Will Social Media Make a Difference In the 2018 Election?


Earlier this month, a rarely-political Taylor Swift posted on Instagram that she supports Tennessee’s Democratic candidates in the upcoming election. This act (of honesty? Rebellion?) prompted a flurry of conversation as to just how effective social media is or will be in mobilizing and influencing voters all over the country this November. And while Republicans rushed to say that her endorsement wouldn’t matter — numbers indicated that it very well might. The post received over 2 million likes on Instagram and reported a hike in traffic (Swift linked to them) from an average of 14 thousand visitors a day to over 155 thousand. Forty-eight hours after Swift dipped her toes into political waters, they had 169 thousand new registrations.

We’re rapidly approaching the 2018 midterm election and it’s an important one. With 35 Senate and 435 House seats up for grabs, this election could potentially swing the (currently Republican-held) legislative branch back in the other direction. Or give them decisive control to finish out Trump’s term. So social media is filled right now with emotional pleas featuring hope and nervousness and a fair amount of vitriol regarding the election’s potential outcome. And both sides of the political aisle are wondering the role social media will have in shaping our country’s future. How it affects this election could forever change the way we think about political campaigning.

With candidates, celebrities, brands, and ordinary citizens all clamoring to make their mark on social media this election, we have to ask the question, will any of it work?

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I’m writing this post about the upcoming midterm elections on November 6th, in which I’ll be voting in the state of Tennessee. In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now. I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country. I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent. I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love. Running for Senate in the state of Tennessee is a woman named Marsha Blackburn. As much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office, I cannot support Marsha Blackburn. Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me. She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape. She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values. I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives. Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values. For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway. So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do. October 9th is the LAST DAY to register to vote in the state of TN. Go to and you can find all the info. Happy Voting! 🗳😃🌈

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People already listen to influencers on social platforms.

People can make all the jokes they want about being a “social media influencer” but while it may seem silly to some, the reality is, it works. Hotels, companies, and brands are giving people with large followings products and money because they’ve calculated that it increases sales. For instance, eighty-nine percent of millennials are on Instagram, and one survey found that 72 percent had purchased something specifically because they saw it in a post on the platform. Big sites recognize the traffic and brand recognition influencers can give. In August of 2017, twenty-four percent of Nordstrom’s mobile traffic came from a single Instagram influencing platform. Influencers are…well….influencing decisions.

Social media may lead to an increase in voter registration

Taylor Swift’s Instagram post may have lead to more of her fans signing up to vote, and Instagram isn’t the only platform seeing engagement leading to a registration surge amongst young people. Twitter announced that their hashtag #beavoter doubled from the 2016 election to 2018. In turn, National Voter Registration Day saw a record number 800 thousand people register to vote this year after Twitter increased their promoted ads to do so. And in just the last two weeks, Snapchat registered over 400 thousand people to vote through their app — which is pretty remarkable.

Movements are more easily organized through social media and it allows politicians to see what their constituents care about.

Over the last couple of years, political movements, marches, walk-outs, and protests have all gained traction through hashtags. Social media has been proven an effective way to trade information and mobilize people about what they care about. And this gives voters a chance to express what they care about to the people who represent them. A recent study looked at demonstrations in the U.S., Spain, Turkey, and Ukraine. They found that hashtags were an efficient way to filter information and coordinate collective action.

“Information that is vital to the coordination of protest activities,” the study concludes, “Like news about transportation, turnout, police presence, violence, medical services, and legal support is spread quickly and efficiently through social media channels.”

But more than that, they found that the emotional and motivational messaging spread through social media caused an increase in turn out. For politicians looking to appeal to voters’ sense of social justice and fairness, social media platforms can be an important tool.

Social media made a difference in the last election.

President Trump’s campaign digital director told CBS last year that a large part of their success came in the form of targeted ads on Facebook.

“Facebook now lets you get to places that you would never go with TV ads,” Brad Parscale said. “Now, I can find, you know, 15 people in the Florida Panhandle that I would never buy a TV commercial for. And, we took opportunities that I think the other side didn’t.”

And apart from ads, social media can sway opinion through personal candidate interaction, arguments, and memes. Many believe that Russian interference on social media turned the tide against candidate Hillary Clinton. Evidence presented to the Senate committee showed that 126 million Americans saw Russian funded ads during the election process. And James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, told the New Yorker this month that “it stretches credulity to think the Russians didn’t turn the election.”

And it can be the determining factor in close races.

One study at the Oxford Internet Institute looked at recent elections in the UK and found that a candidate with a twitter account received, on average, 7-9 percent more votes than one who didn’t. Increasing the number of tweets a politician made raised their share of the vote by about one percent. And while one percent may not seem like a huge deal, you have to remember that in 2016 Donald Trump won Florida with just 1.2 percent of the vote.

In some of the midterms, we’re looking at similarly tight races. Based on polls, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema holds about a 2.2 percent lead over the Republican candidate. In Nevada, the Republican nominee for Senate is holding on by less than a full percentage point. Meaning — any edge social media provides (even one percent) — could be the difference between winning and losing.

So will it actually make a difference?

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Go vote! #firsttimevoter #soproud

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Social media can give a candidate a direct connection to constituents, allow people to see what their peers and people they respect value, and is also a great way to remind people to get to the polls (on a platform they look at multiple times a day). Whether any of that will make a difference in 2018 remains to be seen. But based on what we know, we wouldn’t underestimate its power of influence. Or the power of young people to influence the world through their vote.