NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center. My name is Katie Reedy. Today our topic is the role of social media in U.S. elections, and I have the pleasure to introduce Professor Patrick Egan, Patrick J. Egan, associate professor of politics and public policy at New York University, who specializes in U.S. political attitudes and behavior and their consequences for public policy, partisanship, and identity. He is the recipient of the NYU Golden Dozen Award in recognition for his outstanding contributions to learning in the classroom. Before entering academia, he served as an assistant deputy mayor of policy and planning in the office of Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell. For the 2020 elections, he is working as an elections analyst for NBC News as part of the network’s exit poll desk team. Egan holds a PhD in political science from the University of California Berkeley and a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. And by the way, we do have printouts of this bio if you’d like to take a copy.
A couple reminders: This briefing is part of our Elections 101 series, and as part of that, non-government guests and experts are invited to address journalists and offer their views in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the official policy views of the U.S. Government. Additionally, this briefing is on the record, and we will be transcribing it for after. And I would like also just ask everyone to please silence their phones.
And with that, I’ll hand it over to Professor Egan. Thank you.
MR EGAN: Thanks, Katie.
Hi, everybody. Nice to be here today. Thanks for being here with me. So today I’m going to talk to you about the role of social media in U.S. politics, particularly with a focus on the 2020 presidential campaign, of course. I think to understand the role of social media in politics, it kind of helps to understand the American political landscape, which many of you may be familiar with parts of it. But I wanted to make sure that I covered just a sense of where politics is right now in the United States to give you some background before we start talking about social media.
So today I’m going to focus on three things here. I’ll talk about the U.S. political landscape in terms of who is supporting what out there in the United States. I’m going to then turn the focus to what we know about the current presidential campaign and then turn to social media’s impact on 2020.
So just broadly, the U.S. political landscape, we might say there’s sort of five big points to be made about U.S. politics right now, and they all are slowly moving almost tectonic plate kind of motions or themes that have emerged in U.S. politics over the last few decades.
So, the first is that there’s a stark urban-rural divide. You are all probably very, very familiar with this map, which of course is the 2016 presidential election with states colored in red for those won by Trump and in blue for those won by Democrat Hillary Clinton. Those with the red stripes are those that flipped from the Democrats to the Republicans in the 2016 presidential election campaign. These nice maps are from The New York Times, by the way. But what you may not be familiar with is this map, which I think actually tells you a whole lot more about American politics right now. And this is a map in which each county in the United States – there about 3,000 counties throughout the country – is colored in by the size of the lead of the candidate that won that county. And what you see are a few big blue bubbles located in the nation’s urban centers and then lots of tiny red bubbles located throughout the rest of the country, particularly in our rural areas. And that really tells you how stark the differences are between support for the Democratic Party in urban metro areas and the Republican Party in rural areas. And that is true even in a big red state or a blue state. So, for example, we consider New York State a red state, but if you look at the map on upstate New York, you see a lot of rural counties where actually Trump did pretty well. So, this is an important backdrop to what’s happening in 2020. This was true in 2016 and it’s probably even more the case now.
The other thing is that we’ve experienced a pretty big change in our political geography in I would say the last four to eight years. This map is a map that is colored in either dark red or dark blue by counties that shifted dramatically to the Republican candidate in 2016 – those are in red – versus those that shifted to the Democratic candidate in 2016 – those are in blue.
So this is, obviously, a different kind of map than what you just saw, but what it shows is how the country is slowly moving, and therefore changing its political alignment throughout the entire country geographically. And what I want to draw your attention to is what I call the Trump triangle, in a bit of alliteration, and it’s a part of the country that stretches from the upper Midwest to the Appalachians, all the way up to the northern tip of Maine. That swung in decidedly stark direction in the Republican column in 2016.
This means that a lot of states that had not been in play previously, like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, which had been safely Democratic for many, many elections, were able to be won narrowly by Trump in 2016.
So in the aftermath of the election, there was a lot of work trying to figure out well, why would this change be happening. And a big reason why it’s happening is that there’s a stark level of polarization that’s opened up, particularly among white voters, on the basis of education or class.
And what do I mean by that? Well, this is data from election surveys that have been conducted all the way since the 1980s, and it divides the electorate into four groups: white voters and people of color, and then each of those groups is divided into whether they have a college degree or not.
As you can see, the purple lines indicate that voters of color are pretty solidly Democrat. Only about 1 in 5 of them lately is supporting the Republican ticket in presidential elections. Where you’ve really seen quite a shift, though, is among white voters where whites without a college degree have moved decidedly toward the Republican Party over the last two presidential elections to the point where 6 out of 10 of them supported the Republican ticket in 2016. Meanwhile, whites with a college degree have moved in the exact opposite direction, and now they’re splitting their votes over – almost – much more in a direction toward the Democratic ticket than they have in the past.
