The results of the 2016 US elections was one shocking news in November that left many people in disbelief. But a series of events helped us gain more clarity on the role of media during this time of transition.
On November 8th, colleagues from the Communication Leadership (Commlead) graduate program watched the results together. “I can’t believe how wrong I was about how this election would play out. It reveals that I live in a bubble of well-off, college educated, socially conscious people,” Andrew Mitrak an alumnus reacted.
On November 20th, the Commlead community convened in the living room of program director, Hanson Hosein to support and listen to each other. “We don’t know what the future holds but we can teach ourselves to be resilient,” Future of Marketing instructor Rob Salkowitz spoke.
On November 28th, Commlead reached out to the public audience by hosting a panel discussion, What Happened? The Role of Traditional and Social Media in the 2016 Elections. Hosein led the discussion that included Seattle Times columnist Monica Guzmán, journalist Morton Kondracke, journalism professor Joanne Silberner, and political science professor Mark Smith.
The Diminishing Role of Traditional Media
“Something profound happened three weeks ago and we are still trying to make sense out of the shift. A lot of it has something to do with media, both new and old and definitely technology,” Hosein addressed his audience of over 400 people and welcomed everyone into the safe space where everyone was encouraged to be respectful to each other’s time.
Silberner believes that the national media networks were out of touch and kept missing out on the real story. A study conducted by The New York Times revealed that from January through November the three major TV networks devoted 125 minutes to Clinton’s emails and 35 minutes to policy discussions. “The networks were, for the most part, surprised. Local newspapers were less so — they live next to the people who read them,” Silberner said.
The decline of traditional media is also due to the over reliance on social media. Silberner mentioned that the Pew Research Center polled people on where they get their news. It revealed that only two in ten Americans say they get their news from newspapers while 44% of Americans say that they get their news from Facebook.
Another alarming view on news gathering surfaced when Hosein shared a Stanford University study that polled nearly 8,000 students from middle school through college. “They found that more than 80% of students polled could not distinguish between a sponsored ad and a real news story in a website. This concluded that digital natives, the ones that we assume are incredibly literate online are easily duped.”
Silberner suggests, “Someone has to inform young people about how to inform themselves and how to differentiate fact from fiction. Journalists have to find a way to make the truth look more attractive. We have to tell stories better.”
Silberner prescribed that solutions to these problems require action highlighting the need to support local media outlets like The Seattle Times, The Everett Herald, and The Seattle Globalist. She also stressed the need to call out journalists and educators for media literacy and civics education. “Let your favorite TV network know that you are unhappy. As much as you write letters to your politicians, write letters to media outlets, or join an advocacy group that’s trying to focus on discussions and issues,” Silberner concluded.
The Over Emphasis on the Polls
Smith argues that the polls were not actually far off, “Hillary took a lead of about 3.5 points as it turns out, she is ahead now by about 1.5 points. In most areas in life, if you are off by 2%, you say ‘What’s the big deal?’ but in a presidential election where the winner takes all, 2% means a lot.”
The problem with the polls was attributed to media’s inability to prepare its audience with the poll’s margin of error. Smith explained that over the years the response rate of polls have declined. He shared that the Pew Research Forum back in the mid 90s had a response rate of 60% to 70% but by 2012 it’s down to about 9%. “It’s harder to reach people because they can identify a pollster or they don’t have the actual device to reach them. This means it’s harder to get more accurate polls,” Smith said.
The media was also very unfamiliar with a new kind of voter that made up Trump’s voter base. “I think [pollsters] didn’t pick up enough rural, less educated white voters,” Smith pointed out. “There’s a certain number of voters that Trump picked up that normally don’t vote. If you look at the Rust Belt, you’ll find areas that Trump vastly outperformed Romney there compared to in 2012.”
Smith thinks that polls are still the best source of data but reminded everyone that polls have a bigger margin of error than we think. ”What can the media do then?” Someone from the audience asks. “Focus on reporting on issues rather that daily updates of polls. Deemphasize polls and recognize the possibility of a systematic error,” Smith responded.
The Trump Brand Strategy
The Trump campaign spent and earned advertising strategically. According to Hosein, ‘’President-elect Trump spent more money on Facebook ads than anywhere else. At any given time, his campaign had run 40,000 to 50,000 variants of one ad just to see how people would respond and they could tweet a message accordingly. In just four months, they raised 450 million dollars from small donors using Facebook.’’
Kondracke shared findings from Media Quad, a digital marketing agency that showed Trump receiving an equivalent of 1.9 billion dollars in free advertising and only spending 10 million dollars on paid advertising. Trump’s 16 opponents had the equivalent of 1.2 billion and both Clinton and Sanders have the equivalent of less than 1.1 billion in free advertising.
What or who was behind the success of this strategy? Hosein quotes an article in Forbes that claims Jared Kushner to be the man behind Trump’s presidential win, “The Trump campaign, meanwhile, delved into message tailoring, sentiment manipulation and machine learning. The traditional campaign is dead, another victim of the unfiltered democracy of the Web–and Kushner, more than anyone not named Donald Trump, killed it.”
Kondracke felt that this was a classic Trump move, “He‘s a former reality TV star, he’s a great world-class brand builder, and he understands what the media wants, not substance but novelty, controversy, conflict, and strong personalities.“
The Great Social Network Divide
According to Hosein, “Facebook now has 1.7 billion active users around the world. In December 2008, when President Obama was president-elect, it had 145 million active users. What does this mean for traditional media?”
For Guzmán this simply means that today Facebook is not just a social community but also a media platform. “We are moving from a time when people feel informationally satisfied by subscribing to news sources to a time when people feel more informationally satisfied by joining certain information communities.” She’s talking about social networks, email lists, and any digital tool that allows people to tailor how they receive information and only from people they trust.
Facebook has become very good and incentivising its users to stay on their platform, “How do you keep someone somewhere longer? You give them what they want. How do you know what they want? You watch them, you see what they engage with, you see what they like, you create a way for them to tell you what they like, you create a way for them to go around the web and tell you more about themselves.” In Facebook, everything is personalizable and sharing information has become a badge.
“Facebook allows you to stop listening to people you no longer want to be connected to and your bubble becomes more narrow,”
However, Guzmán thinks that Facebook is poorly designed for listening and empathy. The more time people spend on Facebook the more divided we become, “FB + Time = more divided networks.” The social network encourages users to stay online by allowing them to engage only with those they like. “Facebook allows you to stop listening to people you no longer want to be connected to and your bubble becomes more narrow,” she added.
At the beginning of the panel discussion, Hosein tells a story on how Facebook is now under fire for not doing enough to police fake news and hate speech. He asks, “Is Facebook a media company? Does this organization of unprecedented scale and influence have an ethical obligation to actually police what we are seeing on their channels. And do we have an obligation ourselves?”
Guzmán reinforces Hosein’s point by challenging the audience, “When we go to Facebook what are we seeking? Informational or emotional fulfillment?” She suggests for users to go beyond the headlines that could possibly just turn on emotional buttons and seek the truth in the story. While she believes that Facebook can do more, people cannot just instruct and demand from Facebook. She asks a question worth pondering, “Where is our shared reality?”
Technology and media helped bring us together during crucial times in November. What happened before that from news gathering to social network discussions may have left people doubtful. But as we start to look forward it may help to rethink our role and our intent when we use technology and media in our lives. What happens next is more important as we stay informed, connected, and active all year round, online and offline.
What happens next is up to us.