Social networking companies regularly mimic one another’s features to compete for users’ attention. But the 2016 election season has highlighted how, despite this convergence, people continue to engage on different platforms in different ways.
Epithets such as “the Facebook election,” “the Twitter election” and even “the Snapchat election” have circulated online and in the press, accompanied by arguments about whether these descriptions reflect reality. Some analysis about the ability of a given platform to dominate this election cycle revolves around targeted advertising and whether candidates can reach specific constituents.
This election season has taught us more than just which platforms are the best, well, platforms, for politicians. It’s affirmed how prominent social networks facilitate conversation.
Snapchat’s number of daily users surpassed Twitter’s earlier this year, but the platform facilitates one-on-one communication and solitary information consumption. Pew found that just 2 percent of U.S. adults get news from Snapchat. It’s a messaging service, not a forum for political discourse. Instagram is an ideal place to share photos of “Hillz Yaaas” street art and dogs wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, or even to follow the candidates. However, its minimalist comment threads are more conducive to emoji than they are to thoughtful political debates.
Twitter and Facebook are best suited for substantive discussion, but that discussion often takes on a different style and tone from platform to platform. Any social media strategist will tell you that what you post on Facebook should look different than what you post on Twitter, and what you post on Pinterest should look different still. To be sure, you might find the same articles, the same jokes and the same sentiments making the rounds on all. Overall though, when it comes to politics, Facebook promotes debate among family, friends and acquaintances, while 140-character tweets often take the form of kneejerk reactions to strangers.
The reason both Facebook and Twitter still exist after more than a decade — and as each increasingly becomes a news outlet, whether its founders want to admit it or not — is because each serves a distinct purpose.
Facebook, of course, has the larger user base — 1.79 billion monthly active users to Twitter’s 313 million. Forty-four percent of U.S. adults read or watch news on Facebook, while merely 9 percent get news on Twitter, according to Pew Research Center.
“From March 23, 2015, (when Ted Cruz became the first candidate to announce in the primary) through Nov. 1, 2016, 128 million people on Facebook in the U.S. generated 8.8 billion likes, posts, comments and shares related to the election,” a Facebook spokesperson told Entrepreneur in an email.
The spokesperson said that Facebook does not have data to share comparing 2012 election activity to 2016 election activity, though the company found that “in 2015, the most talked-about topic worldwide was the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
Conversely, “people in the U.S. sent 1 billion tweets about the election since the primary debates began in August of last year,” according to a Twitter blog post. Twitter did not respond to Entrepreneur’s request for additional election activity data prior to the publication of this article.
But the tech world and investors have turned against Twitter as the company has struggled to monetize. This election has also highlighted the network’s least desirable aspect: vitriol. Twitter’s reputation as a free-for-all for trolls is one major reason the company was unsuccessful in getting acquired this year.
Twitter is an ideal platform for real-time conversation during events such as presidential debates. That conversation moves extremely fast, in the form of 140-character reactions. Only a select few tweets go viral — most quickly get buried in the nonstop deluge as people try to outdo one another’s jokes, memes and hot takes. Political news plus pop culture reference equals Twitter gold. Twitter’s user base might be small, but it’s passionate about this type of expression. You’ll find it on Facebook, too, but it’s more in line with Twitter’s rapid-fire culture.
On Facebook, if a user posts a status or comment about politics, that user’s friends likely will not see it immediately, which is why Twitter is a better second-screen debate companion. A Facebook post is unlikely to have reach beyond a person’s circle of Facebook friends, though among those friends, it will have more staying power, especially as friends begin to like, comment and share. If a Facebook post gets a moderate amount of engagement, Facebook’s algorithms will prioritize it to show up in more friends’ feeds, increasing the likelihood of further conversation and engagement. (Liking a tweet won’t spread it to more eyeballs — only retweets will.)
With some exceptions, these are generally the trajectories of posts on either platform.
Political conversation on social media isn’t just a way to pass the time. It moves the needle for a significant proportion of Americans. Pewsurveyed U.S. adults this summer and found that “20 percent of social media users say they’ve modified their stance on a social or political issue because of material they saw on social media, and 17 percent say social media has helped to change their views about a specific political candidate.”
There’s been some controversy around the ability of social networks, particularly Facebook, to squelch ideological debate. Suspicions of left-leaning political bias led Facebook to lay off its staff of “Trending” news curators, despite the company’s claims that those accusations were unfounded. But users themselves play a role in limiting their worldviews via social media. Pew also found that nearly 40 percent of users have blocked or minimized the political content in their feeds.
And this type of self-selecting audience is perfect for the reactionary Donald Trump. He didn’t need to filter his thoughts through a middleman such as a news publication or a campaign staffer. Whenever Trump unabashedly tweeted an insult, he drummed up attention for his campaign. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, leaned on the support of her staff to come up with tweets that, while often quippy or informative, were clearly mediated.
While some Americans might have found Trump’s transparency refreshing — Twitter enabled him to give an impromptu fireside chat of sorts at 2:30 a.m. — it’s ironic that one of the last national headlines prior to election day was that Trump’s staff reportedly took his tweeting privileges away.