So this is an unusual and unprecedented change in American politics where on the basis of education and really on the basis of class white voters are moving either in one direction or another. And the places in the Trump triangle are places where there were a lot of white voters without much education. And so the low education, white voter base has become an important part of the Republican Party support.
Okay. More of the American political landscape. One thing that is certainly happening and will probably continue to have seismic effects on American politics for the decades to come is the fact that the youngest generation, who we call millennials here in the United States, perhaps elsewhere, lean decidedly Democratic.
This graph is from election surveys going back to the 1950s, and it shows the four big generations in American politics ranked from oldest to youngest. The oldest is what we call the silent generation, in red is the baby boomers, in green is Gen-X, which is my generation, and then finally the youngest generation is millennials in blue. And they’re plotted on that graph as to how unusually Republican, if they’re above that middle line, or unusually Democratic they are, if they’re below that middle line, they are compared to the rest of the population.
And so what you see if you just look at the latest election, 2016, is a really stark generational divide that’s opened up in American politics where the difference between the support for Republicans among the oldest generation, which is quite high, and the youngest generation, which is quite low, is quite dramatic. Okay. And since the oldest generation is, as we say, aging out of the electorate, and the youngest generation is going to become a bigger and bigger presence in the electorate, one general sense that people have is that should these trends persist, the Democrats may ultimately enjoy a decided electoral advantage as this generation comes to be more powerful.
So here’s the thing. That generation doesn’t vote. So this is more survey data in which people are asked if they voted in the last presidential election. It’s the same four generations, the same color scheme, and they are plotted by the share – by the percentage of each of these generations who said that they voted in the previous presidential election.
As you can see, in 2016 there was a huge generational gap between the silent generation, which voted in pretty good numbers, and millennials, where just over half of that generation voted in the presidential election. So you don’t have power if you don’t vote, and that really tells a little bit of the tale of tape, which is that older, more conservative generations are kind of punching above their weight in terms of showing up at the polls; younger, less liberal voters are not.
Okay. One more thing about the American political landscape which is true throughout many of the rich, West democracies, and that is that confidence in government is at an all-time low. This is survey data going back to the mid-1970s, and it’s an index of responses to questions about whether you have confidence in the Supreme Court, in the Executive Branch, and in Congress. And on this index, American voters are currently about at an all-time low for the last five decades. And that lack of confidence in government extends to lack of confidence in all kinds of important institutions in the United States, including religious and – religious organizations and churches, science and education, other kinds of institutions, and this declining trust in institutions has become, I think, a major fault line in American politics in terms of how candidates of all different stripes – from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders – are approaching how we think about government and other institutions.
Okay. So that’s the landscape, a little bit of background for you. I want to talk briefly about the current presidential campaign because I think it also helps us to understand how social media is going to have an impact on the campaign. The most important thing from my perspective as a political scientist – political scientists try to think about elections scientifically and use data from the past to understand what might happen in the present – is that the fundamentals favor, narrowly, Donald Trump. What do I mean by that? Well, if you look at elections going back to World War II and you plot them on a picture like this where on the horizontal axis you have economic growth, so as we move from the left to the right we have elections that took place in times of better economic growth, and then on the vertical axis you just have the share of the vote in the presidential race that was earned by the incumbent party. Okay. So an election in which the economy was very good and the incumbent did very well, for example, would be 1984. That was Ronald Reagan’s re-election when the economy – when the economic growth rate was at about 7 percent – pretty darn healthy – and he won in a landslide. Okay.
So what we like to do with data like these is to say, given current economic growth, what would be the expected vote share for the current incumbent President – that is, Donald Trump. So if we looked only at elections in which an incumbent was running for re-election, so I’m taking a subset of what I showed you a minute ago, and make a prediction based upon what economists think will be the growth rate for 2020, which is about 1.8 percent, the prediction is that Trump should win narrowly by about 4 percentage points over his Democratic opponent. Okay. So political scientists do start there, where we sort of say based upon what we know from the past, this is about as good as a prediction as we would have as any of how the current presidential election might turn out. Okay.
Now, one thing to kind of keep in mind is that despite the fact that we’ve got a pretty good economy, Trump’s approval rating – that’s the share of Americans who approve of the job he’s doing as President – is relatively low. And so what that points to is the fact that we might have an unusual presidential election this year in which even though the economy is doing pretty well, the incumbent could be in trouble.
I’ll give you a little bit more data that shows that. Here is polling averages in which three prominent Democrats who are running for president have been tested against Donald Trump in multiple national surveys. So these surveys go all the way back to last January. The blue line is the race between Biden and Trump; the green line is the race between Bernie Sanders and Trump; and the purple line, which is newer because – he’s entered the race more recently, is Mike Bloomberg’s record against Trump. And so I want to point out a couple of things. One is that all three of these candidates, these Democrats, are ahead, on average, of Trump in national polling. The other thing I want to point out is that for all these, all three candidates, their lead has shrunk as the campaign has unfolded, right. So what used to be a very, very healthy lead, for example, for Biden – last summer it was about 10 percentage points – is now about half that today. Okay. So something is happening where Trump is becoming relatively more attractive to the American public vis-a-vis these candidates.
