How have social media influencers changed the US presidential election?
How have social media influencers changed the US presidential election?

We’ve seen the race to the White House been anything but smooth — with digital sabotage, hype houses, and conspiracy theories throughout the campaign dominating global headlines.

The outcome of the US presidential election was a knife-edge, with Donald Trump and Joe Biden neck and neck in key swing states until the end.

We first saw the use of social media in politics when Barack Obama used Facebook to increase campaign awareness in the run-up to the 2008 election. In an unprecedented move, Obama took advantage of social media and smartphone use and sidestepped traditional media outlets to reach supporters directly.

Adopting a similar approach and with similar success, Trump’s Twitter feed became a vital tool in communicating with his growing number of followers.

While political advertising on Facebook has been part of presidential candidates’ campaigns for the past several election cycles, the hyper-targeted and fragmented nature of advertising on the platform has made taking a granular look at their strategies nearly impossible.

Since Donald Trump announced he was running for the presidency in 2015, he has used social media, and particularly Twitter, to connect with voters and to promote himself like no previous US politician.

Four years later, and during a pandemic that’s made in-person campaigning extremely difficult, influencers are not just an option. They’re a campaign necessity.

With Biden having a digital disadvantage (17.7 million followers) compared to Trump (88.9 million) unsurprisingly, Biden’s social media team turned to influencer marketing to spark a political conversation which ultimately played an integral part in his campaign.

Our most recent research — Into the Mainstream: Influencer Marketing in Society — found that more than a third of 16–44-year-olds (37%) regularly source news updates from influencers over journalists and established news outlets.

In the run-up to the election, Biden’s team had developed a plan for working with influencers, comprising of interviews where influencers would ask him questions for this to be streamed across Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube.

While they were not an ‘’advertisement”, they also do not come under ‘’journalism’’. Quite simply it was engaging with influencers, who have massive credibility with their online audiences and who are trusted figures within their communities.

The push exposed Biden to followers who may not otherwise have seen content put out by the campaign, whether on Twitter or his own social media accounts and while Biden had reached new demographics through these mediums, his message remained unchanged.

The likes of Georgia, which has not voted blue in nearly 30 years, shows how much of a difference each individual vote can make. This also reflects the power of word of mouth and is a testimony to the force of influencers.

The swing in this state is very likely due to efforts of influencers and activists like Stacey Abrams, who through meaningful and personalised 1:1 conversations helped many people who may have been ambivalent about voting or undecided to register and get to the polls and ultimately change the trajectory of the election.

According to a report by Socialbakers, their data found that Biden’s three highest performing tweets nearly doubled the number of interactions compared to Trump’s respective tweets, despite Biden having a drastically lower follower count. Another testament to the irrelevance of follower count and the power of influencers.

Ultimately, this year’s US election and the win for Joe Biden, has shown a light on the powerful tool which is influencer marketing. While analysis of the 2020 American election will continue, the power of word of mouth cannot be denied.

The trends of the 2020 election will continue and influencer marketing will be a key component in many political campaigns to come and perhaps something that UK political parties will begin to invest in.

However, with power comes responsibility and the authorities, social media platforms, and trade bodies such as the FTA must pull together to ensure the spread of misinformation is tackled. Influencers must also be willing to play their part — only then can political activity on social media be truly fair game.