Sunday, September 09, 2018

Social Media: The Ideal Platform for Populist Campaigns? Trump Case Study

A new research paper 'The Technological Performance of Populism' by Jessica Baldwin-Philippi explores how digital tools provide new ways to signal populism. The paper specifically examines how the Trump campaign leveraged this ability.

Populism can be seen as an appeal to 'the people' and centres 'the people' in a campaign strategy. Baldwin-Philippi uses affordance theory, where a technology platform enables a campaign to engage in certain behaviours (Hutchby, 2001), to demonstrate how "the populist affordances of digital platforms centre 'the people' through technological means."

She develops a model of populist affordances as follows.

A populist campaign can exploit these affordances through practices such as:
  • Engagement with 'regular' people
  • Authenticity and an amateur style
  • User generated content
  • User participation 
  • Mobile apps and gamification
Below is an overview of how the Trump campaign used these approaches as part of its populist appeal. 

Engagement with 'regular' people

Social media allows “regular” people to engage directly with those in power and establishes a context in which citizens’ voices are seen to matter. The Trump campaign reinforced this affordance by often retweeting and responding to little-known supporters, who had few followers or were otherwise not known to the public. They did this 109 times from June 1 to Election Day, a total of 6.4% of their total tweets.

By contrast the Clinton campaign hardly ever retweeted unknown members of the public, "the closest case being leaders of small, but still institutionally connected groups."

This aligns with Pew Research's findings during the Primary campaign that found Trump retweeted the public more often than any institutions or institutionally connected actors, while Clinton most often retweeted her campaign and campaign staff (Mitchell et al., 2016).

Authenticity and Amateur Style

"A key marker for authenticity in a digital context is the amateur style."

It has previously been argued that one can develop authenticity on social media through a variety of means such as making mistakes, using capital letters and engaging in “real talk” (Enli, 2017). President Trump’s staff deliberately created social media content with typos and mistakes. This content was ridiculed by the more traditional media but potentially it was more effective in being viewed as authentic (Linskey, 2018).

The Trump campaign used a similar approach to the images and videos they posted. The campaign published professional images to Instagram only 34.9% of the time. By contrast the Clinton campaign posted almost exclusively professional quality images and video.

The Trump campaign content was much more amateur in style and paid little attention to brand consistency. They used 25 different font types in their images whereas the Clinton campaign used just three different fonts as part of a consistent brand approach.

Over 95% of the videos the Clinton campaign posted to Instagram were of television ad quality, with seamless editing of separate video clips, and animating text over moving images. By contrast the Trump campaign, produced a majority of videos (38 of 66) that were "amateur in quality, involving little to no editing, blurry or shaky camera work, abrupt cuts, poor sound quality, off-brand text, or text that impeded the video."

User generated content

Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns encouraged their supporters to become producers of campaign-related content. One form of user generated content developed by the Trump supporters was memes.

Memes are a uniquely participatory form of message, where users create content through manipulation of images and text to participate in political discourse. 

Memes are the products of an Internet culture that drove a lot of Trump-supporting content. For example, following a speech in which Hillary Clinton publicly derided “half of Trump supporters” as “deplorable,” Trump supporters responded by creating hundreds of "deplorable" memes and took ownership of the term. 

Most of the memes were playful and amusing.  Playfulness is an important element of meme culture. When it comes to politics the parodic, playful tone of memes can disarm political opponents. (Ross and Rivers, 2017).

I think another good example of this comes from the 2017 UK election. Jeremy Corbyn was attacked for meeting terrorist organisations in his earlier career. His supporters struck back by creating memes and content that undermined the argument using humour.

Baldwin-Philippi argues "the technologies of meme creation are themselves democratic and populist, enabling almost anyone to craft their own content and become part of a conversation."

User Participation 

The internet and social media are often been seen as democratic in nature because of their ability to allow everyday citizens to participate. Campaigns use this to make citizens feel they are participating in a campaign even if this is not particularly deep or reciprocal.

Ben Epstein and Jeff Broxmeyer (2017) studied the emails sent by the Trump and Clinton campaigns and found the Trump campaign was the only one to include short surveys, which offered an opportunity for participation.

Social media allows supporters to share campaign content and this is encouraged by political campaigns in a way that that situates their supporters as co-conspirators and collaborators in the campaign. This can be taken deeper and further by the development of campaign apps.

Mobile apps and gamification

The Trump, Cruz and Carson campaigns all produced mobile applications for supporters.  These apps were gamified. Supporters could earn points for taking actions and quizzes, and see how they were performing on a leaderboard. The apps also asked supporters for feedback on the political issues they cared about and what their views were.

Trump’s app was the only one to take a purely gamified approach focusing on the ability of users to earn points, badges, or awards for taking desirable action. The app included a leaderboard in addition to a news feed.


The paper by Jessica Baldwin-Philippi encourages scholars to pay attention to the specific affordances of social media and digital technology that centre “the people” and which can improve the performance of populist campaigns.