And then the final thing I want to point out is – and I don’t know how closely you all have been paying attention to the Democratic race right now – but as Bernie Sanders has emerged as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination on a platform that is quite liberal – probably, if he’s nominated, he would by far be the most liberal nominee the Democrats have ever nominated, certainly since World War II – there’s been some fear in the Democratic Party that by nominating somebody with such an extreme set of views, that person will not do so well in the general election against Trump. And what I want to show you here is that at least on the polling data we have so far, there’s not much of a penalty that Sanders is facing compared to his other two Democratic opponents. It looks like he actually runs better against Trump than Bloomberg, and only slightly worse against Trump than his more moderate opponent Joe Biden. So I look at these data and I say, at least from what we know, we don’t – we don’t see a real obvious penalty that Sanders is facing because of his very progressive views.
All right. Okay. So the – that’s what I’ve just said. Okay.
So now let’s turn a little bit to social media’s impact on 2020. There are a lot of things we can say about social media in politics, and I look forward to your questions because I have a feeling I won’t cover all of the ideas or themes that you want to talk about, and I’m happy to discuss anything that’s on you and your readers’ minds. I want to talk briefly about four themes that have to do with the way we would expect social media to impact politics in the 2020 race.
The first is that social media has become a very, very important source for news in American politics, but that there’s a lot of evidence that people are staying in their bubbles when it comes to the kinds of social media news that they consume.
The second is that social media is a virtually unmediated way for politicians to talk to their followers, which means that they leap over the traditional gatekeeping and filtering role that the media, like you, play in terms of helping people to understand political races. So that continues to be a really important way that politicians can talk to their audiences or their followers in essentially an unfiltered sense without any challenge or pushback from news media.
The third is that it’s a largely unregulated medium to broadcast ads, and many of those ads, particularly already in 2020, are quite norm-breaking. The kinds of ads that are transmitted and sent over social media have a quality that are very different than the kinds of ads that are run, say, on TV. And so social media creates an atmosphere for ads that break the norms of political communications in campaigns in ways that we don’t really know what the ultimate impact will be.
And then finally, I wouldn’t – I would be remiss without talking about Twitter and Donald Trump, in that Twitter remains a key tool for Trump in that it sets the agenda. As many of you journalists probably know, Trump’s tweets, particularly at the beginning of any given day, can often change the entire news cycle for that day, and it remains an incredibly powerful tool for him to make decisions about what people are going to talk about that day in the news, and therefore how the news is going to cover politics. No other politician has or will have that kind of power throughout 2020; no matter who the Democratic nominee is, they’re not going to gain that kind of prominence on Twitter. The number of followers that each of these candidates has is dwarfed by who Trump has. And so this will continue to be an important tool for him.
So these are the four themes. Let me quickly give you some data to kind of flesh out each of these themes. I want to show you some data from the Pew Research Center, which, if you’re not familiar with them, are an amazing source of data on how Americans get their news from social media.
So what you see on the left is just the share of Americans reporting that they ever use different online platforms. At the top are YouTube and Facebook, which are social media platforms that are quite different from one another. I think the big one here is probably Facebook to think about in terms of a social media platform. Further down the list are Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and then I might note that Twitter is just used by about one out of five every Americans. So I think Twitter looms large in journalists’ minds and certainly in academics’ minds – we use Twitter quite a lot to communicate – but ordinary Americans, a lot of people are not really tuned in to Twitter. And here on the right you can see just how frequent usage is of different media – social media sites by Americans. So those who are, for example, on Facebook are visiting Facebook several times a day. Right. So this is many of the most popular social media sites are common, frequent use, more than – more than once a day by many people in the American public.
So what about news? Well, it’s emerged as an important but not most important source of news. So again, this is more data from the Pew Research Center, and on the left is a graph that just plots the share of Americans who say they either sometimes or often get news from social media sources. As you can see, that is just a little over half of Americans now in 2019 who say that they get their news from social media sources. So we still have half of America that doesn’t, so that’s important to kind of note. And the most important source of news for many older Americans remains television, so TV should not be discounted as an important way that Americans learn about political news, even in the era of social media. And there you see I have an asterisk because the big exception here is young people. Young people below the age of 30 are turning to social media as their primary source of news, and so we can again think about how the impact of social media on the race in 2020 is going to vary a lot by generation.
To be clear, social media is amplifying America’s already polarized news bubbles. So this is just additional data from Pew where people were asked about where they get their news, what kinds of TV stations or newspapers or other sources they get their news from. And as you can see, particularly Republicans are overwhelmingly devoted to Fox News as a source of their news consumption. And the big story here, of course, is that Democrats and Republicans rely on very different streams of news to understand the world. The – our best guess from academic research in social media is that social media mirrors these kinds of news bubbles, that social media, because we tend to be in touch with people on social media who are similar to us, they are likely to share political news that is already reflective of the kinds of other news sources we’re already consuming. And so social media in this sense is probably amplifying the impact of traditional media as opposed to necessarily disrupting it. I think that’s one way to think about it.
