Ever since Donald Trump began winning the primaries, many Americans have looked for some kind of explanation.
Generally, the blame is shifted around. Depending on who you ask, the GOP, President Obama, journalists and social media are to blame for the rise of populist politicians like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. Social media, in particular, has taken a serious beating because it has thus far been the stage where this election has played out
Certainly, social media is a powerful tool in politics. President Obama employed a heavy use of social media during both his presidential campaigns with great success. Its immediacy and intimacy broke down barriers. It brought out record numbers of first-time voters, including difficult votes like young people and minorities.
Obama pioneered the way presidential elections were run and won in several ways, particularly with social media and prominent celebrity endorsements. But social media alone did not win him the election. Because even though Obama is a master of the art, social media was not as inherent in society as it is today.
Since 2008, social media has transformed from a place to put up pictures to a battleground. Social media today is the kind of place where revolutions are started and populists run free.
What's the secret to populism's success?
Out of the three populist candidates, it is Donald Trump who has had the most success online. But if you want to know why Trump has had so much success on social media, it is important to look at what he's saying.
Love him or hate him, Donald Trumps polarizing character and opinions are gaining him serious attention on social media channels. The number one predictor in virality on social media is how angry an article makes the reader...with this being the case Donald Trump's polarizing opinions garner him some serious eye balls on social media.
— Sabri Suby, head of growth and founder of King Kong
Populism is the term batted by party leaders and the press to explain this insurgency. Populists are those who work to appeal to the interests and concerns of the population at large. Meanwhile, they are simultaneously working against the status quo. On the surface, populism seems to be the correct way to describe the politics of Trump, Cruz and Sanders. Each of them poses a direct threat to the campaigns of traditional candidates while supposedly representing the views of voting Americans.
In theory, populism is a good thing. In fact, a certain amount of populism should be ingrained in American politics. Populism should force elected officials to deal with hard truths that they would rather ignore. But often, populism is combined with a far-leaning ideology that does not reflect the general population at all. Rather, it often reflects only a small minority with an axe to grind.
Has social media given America Trump?
Certainly, Trump has had a lot of success with sharing his populist beliefs on social media. He also knows how successful he has been. He has even acknowledged being called “the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters.”
Essentially, he is to far-right Twitter users what Kendall Jenner is to Instagram fashionistas: perfectly calibrated yet entirely authentic. He knows what his audience wants, and he has shamelessly pandered to it.
Trump's supporters like him because he represents the kind of populism that, as political theorist Benjamin Arditi says, behaves a lot like a dinner party guest who has had one too many. He is willing to spell out painful problems in society. Yet, he is not willing to deal with the fact that most people don't see things his way.
Trump's most popular tweets receive retweets in the five-figures. It makes his following look large and powerful and like his views are reflected by many Americans.
Yet, if Trump has captured the support of only 10,000 people out of his 7.7 million followers, that is only a tiny fraction of his followers. To the normal Twitter user, 10,000 retweets might look like a lot. But the reality is that it is not only a tiny fraction of both Trump's followers and the Internet.
To put Trump's success into perspective, consider Harry Styles of the boy band One Direction. He received around 200,000 retweets for a single-word tweet. He has only about four times as many followers as Trump.
Yet, Trump's followers are able to use social media to create a large ruckus. Their reactions escalate interactions and transform tweets into conversations. When Donald Trump posts a questionable tweet, it doesn't incite hysteria. When thousands of people enter a highly public war over that tweet, chaos ensues.
Social media is responsible for the visibility of Trump's raucous followers and for encouraging him being the subject of conversation. The more visible Trump is, the more popular he seems. This draws more followers and more detractors, creating the hysteria currently plaguing American politics.
The hysteria created by Trump and his manipulation of it through social media are hardly in question. The real question now remains whether or not retweets will transform into votes in the national election. Those are waters that are, so far, untested.