometimes on Facebook. And almost one-third of those post and comment about the news on Facebook. Data on Millennials is even more striking. According to Pew, Facebook is their main source for news about government and politics.
Social media has also impacted the way that citizens participate in political debate. At the time of my analysis of the 2012 presidential election, the main space for people to join an online debate about political issues was the comment forum that sits below individual articles on many news sites. While the democratizing effect of this type of public debate was celebrated, the substance of the discourse was also criticized as rude and vulgar. Some believed that the language on such forums represented only the most extreme and polemic views, undermining public discourse altogether. I disputed this position in my analysis of 2012 comment forum speech leading up to the presidential election, demonstrating that the substance of most comment forum speech was, in fact, fairly similar to elite discourse about the presidential election. If there was a problem with incivility during the 2012 election cycle, the problem existed far beyond citizen comment forums.
Heading into the 2016 presidential cycle, social media has also changed the nature of comment forums. Due to the tremendous increase in social media users, as well as a desire to improve the civility of comments, many news sources either require contributors to sign in through an existing social media account, or have moved public discussion to social media sites altogether. For instance, in 2014, Huffington Post banned anonymous comments and required contributors to sign in through a social media account to ensure that their comments were attached to a real name (no more “sukonthis,” “libs_r_trouble,” or “mancreatedgod”). CNN removed its comment forums altogether at the end of 2014, opting to host discussion via its Facebook and Twitter platforms. Fox News is an interesting exception. During the months leading up to the 2012 election, Fox News disabled its comment function completely, but since the election, has brought back the comment forum for some articles. In general, all news sites now have Facebook accounts, whether or not they have retained the comment forum function on their official news sites.
So, has the move to Facebook altered the substance of online public discourse? At this stage, it is difficult to compare current Facebook discussions with my original analysis. The 2012 data came from comments generated in the final months of the general election cycle, while we are barely into the primary season for 2016. Discussion during a primary season is likely qualitatively different from discussion during a general election, when internal party disagreement decreases. Keeping in mind that this is the primary stage, with most of the cycle still ahead us, two things stand out in comment forums. First, the changes in comment forums rules and venues have not changed the discourse. Second, conservative commenters are really angry at the Republican establishment.
First, language has not changed much as it moves to social media. Comments are still very polarized, routinely rude, and often tied to policy issues, very loosely defined, which is what I found in my first analysis. The one difference is not the speech, but the more polarized discussion spaces. As people rely on social media for their news, they are exposed to fewer perspectives, because even more than before, people see the news they want to see. It is also still true that social media comments on the 2016 presidential race still track fairly closely with elite discourse, which is similar to my findings in 2012. Because the rules now make it harder (although not impossible) to post anonymously, it is increasingly difficult to dismiss comment forums as the ravings of extremists and trolls who do not represent real citizens’ views. Further, as Pew reports, “For most politically active SNS users, social networking sites are not a separate realm of political activity. They are frequently active in other aspects of civic life.” While we might want to ignore this discourse, the people posting on comment forums are likely to be a factor in the presidential election.
Second, it is abundantly clear that there is discontent amongst the conservatives represented on comment forums. Everyone knows that liberals and conservatives are polarized, but the division within the Republican Party is extremely evident online, as well. Conservatives who post on these forums are very upset with the Republican establishment. They believe that their causes have faced nothing but losses – losses that are the fault of Republicans, such as a majority Republican Congress that has not delivered results (in their minds) and two significant defeats from a presumably conservative Supreme Court (on healthcare and gay marriage.) Typical posts on the subject are as follows:
“Why [have] the Republicans…done NOTHING since they won a landslide victory in both houses???????????????”
“I have not missed a presidential vote since Reagan in 1980. I’m so very close to sitting this next one out. The candidate better be an uncompromised Constitutionalist or I’m out.”