Okay, so it’s – as I said earlier, it’s – social media is also this direct way that politicians can communicate with followers, and it allows politicians to reach their followers in very unusual ways. So this is just kind of a very interesting and topical example. It’s a series of tweets that were posted by Mike Bloomberg’s campaign to his followers on Twitter that were making fun of Bernie Sanders’ alleged support for dictators around the world. So this goes back to what Bernie Sanders had said about Fidel Castro in Cuba and other authoritarian regimes, praising their ability to get things done even if he felt that the leadership was not ideal. Why am I putting this on the screen? Well, just as an example of how this kind of message could never have been delivered in the era of traditional media. It would never have been able to reach such a wide set of people and have an impact on news coverage of the campaign, at least on that particular day. Now, one thing to note about this particular sequence is that it ended up backfiring on Bloomberg, that is the campaign got so much criticism for this set of unusual tweets they actually ended up taking them down. So it’s a interesting story about both the power of social media to reach followers in unusual ways but also the limits on – which candidates still face in terms of being certain kinds of communication that end of being off limits.
Another piece about social media which is related is that it’s a largely unregulated medium on which to run ads that really break norms about how we conduct our political campaigns. So this is from a Bloomberg Businessweek article back just before the November 26 (sic) presidential election, and it noted that the Trump team had put together a series of what they even called “dark operations” to undertake an unusual set of steps to undermine support for their Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. And the example I’ve highlighted here from you – for you is an animation that was delivered to black voters through Facebook in what they call “dark posts.” These are non-public posts that can only be seen by followers, and they were designed to depress African American turnout in Florida and other parts of the country. So these are ads that, again, would be very difficult to run on traditional media, and in fact were happening without anyone really knowing because Facebook is very difficult to track in terms of ad spending and ad delivery. And so one of the things that is true about social media is that campaigns can be running messages to people through their – through these channels that we’re not even aware of because they all happen kind of behind the scenes and there’s not kind of the same sort of transparency there is with, say, running ads on television where those are tracked and monitored, et cetera. So I think that’s an important way that social media is changing politics, which is that it gives candidates the abilities to really upend the traditional rules of advertising by reaching people through these kinds of ways.
And then finally, I’ll just close with talking about Trump and Twitter again. This is probably my favorite tweet by Donald Trump, which is – he had been critiqued for his use of social media as not being presidential, and his response was actually, I think, quite accurate. This is back in 2017. He says yeah, “[it’s] not presidential – [but] it’s modern-day presidential;” that is, it’s a tool that I’m using in the contemporary age to great effect to determine the news agenda for the day and for the days to come. And so this is going to continue to be a drum beat in the 2020 presidential campaign. Presidents always have lots of power to set the agenda in news. They used to do that with daily news conferences in Washington. As you know, that doesn’t really happen very much anymore, but in its place is messages like this communicated particularly on Twitter that do have the effect of deciding what we’re going to talk about, what’s going to be important, what we’re going to react to. And this is a really incredibly powerful tool, whether you think it’s good or bad, that Trump has at his disposal and will continue to use throughout the 2020 presidential campaign.
So with that, I’ll close. I’m happy to take questions on either what I talked about or other themes regarding social media and politics that may interest you.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. We would just ask that you please – please do state your name and outlet before asking your question. Thanks very much.
QUESTION: Hello. Arnaud Leparmentier, Le Monde from France. You didn’t speak about the Russian meddling in the election in the social media. Do you feel there was a real impact or is it just the Democrats that do not accept that they lose the election and said well, that’s the Russians, it’s not our fault?
MR EGAN: Good question. So the question is Russian meddling in the 2016 election via social media, and of course the newly emerging charges that that’s happening now in 2020. Political scientists would say that there were certainly efforts by the Russians to do this, and those have been well-documented by the American Government in lots of ways. Where political scientists disagree is that they don’t think it had much of an impact. So if you think about the sheer volume of ads and communications about politics released via Facebook and all kinds of other media to American voters, our best guess is that what was accomplished by Russia and other foreign actors trying to intervene was a very, very small share of all the communications that people get. And the best academic work that has tried to detect effects of these kinds of ads on whether people voted and who they voted for has found that those effects were quite minimal. So in a sense, the response would be: The meddling definitely happened. Whether its impact was very strong is unlikely.
QUESTION: Can you just cite that research?
MR EGAN: Yeah, the research is – I don’t have the cite on – I’m happy to get back to you, but – yeah, happy to get back to you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take another question here and then we’ll take a question in Washington, D.C.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks very much for speaking with us. Toby Burns with NHK. Just as a follow-up to my colleague’s comment there, what do those disinformation tactics and meddling, what do they look like? We never see these things, and I understand they’re sensitive communication, so you don’t want to publicize them, but like, what – give us an example of how you use social media to actually sow disinformation, dissent, that kind of thing. That’s the first one.
