In the days leading up to Super Tuesday, Republicans were out in full force on social media, doing everything in their power to stop Trump. Their slogan? #NeverTrump: an insignia on the end of almost every post, a battle cry to other voters to stop his rise in its tracks.
Never have hashtags had such a huge role to play in a presidential race. There’s the popular and catchy #feeltheBern, which has become a chant at Bernie Sanders rallies. There’s #CruzCrew, #StandwithRand, #TeamMarco, and others.
But this has also been a week of negative hashtags: most importantly, #NeverTrump. Following John Oliver’s incredibly popular Trump takedown on Last Week Tonight, #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain has also been immensely popular. Another I saw—presumably based on a Marco Rubio quote—was #FriendsDon’tLetFriendsVoteforConArtists. Long, yes. But effective? Most definitely. And perhaps most telling: practically everyone in my online friend group has been posting anti-Trump statuses, videos, memes, and articles over the past week. It’s as if they collectively realized that yes, indeed, he was succeeding in his run for president—and they wanted to exert whatever social pressure they could on their friends to prevent this from becoming reality. Thus—#FriendsDon’tLetFriendsVoteforConArtists.
That statement—and its online medium—is very important in 2016. It seems obvious that Facebook (and other social media) will be playing an ever greater part in our political discourse, and may have an increasingly civic role in the days to come. The past week has demonstrated that these platforms will not only urge people to vote, but will also pressure people to vote for a specific candidate.
Facebook’s increasing civic role could be a good thing—in communities where we no longer know our neighbors, we get less political and social input from our local arenas. When we walk (or drive) around our local communities, many of us do not run into familiar faces with the regularity that we used to; we’re less likely to talk politics with the people we see at local coffee shops or grocery stores. Facebook could fill that hole in an important way: by opening up a place for political discourse, in a country where we increasingly feel awkward doing it in the physical neighborhoods we inhabit.
But it’s also true that Facebook (and other social media) could become a political bubble of peer pressure, in which we have a distorted sense of who we should vote for or how we should react to political events. The clamorous shouting of our friend groups—many of whom share political alliances and sentiments—could deafen us to the voice of reason, prudence, or caution. It could make us less sensitive to those who have differing opinions or views.
There are two reasons this seems likely to happen: first, because we don’t know exactly how Facebook’s own algorithms could be influencing what we see and when? Is there a reason #NeverTrump was dominating my newsfeed this week? Was it as popular a movement as I thought it was—or did Facebook already know that I was not a Trump voter, and thus began feeding me the content it associated with my political inclinations? Could it be that pro-Trump people saw less—or even no—#NeverTrump content? Facebook has been known in the past to skew its newsfeed items toward the positive. And it uses a “rich get richer”-style algorithm to determine what ends up in your feed. This would mean that, if you don’t like Trump, the #NeverTrump content would bolster your mood, spread through your friend base, and dominate your news feed. If you were a fan of Trump, you would be less likely to see such posts—partly because your friend base was likely more pro-Trump, but also because the negative nature of the posts would be less suited to a “happy” newsfeed.
As one person put it, it would be interesting to see a Venn diagram of how Trump support overlapped in our friend groups. Because if my Facebook friends’ statements were any indication, Trump should have suffered a serious blow on Tuesday night. Yet as results poured in, he continued to stand as the frontrunner. So something—whether it was algorithms or friend circles, indignation or stubbornness—prevented my friends from reaching the voters they meant to reach. Based on the results of Super Tuesday, the voters #NeverTrump posts were meant to reach were either offended by them and voted for him anyway, or didn’t see them much or at all.
And that has very interesting implications going forward: it seems to indicate that certain voter cliques could whip each other into a frenzy, while others could foment their own sentiments and interests, without any real transformation or change happening. This could result in less and less understanding, but rather in increasing levels of anger and disgust. Whereas standing outside your local voting place with a “Don’t vote for Trump” sign would definitely result in an opportunity to reach some with differing opinions, it would appear that doing so on Facebook will only have a limited effect.