Donald Trump and the social media campaign we didn’t want

Someone finally harnessed the Internet for a political campaign. Unfortunately, it’s Donald Trump, the Internet’s media-proof id.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes a selfie with a supporter as he prepares to leave a campaign event in Anderson, South Carolina October 19, 2015. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

Near the end of this year’s federal election in Canada, The Globe and Mail’s social and earned media columnist, Mia Pearson, lamented that #elxn42, as it was known online, was “not really the social media election we were promised”. One couldn’t help feel, Pearson wrote, that “the underutilization of social media in general was a big miss for many Canadian politicians, given the mass millennial audience the election saw.”

The unicorn hunt for a “social media election,” or “social media campaign,” began sometime after 2008, when Barack Obama appeared to harness the Internet on his way to a sweeping, historic victory. Canada was quick to wonder whether we’d be so lucky as to have one for ourselves very soon.

In actual fact, we have had a social media campaign—the one that just passed, where it was put to its most relevant function for political parties: hardcore data mining. But that’s not what we were promised. What we, the electorate, were promised sounded more like this: “More important is tracking what people are thinking, what the big issues are of the day, what folks are sharing with their friends and what not.” That’s how New Democrat communications director Drew Anderson explained that party’s livetracking of Twitter in the lead-up to the 2011 election. “That is the stuff that politics is about and we see it as a big part of our campaign to be in those conversations.”

By the time Pearson wrote her op-ed this October, social media’s role in a Canadian political campaign looked somewhat different than it had been imagined four years ago. The promise of purer democracy, or of political parties reacting to real-time comments and issues popping up online, had all but vanished. Instead, we were reminded what politics is really about, and what online conversations actually sound like. Story after story emerged and party candidates all over the country dropped out, embarrassed by things they once said online. The crank callerThe comment-section sexistThe foul-mouthed youngsterThe marijuana advocate. There were others. This wasn’t political disruption from the bottom-up. This wasn’t the promised land. This was a control-F ratf–king speed battle. This was a shallow dive into the true nature of the Internet.

Maybe we got off lucky. Maybe we should be thankful that it was only this bad. Because, as we’re seeing in the U.S., where the promise of a social media campaign was born, that dive can go a lot deeper. And the one tool we have as a society to lift us back out, can’t.

Donald Trump poses a conundrum for those trying to cover him: How do you deal with a politician for whom gaffes are not gaffes, but are instead the only thing he ever says? It’s actually not a new question, but one media organizations have faced for years, and the fact that they never found a way to answer it properly is the reason they’re impotent to Trump’s raving now.

Recognizing their profit margins slipping (or disappearing), up against tighter budgets, and desperate to draw bigger advertising cash from their online content, news outlets did what they could over the last near-decade to draw more and more hits to their websites. But eyeballs are not the only important metric; time spent on the site is, too, as are return visits—in other words, engagement. Twitter and Facebook became new outreach tools to trawl for readers, and where replies and comments have become an easy, if flawed, way to gauge interest in content. This hunt for visits—at its peak creating a viral event—and prime advertising metrics is part of the reason why comment threads and @replies weren’t just tolerated, but in many cases, actively encouraged. The altruistic reason given was the same as the one politicians offered: democratization of the conversation. The other, more pragmatic reason was money.

The end result, as it was with Canada’s political campaign, was not democratic perfection—in this case, it has been a loss of control. Media outlets, and reporters specifically, quickly learned to never look below the line, and to rarely engage with commenters or tweeters, as they are, for the most part, the lunatic fringe. The crazies are easily dismissed, but over time, cumulatively, social media and comment threads, while changing coverage of events, have also altered our interpretation of that coverage. They have worked to undermine the validity of the news media’s voice, ironically all while those very outlets hosted and, by extension, validated them in turn.

And it’s all tolerated because media outlets have, crucially, never been able to fully eradicate, or moderate, the abusive and vile or merely ignorant comments below stories, on Facebook pages, or Twitter. Bulls–t, in all its irrational unreality, is simply un-moderate-able.

Which, of course, brings us back to Trump, the bullsh–ter-in-chief, the man whose gaffes are not merely slips of the tongue, but a precise echo of the sort of things you’d normally only find in an online comment thread or on the fringes of Twitter. The kind of thing, in other words, that news media helped create for years for their own interests, and wound up not being able to counteract. This is what makes Trump so impossible to cover in a traditional news sense: What we’re watching isn’t merely the media taking on Donald Trump; it is, once again, the news media taking on the Internet. Predictably, it’s not going well. It never has.

This is what a “social media campaign” really looks like. Those of us wishing to finally get one for ourselves, and those in the media especially, should be careful what we wish for.