Second one is: Do you think, given the increasing importance of Facebook in particular but also social media, that it is ethical to have such an opaque algorithm when it is instrumental to – becoming more and more instrumental to the political communications of certainly this country and also many more? Thank you.
MR EGAN: Yeah, so in terms of your first question, I think political scientists would say that the kind of most effective kinds of information campaigns that come from any sources, whether they’re foreign and domestic, tend to be the kinds of things that are designed to play upon pre-existing divisions in the American electorate. So the example I mentioned earlier was a effort to reach African American voters to tell them about comments that Hillary Clinton had made about super predator criminals 20 years beforehand to make it sound like she had said it yesterday. And the design was essentially not necessarily to get African American voters to support Trump, but to instead not to turn out at all.
So what we tend not to see are kind of outright lies on social media, because a lot of times those lies are kind of easy to detect. Instead, what the kind of more sophisticated efforts try to do is to essentially rile up pre-existing divisions in the American electorate and exploit them for political gain.
I’m not an ethicist, so I’m not that qualified to talk about what I think Facebook should do with its algorithm. I will say this, which is that certainly political science has gained a lot, and I think the public has gained a lot from the fact that we’re able to track and allocate political spending on television. So the fact that I know who has paid for a political ad that appears on TV, and as you’re probably familiar with any ad you see on TV has to have a little tag line saying who paid for it, who sponsored it, et cetera, we’re in this kind of Wild West world in social media where it’s very difficult to attribute where sources of ads and other political messages come from. I would say any effort, whether that meant opening up the algorithm or other kinds of changes, that would allow voters and analysts to be able to have a sense of how much of this out there and who’s paying for it would be good, and I would certainly support any move to do that.
MODERATOR: All right. Now to a question from Washington, D.C.
QUESTION: Hi. Professor, thanks for doing this. My name is Nirmal Ghosh, I’m with The Straits Times of Singapore. You, in one of your slides you mentioned, of course, that Gen X and millennials voted much lower rates than the elders. But the data stops at 2016, and in 2018 there was a much higher turnout across the board, and the turnout was particularly high among Gen X and Millennials and Gen Z as well. And a lot of the Gen Z is actually going to becoming – is coming of voter age between now and November. How significant is that trend, and do you – I mean, yeah, how significant is the trend?
MR EGAN: Good point. So in 2018, you did see kind of an uncharacteristic rise in turnout among the youngest Americans. I should add, you saw an uncharacteristic rise among turnout among all Americans. So what that meant is that while young people were more likely to turn out in the 2018 midterm elections than usual, they were part of a giant wave of increased turnout among all generations. And so the question then is: Will we – do we think this will persist in 2020? I’m not a good forecaster, so I’m not going to make a prediction one way or the other.
I think certainly it’s the hope of the Bernie Sanders campaign, should he get the nomination, that his message, which has been shown to appeal quite strongly to young voters, particularly young Democrats, might spur more of these young voters to turn out at the polls. What is sort of some disheartening news for his campaign is that we are seeing no evidence of that in any of the Democratic primaries. So turnout in the first three states – New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada – the first three states to hold presidential contests has been just slightly above where it was in 2016, but nowhere near the record turnout that those states saw in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for President. And we’re not seeing much evidence that the electorate is any younger than it’s been in previous years, which is what you would expect to see if you thought there was a big surge in youth turnout in these contests.
So, so far, where the tale of the tape is really who’s showing up at the polls, and in the first few contests, we’re not seeing a sign of a big surge in the youth vote for Sanders or really for anyone.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you very much for the very informative briefing. My name is Arthur MacMillan. I’m a journalist with Agence France-Presse, and I’m working specifically on a team right now focused on disinformation and the influence of social media in elections. Part of that is AFP Fact Check. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it.
But I wanted to speak to you about the concept of confirmation bias and the effect that has or is having, may have, in the forthcoming presidential election. Because something we have seen through many of the fact checks that we have done is the fact that people will, after we have done a fact check on an article that is either false, misleading, or unsubstantiated, they will actually – there will still be people who will come back to us and tell us, “I don’t care if it was not true. I don’t care that this person did not say it. I agree with it.”
And given that more than half of – well, according to one of your graphs there, given that more than half of Americans are getting their news on Facebook and sharing things knowingly that – well, some are sharing things knowingly that are false; many are not sharing things that they know to be false; however, they are confirming their own bias by sharing them. I just wondered if you could talk about, like I say, the prevalence of that and if you think that effect is getting bigger, or basically how you see it.
MR EGAN: Yeah. I think as the United States has become more polarized on the basis of partisan lines, partisanship has taken on the quality of an identity. So we’ve long been a country of many, say, ethnic and racial identities. Well, now whether you’re a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican, that is sort of taking on the quality of an identity as well. And one of the things that identity groups do is they like to maintain common beliefs about things, and in this case, maintaining common beliefs about politics and political figures.
