The media may determine the next US president
The winning candidate will be determined by the media, says Saska Saarikoski, a Finnish journalist and author of a book on America and Donald Trump, currently based in the United States. Just turn on the TV and it becomes obvious: to a European citizen – grown up with a strong public broadcasting company and fact-based news reporting – there is an enormous oversupply of news coverage on the US presidential election on too many channels.
According to Saarikoski, there has never been a candidate in the US elections who dominates the media as strongly as Trump does. “Trump is an ‘entertainment candidate’, one that attracts clicks and viewers but one that will eventually stumble on his own impossibility,” the American media must have thought. However, while Trump certainly has stumbled, it hasn’t stopped him. Instead, he has carried on against all odds, ignoring all conventions. Realising this, many media outlets have finally had to make a U-turn.
We can disagree on Trump’s messages but not on his domination of the media, says Matt Rhoades, the Campaign Manager for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Trump’s domination does not limit to mainstream media but reaches all communication platforms. Let’s take his Twitter account as an example: not only is he incredibly active (he is said to tweet himself, causing his campaign staff nightmares with tweets at 3 am) but also his following keeps growing steadily; from 10,5 million in late July to over 12 million people today.
Yet there is something missing: two-way communication. In debates and interviews, Trump never discusses or responds, he makes statements. On Twitter, Trump himself follows only 41 users and hardly ever engages in conversations. Matt Rhoades argues that captivating content is the king, and engagement can be disregarded.
Maybe Donald Trump has been given too much space? Afraid of losing audience, the media failed to respond to Trump’s behaviour by putting pressure on him. Regardless of the fact that up to 90% of American media are said to be against him, Trump is allowed to carry out his strategy of brave arguments and threatening to block any news outlet he feels uncomfortable with. The media will indeed determine the winner, but not the way it would have wanted to.
In the US, there is no one media that could reach the entire nation. From a European standpoint, it is easy to forget how diverse the US is. The diversification of people, the ongoing cultural transformation and the rise of social media have all played their parts in the alternation of the media’s role in society. If the media is not doing what it should be doing, it may be because the media has lost its power.
Simultaneously we may wonder why up to 80 or 90 per cent of communication efforts are still spent on TV? Conversation has traditionally been steered by TV, but we are now witnessing a new era of broadcasters, such as Donald Trump. Social media can reach individual voters much more efficiently than TV and additionally US privacy laws, which are less strict than European laws, allow parties to build voter files and determine who to talk to and how to talk to them. This approach has been utilised in the US for ages, but direct mail marketing has now been taken to social media.
The profile-building of potential voters in social media requires complex analytical algorithms, but the basic idea is simple: they compile sophisticated stereotypes answering questions about you and me in everyday contexts such as where we shop, how we dress and what kind of a car we drive. The results can then be tested and the test results utilised to target communication and marketing to persons that are likely to vote for a particular candidate.
To sum things up: there is a huge apparatus working for both candidates. The key in utilising social media is to make the collection and utilisation of data efficient. In 2016, it seems unlikely that optimisation would steer an entire campaign but it may create a couple of points that, in the end, can really make a difference (note Florida in 2008, for example).
However, we should not forget that all optimisation requires data from the past. And the past is not always the best fortune teller: based on statistics from the primary elections, the Trump phenomenon should never have happened.