Manipulating Mass Media: Will Trump Win This Time?


Famous American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky once asserted with irony that “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” In order to hold power in your hands, you need to have control over the media; and the most important facet of contemporary media lies in social media. Moreover, the fairness of social media also involves the transfer of power.

Although the past two days of the Democratic National Convention have crowned nominee Joe Biden’s candidacy in limelight, incumbent President Donald Trump’s polls are closing in. Many news headlines have said that if Biden wants to defeat Trump, he must first defeat himself — because what Biden faces is Trump, the most skilled media manipulator of the millennium.

Four years ago, Trump used his reality show experience to direct public attention and turn the media on their heads. Former CBS President Les Moonves said of the 2016 presidential election that “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” with record-breaking viewership, big advertising revenue, and viewers unable to take their eyes off the screen.

Fully aware of the media’s appetite for controversy, Trump’s constant speculation on politicized and conflicting issues successfully polarized the media, making supporters regard liberal media with contempt while trusting conservative media such as Breitbart and Fox TV.

This time, however, things are trickier. Trump is currently far ahead of Biden in mainstream media and social media. What is interesting is that in terms of social media ratings, Biden has come up from behind. Why? This is largely thanks to social media changing some of the rules of the game this year, making Trump somewhat unable to perform.

In terms of numbers, Biden is at a disadvantage on social media.

According to the Associated Press, Trump sends an average of at least 14 posts a day to his 28 million Facebook fans. On the other hand, Biden has only 2 million Facebook followers, less than one-tenth of Trump’s, and updates only half as many posts. Biden has 9 million followers on Twitter, far less than Trump’s 85 million.

Biden does not have Trump’s advantage of an administration currently in office. Trump has been nurturing his digital army for years, making use of everything from digital marketing to filming videos and defaming his opponents. On the other hand, Biden’s social media presence is very traditional: posts are few and far between, and tend to be retweeted or shared from verified accounts such as those of Barack Obama and reputable media outlets. But in June, Biden began catching up in hot pursuit, for the first time spending more than twice as much on Facebook ads as Trump, further recruiting Instagram supporters to hold online fundraisers and enlisting “troops” on TikTok.

Two-thirds of Americans consume their news from social media, but social media algorithms are likely to impart a significant impact on elections by creating “ideological silos” where voters seek out opinions similar to their own in echo chambers. U.S. and European communities believe that tech giants should no longer be complicit in election hate speech or separatism, and should step forward to prevent the spread of false information. This time the Democratic Party has further invited the four major social media outlets to propose policies against fraud and promote platform transparency and social responsibility.

Twitter has taken the lead in expanding the scope of its hate speech regulation, tagging Trump, who loves Twitter, when he appears to be making hateful comments, and possibly removing such tweets in serious cases.

Google’s YouTube announced last June that it would remove neo-Nazi and white supremacist videos and misinformation. Facebook introduced an automated hate speech monitoring system in 2017, and recently, under pressure from advertisers and employees, further stated that it would append labels to Trump’s inappropriate comments. Reddit not only shut down 2,000 forums, but also banned the r/The_Donald subreddit for advocating violence and breaking rules. Amazon’s Twitch had also temporarily suspended Trump’s own account in response to a recent repost of comments he made while campaigning in Oklahoma in 2015, claiming that Mexico would send rapists and criminals to the United States.

In just three years, many studies have found that various people have turned social media into a weapon of social division, highlighting social media’s negligence and disregard for social justice. Having learned their lesson the hard way, with strong calls of appeal from the community, social media outlets have acknowledged that platform self-regulation to change online hate culture is necessary.

Where is the United States headed? Will social media, under the protective umbrella of freedom of speech, continue to become a weapon for politicians to bully races and nations? U.S. social media is learning to not play into the hands of any party and to avoid enabling unscrupulous politicians to acquire votes amidst the controversies of democratic regression. Whether social media’s performance this time will become a force for the betterment of the world is something that will be revealed in November.

The author is a part-time professor at National Chengchi University.

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About Pinyu Hwang 14 Articles
I'm an undergraduate student at Yale University interested in linguistics and computer science. With a childhood split between Taiwan and the US, I'm fond of pinball machines in the night markets, macarons, tea, stories, and language.

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