When a very strong partisan is confronted with information that contradicts their beliefs about, say, the state of the economy or the rate of immigration or even very basic facts that have objective answers, there is a lot of political science research that indicates that partisans reject facts that are at odds with their beliefs and their side, and they readily accept facts that are – that comport with their beliefs.
And so I think the most important thing to keep in mind is this is not just true of social media. This – the first findings to show this actually happened before there was much social media. Probably the most famous article, for example, published on this was in 2002. So this has long been a phenomenon in American politics.
What you’re pointing at is the fact that it may be aggravated by social media, because social media exposes us more intensely to the views of people who are like us, that is, those people who are in our social networks. And so it may be sending us further down the rabbit hole believing things that comport with our political values and identities than it did before the era of social media. But I think what it’s basically doing is aggravating some pre-existing confirmation bias, as you mentioned, and probably making it stronger.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’re —
QUESTION: Can I ask one very quick follow-up?
MODERATOR: Please make for the mike. Thanks.
QUESTION: Okay. Sorry, yes. Do you think, though, that politicians consciously know about that and still play on that fact, the confirmation bias?
MR EGAN: Yeah, I think politicians have long done that. I mean, what politicians tend to do is they try to direct the conversation toward facts that are in their favor, right? So, for example, by many accounts we have a very strong economy in the United States right now – low unemployment, decent growth, wage growth at the lowest tercile of the distribution – all kinds of things that speak strongly for the campaign of – re-election campaign of President Trump.
What does Bernie Sanders do? Well, he highlights facts like people not being able to afford health insurance, working two jobs where they used to work one, et cetera, and those can also be facts that are objectively true as well, right? And that’s what campaigns tend to do is not so much mis-state facts, but instead try to emphasize the facts that are in their favor. And usually candidates can find facts that work in their favor regardless of what side they’re on.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Now we’ll go to Washington, D.C. for a question.
QUESTION: Thank you professor. Sriram Lakshman with The Hindu of India. My question for you is – and I take your point that you’re not a forecaster, but how do you weight the 2016 results versus the 2018 midterm results when you’re thinking about what’s going to happen this year?
MR EGAN: A couple things. So one is that it’s really quite normal for the midterm election following a presidential election to swing in the other direction. So if you look at the last few midterms that followed the election – the first election of a president, they tend to move in the opposite direction away from the White House. What was unusual in 2018, and I think is what you’re getting at, was just the historic nature of how big that shift was toward the Democrats in 2018 compared to previous years. I think that speaks well for the Democrats, and it also perhaps cautions the Democrats from taking too progressive a line in the 2020 presidential election.
Now, why is that? Well, it’s candidates that tended to run on more moderate platforms on the Democratic side that really were responsible for the Democrats taking back the House of Representatives. The more liberal or progressive candidates that were favored by the more left wing of the party tended to not fare very well in 2018. And so a lot of observers would say that what that – that should give the Democrats caution about taking too extreme of a progressive platform in 2020, because that actually might not be where the American electorate is.
QUESTION: Hello. I’m Sandra Muller from La Lettre de l’audiovisuel, French too. I have one question for you. You mentioned before that Donald Trump used to tweet really quickly, and it’s like a strategy, and sometimes I have the feeling that it’s a strategy to (inaudible) another subject and be quiet and if – you know what I mean? But there is somebody who is the queen of the tweet, like commander-in-tweet too, it’s like Bloomberg, Michael Bloomberg. So he came real lately in this election. He’s paying a lot of money – I think it was 30 million in November, maybe 60 now or something. And finally, he was not so good as we expected at the debate. So do you think that the – that this investment is enough for – just in social media? You talk about television too, the investment in television really higher than in Twitter and everything. So I wanted to know what your view about this dichotomy between social media, television – how can – it’s not enough? Even for now, do you think that Bloomberg, he can maybe win just with social media, or he needs to invest more in television, or he needs to go in much more debate? Or what is your point of view? Thank you.
MR EGAN: Mm-hmm. Well, I think the thing about Mike Bloomberg’s campaign is that he is spending money on everything. So I think the last figure I saw is that he spent half of a billion dollars on the presidential campaign so far. And of course, that includes huge buys on television across the nation, particularly in the Super Tuesday states – that is, the states that will be voting on this upcoming Tuesday. But he’s also spent quite a lot of money on social media. He’s hired people to text and create other kinds of messages to send to their friends and the people they influence about his campaign. He’s been running all kinds of different kinds of social media messaging campaigns on all kinds of platforms.
So I don’t think he’s – the fate of his campaign is going to tell us much about the relative strength of television versus social media in terms of reaching audiences, because he’s really trying everything. I think what it is going to tell us – and we’ll have to see what things look like after Super Tuesday – is the extent to which a large fortune can influence the American electorate. Polls have him at either third or even second place nationally among Democrats for the nomination. But at the same time, he may not perform that well in a lot of Super Tuesday states that just have demographics that are not in his favor.