“…Thus far, none of the elected Republicans have shown any backbone at all or done what they promised they would do. We still have Obamacare, it’s not defunded, or removed. We still have a budget that only serves special interests. We have the rights of Christians, gun owners, and the constitution under attack. Can ANY of YOU remember that you are elected to protect the Constitution?…”
The fury fairly leaps off the page on these forums and it is clear that at this point in the election cycle they are not at all interested in candidates who can build coalitions and consensus. They want a fighter who will defeat the opposition, not work with them.
Enter Donald Trump. Many elites scoff at Trump’s bombastic language, fairly criticizing its flaws in fact and tone. They are also surprised (and sometimes worried) at the support he has received thus far. Based on comment forum discourse, however, it is not surprising at all. The attraction of Trump is not his mastery of policy issues – it is his uncompromising, “take no prisoners” approach to our political problems. For conservatives who feel the establishment wing achieves nothing by bargaining and negotiating in the political process, his rhetoric is music to their ears. In the words of commenters,
“These main stream Republicans are running scared. The are basically no different than the democrats. Spineless. Crank it up Mr. Trump!”
“The republicans bashing trump are weak. And jealous of him. These republicans are the same ones meander [sic] with the dems behind close [sic] doors.”
“I want Ted Cruz, Carly Fiornia and other candidates – including Donald Trump included in the upcoming debates. No more shoving some weak kneed GOP candidate who will lose (again) to the Liberal Progressives who have taken over the Democrat party. If FOX can’t accomplish this simple task, why should we TRUST FOX NEWS anymore?”
There is currently great support for Trump’s candidacy. Of the first 100 comments on a Fox News Facebook post about Trump, 92 expressed support. This is typical for conservative forums where support for Trump currently in the majority, if not a supermajority. A tally of the comments on a CNN Facebook post about Anderson Cooper’s interview with Trump showed less support, only 24 of the first 100 comments were supportive (which is not insignificant, given CNN’s position in the media’s mainstream). Based on a reading of the first 100 comments of four CNN Facebook pieces about presidential candidates, approximately 20% support Trump. Of course, today’s frontrunners may be forgotten in a few months (or even weeks), but the anger at establishment Republicans is the force driving support for Trump and will likely continue to be a factor in the race. Trump may not be the ultimate vehicle for this element of the Republican Party, but they want a candidate who is a fighter and not interested in bargaining and compromise.
Viewed individually, comment forum posts do not provide much insight on public opinion and they mostly serve to alarm everyone about the decline of civilized discourse. If you read enough of this speech, however, overall trends emerge. In the aggregate, comment forums are particularly useful in identifying more visceral aspects of opinion. The substance of this language is similar to elite discourse, but public comments tap into an overall mood.
Every week is a lifetime in a political campaign and it is not likely that Trump’s appeal can survive the entire primary cycle. The details of his various policy pronouncements are conveniently vague, and his bold statements will not be as impressive when subjected to close scrutiny. The anger and division within the Republican Party will remain, however, and Republican candidates will have the unenviable task of placating a very active wing of the Republican Party that is not in the mood for compromise and wants nothing to do with Establishment Republicans. I would not be surprised if many Republican candidates are currently hearing this message loud and clear (which is why many of them are hesitant to simply denounce Trump) and will continue to incorporate plenty of “fighting” words in their discourse. It is telling that Scott Walker’s speech declaring his candidacy did not tout a record of building consensus and getting things done, but rather that he could fight and win.
By the time the general election rolls around, this rebellion could subside as Republicans close ranks against the Democratic candidate, but the gist of the current comment forum language is that they erred in “settling” for Mitt Romney in 2012 and are not going to make that mistake again.
Karen S. Hoffman is Director of Undergraduate Studies and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University. She is the author of Popular Leadership in the Presidency: Origins and Practice. She has also published articles on the presidency, presidential rhetoric, and political communication in Rhetoric & Public Affairs and Congress and the Presidency. Her essay on comment forum speech appears in Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns (NYU Press, 2015).