So we’ll have to see – I – again, I’m just somebody who doesn’t like to make predictions. So we’ll have to see how things look after Tuesday, when that’s going to be the first big test of how much this strategy is working for Mike Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Thank you, hi. I’m Tina Trinh with Voice of America. I wondered if you had studied the different nuances of each social platform – I’m thinking primarily of Facebook and Twitter – and the different types of interactions, the nature of those interactions and the people we interact with, on those platforms, and their influence to affect inaction or action based on the way that they’re set up. For example, with Twitter we tend to follow public figures and celebrities, whereas with Facebook we have more interactions with friends and family. So did those nuances, different qualities of the platforms affect their effectiveness in influencing action or inaction?
MR EGAN: So that’s a great question about the differences between Twitter – let’s – we can focus on Twitter and Facebook. And I think you pointed out the big kind of structural differences in how those two platforms work. I don’t think there’s been a whole lot of good research on the extent to which they have differential effects on different kinds of outcomes, whether that’s attitudes or behavior, who you vote for, et cetera. But one thing that is definitely the case is that I think Facebook is – one thing, again, keeping in mind Facebook is just a much larger platform that looms much larger in the American mind than does Twitter, because only one in five Americans is even on Twitter. So in that sense, Twitter is also just kind of a much more elite form of communication. What we tend to see in the demographics of Twitter is that it leans much more Democratic and liberal than the general population, whereas Facebook’s users are more representative of the general population.
The – if I was going to hypothesize, I would say that the kinds of messages that – about politics that one receives on Facebook from friends and family are probably much more effective than the sort of generic messages that you’re getting if you’re looking at a Twitter feed from a bunch of different political figures. We know that people rely upon friends and family to understand politics, and that they often look toward influencers in their immediate social group – whether that includes friends, family, coworkers, et cetera.
And so my instinct would be that the effects of what happen on Facebook are much more robust than what happens on Twitter, which I think the effect would be more thin.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take another question from Washington.
QUESTION: Thank you, professor, for doing that. My name is Iuliia Olkhovskaia; I’m with Channel One Russia. I want to kind of follow up – there are different types of social media – Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and others. So which are the most popular among current presidential candidates? And from your point of view, what is the most powerful weapon in the internet – targeted ads, deep fakes, or something else? Thank you.
MR EGAN: Sure. Well, what we see is I think all candidates are investing on all platforms in terms of where they’re trying to establish presences and reach voters. The big three I think at this point would be Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which is rapidly gaining followers, particularly among the youngest generation. And again, we have to kind of distinguish between the efforts made by politicians to reach their followers on these platforms, and then ads that are run on these platforms. Those are two very different kinds of techniques, right. So one is you already have the sense that you’ve got people following you, and so you can kind of speak to the choir and motivate them and mobilize them to continue to support you, and the other is ads, where you may be speaking to people who are more persuadable.
Facebook in particular – and of course, Instagram is owned by Facebook, so there – that’s happening there as well – Facebook’s algorithm for targeting users is incredibly sophisticated. And so in that case, it’s allowed campaigns – and I think the Trump campaign did this most successfully in 2016, but now everybody’s emulating them – to develop highly – as you mentioned – highly targeted ads that can be sent to people based upon a demographic profile that you’ve built of them that may include data on 50 to 100 different characteristics in their – everything from what magazines they read, do they like to – what kind of food do they like to eat, what their income is, et cetera.
So my sense is that Facebook gives candidates a little bit more of a chance to really use these microtargeting approaches than does Twitter, just because the algorithm is that much more advanced at Facebook. Whether these things are more effective or what kinds of campaigns are more effective, we’re back at this research that is relatively skeptical about the extent to which these microtargeting ventures are moving many votes in one direction or another. The – again, these things are very hard to detect because of the reasons I was saying before about Facebook, but the – generally, just to take a step back, political scientists are very skeptical that TV ads move many votes. So the best kinds of studies indicate that the effects of TV ads wear off within days of being broadcast to voters. And so our sense is that – our instinct is that the effects of ads on any kind of medium have a similar rapidly diminishing effect, and that would be our expectation for the kinds of effects that you might see from ads on social media.
MODERATOR: Okay, we have time for a few more questions.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. My name is Michael Persson from Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. Two questions – one is a follow-up on the Facebook questions. Have you seen any effect after the backlash in 2016 and the promises that Mark Zuckerberg made of trying to mitigate or attenuate the polarizing effects of Facebook? Have you see that in your research that actually something happened there?
And the second question: You showed the use of social media is – has a higher propensity among younger generations. Also you see that younger generations have a lower turnout. So would it mean that actually the effect of social media is overrated in a way? Thank you.
MR EGAN: If I can just ask you to clarify that first question about the backlash. The backlash from whom and about what exactly?
QUESTION: Well, the backlash from politicians, media that the influence of social media —
MR EGAN: I see.
QUESTION: — two ways, Cambridge Analytica and the Russians, has been too big and so Zuckerberg had been called to the —
MR EGAN: Yeah.
QUESTION: — to Congress to answer for that.
MR EGAN: Okay, great. Yeah. So, I mean, I think publicly you’ve got politicians, particularly on the Democratic side, that have expressed, as you mentioned, a lot of concern about the role of social media and particularly Facebook in elections. And it creates a kind of interesting dilemma for Democrats, which is a lot of these tech companies, and certainly the people who work for these tech companies, are the Democrats’ largest supporters and donors. So it creates a kind of tension when, for example, the entire Bay Area in Congress is represented by Democratic members of the House of Representatives. They’re going to be reluctant to take too strong of a position against some of these companies that are the largest employers in their districts, right. And so that’s one kind of tension to watch for that many Democrats have to kind of toe the line.
The other thing, of course, is that regardless of whatever criticism that they’re leveling at Facebook, you see all the campaigns – whether they’re Democratic or Republican – using Facebook and using these techniques to reach voters. So certainly, if there’s been a backlash publicly, internally there’s a sense that this is a vital way to reach voters and to not be using Facebook as a platform and other social media outlets would be a mistake and cede a lot of advantage to your opponents.
MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll go again to Washington.
QUESTION: Hello, my name is Abdelrahman Ahmed. I’m a journalist with the Lebanon organization called Al-Modon. I have two questions. Is there any, like, research about the main idea or abstract idea – like, I mean in the midterm election in 2018, I – like, I noticed that people not just went to vote for a Republican and Democrat; it was, like, kind of voting for Trumpism. It’s like you are with Trump or you are not against Trump, whatever you are as a candidate. And now we see inside campaigns of, like, primary for Democrats, that people is going to, like, vote for, like, an establishmentism or, like, if I can say, like, about the people who belong to establishment or people who are progressive like a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Is there any research, like, that speaks about, like, focus on – focused on the big ideas, like Trumpism, establishment? Like, because at Guardian – like, the Guardian, for instance, like, has published how people all over the world, like, are fed up from elite people. So is there any research or any, like, studies has spoken about the, like, attitude of people toward these big ideas? Because I feel that we are going to find people vote not just for people or vote just for parties or for a candidate. Like, I feel like people going to vote basically for the big ideas – very left, very right, Trumpism, about Trumpism, about establishment. Is there any studies or research, like, has spoken about that?
MR EGAN: So I think the way that political scientists would think about this would go back to what I was talking about in terms of the plummeting trust and confidence in U.S. institutions. So the question mentioned the idea of the establishment, which is something that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have railed against – the establishment. They kind of pick different elements of the establishment to rail against, but some of them are quite shared in common. And I think one of the reasons why both of those candidates have found such wide appeal across the political spectrum is that we live in an era in the United States in which there is, again, widespread distrust that our institutions are working and that they work for everybody.
And there’s a lot of good data that would support an ordinary American’s sense that the system is rigged against them. So a good example would be that essentially median income, household income in the United States, has not really moved in any real way over the last 50 years, that most of the income gains have gone to the very top of the income distribution – say, the top 1 percent or the top 5 percent. And so there’s not a sense that the – I think there’s a well-reasoned sense among a lot of Americans that the kinds of things that we associate with what we call the American dream – upward mobility, opportunity, equal ability to get ahead – has been stymied in this particular era, and both Republicans and Democrats are interpreting that in slightly different ways, but they’re directing their anger and their frustration at the same thing, which is the establishment which seems to benefit from these – from these arrangements and institutions.
MODERATOR: Okay, we have one final question. Someone who has – if there’s someone who’s not.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Eddy Martinez. I’m from the Asahi Shimbun. And I just wanted to ask: A lot of campaigns have used memes as a way to get in touch with people. Does it actually work, or does that turn off people that they would want votes?
MR EGAN: We don’t know. (Laughter.) So what you’d like to do is put people in a room and show half the people memes and show half the people some kind of placebo and see if that actually has any effect. And this is such a new development that we actually don’t have good tests of that kind of a question. But here’s my instinct about it, which is that it’s very – it’s a very good way to attract attention. Whether that attracts votes is another question. But it seems to be that candidates have gotten this sense, and I think Donald Trump was the first to understand this, that in a time when we have so many different demands on our attention and we live in this era of complete distraction, even getting on somebody’s radar screen is a major achievement. And so what memes do, of course, is disrupt kind of the usual way that we communicate. They tend to make fun of standard ways of political communication, which, as I mentioned in my response to the last question, people are kind of exhausted by. And so I want to keep an eye on memes as perhaps an interesting development in how candidates are going to talk to voters in this new era. So stay tuned.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. That concludes our briefing today. Thank you to our briefer and thanks to you all for coming. Again, we will have a transcript later. Thank you again.
# # #