DIGITAL MEDIA AND THE 2016 TRUMP CAMPAIGN: A RESEARCH REPORT
by Ben H. Quandt
In November 2016, Donald J. Trump won the US presidential election on the back of a massive populist wave and hard-line immigration stance, going so far as to advocate for the “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Protest movements have a long history and some of the most significant changes in public policy have resulted from masses of people advocating for change.
Media organisations have traditionally been the conduit of information between the people and those in power. The first real form of mass media was print journalism, the press, in reference to the Gutenberg printing press. It was not until the 1950s that radio and then television joined the ranks of broadcast media. In 1980, Ted Turner introduced the world to 24-hr cable news. And today there exists an entire spectrum of tools built on the internet and mobile communications technology. It is this latter element which has brought a revolution to advocacy, activism and social movements.
“For the first time in history the spoken word has the same reach as the written word.”
As digital tools have become more accessible, media power has been decentralised. No longer do populations solely rely on professional journalism and traditional media organisations for their information. Distributed media power is easily obtained and cheaply available - right down to the individual - and can be amplified with internet technology to truly tremendous effect. The conventional media landscape has seen waves of consolidation which has resulted in most media in America being owned and controlled by just six conglomerates. Anti-trust advocates have been vocal against the Federal Communications Commission with lawsuits brought by the United States Department of Justice. One of the key arguments against consolidation is the concern around independent voices and diversity of opinions in conventional media; as media is increasingly concentrated in the hands of institutional power, the coverage of news is increasingly biased toward corporate, and by extension, political agendas. In countries with less democratic ideals mass-media is often state-controlled or exerts a strong influence on the narrative. It is not uncommon for journalists in these countries to practice self-censorship.
THE INTERNET AGE AND THE INDIVIDUAL AS A MEDIA ORGANISATION
Consideration of conventional media organisations evokes the world of television, print and radio. But today these organisations also have digital- and social media arms, which blurs the line somewhat for analysis between what is defined as conventional media and non-conventional media. Modern information and communications technologies have blown open the field for the creation, production and, most critically, the distribution of stories, ideas and narratives.
As noted earlier, this is a foundational element of advocacy efforts, social movements and activism. Jordan Peterson – a University of Toronto psychology professor and contemporary public intellectual – speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, 26 June 2018, observed, in reference to video sharing platform YouTube, “For the first time in history the spoken word has the same reach as the written word, and not only that, no length to publication and no barrier to entry. That’s a major technological revolution. That’s a Gutenberg revolution. That’s a big deal. This is a game changer… And it was soon after that, that I discovered the podcast world, which is ten times as big as the YouTube world. And the podcast world is also a Gutenberg revolution, except it’s even more extensive”.
This sentiment is echoed by Clay Shirky, an New York University journalism professor, “we are living through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race”. What this means is that the unit of analysis for a media organisation – built on internet capability – can be brought down to the individual.
There are numerous new media tools at the disposal of advocacy groups with a message to communicate built on internet technology; websites, web logs (blogs), listserv, email, direct messaging applications, mobile communications, online forums, video sharing platforms, podcast sites, and social media platforms. One layer down, there are umpteen versions of technologies like social media and messaging applications; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchap, WeChat, Whatsapp, YouTube, Reddit, Pinterest, tumblr, to name a few. Whilst these applications are collectively known as ‘social media’ there are nuanced differences between them, meaning that different tools are better suited to different elements of advocacy; disseminating information or creating social ties and networks. For instance, with Facebook each person has to agree to the connection being made before you are connected (a stronger tie), whilst on Twitter any account can ‘follow’ any other account by default.
These differences are salient when it comes to how they are analysed in the context of activism. Critically, these software technologies are free for the most part – only requiring low-cost hardware to access and operate. Producing a website costs as little as a couple of hundred dollars and can be done with off-the-shelf software by anyone with rudimentary ‘drag-and-drop’ skill. Digital and social media platforms have made it possible for even an individual to operate as a media organisation. In turn, an individual’s voice can be amplified online building truly consequential narratives for political advocacy or protest movements.
Take Alex Jones, the controversial founder of Infowars, an online media channel. Jones is best known as a far-right conspiracy theorist. The infowars.com website sees 3.1 million unique visitors per month. His main YouTube channel, “The Alex Jones Channel” boasts 2.4 million subscribers and his videos have 1.5 billion combined views. Further, the Jones media organisation operates several other online media properties, including a 24/7 live news channel on YouTube, “Infowars Live”. The reach of Jones’ influence should not be underestimated.
On 2nd December 2015, Jones interviewed then presidential candidate Donald Trump, broadcast via his Infowars.com website and on the YouTube channel. This video has been viewed 2.9 million times on the platform. Jones frames himself as a torchbearer of ‘the truth’ and he rails against the mainstream media, which made him a perfect bedfellow for the Trump campaign. Another individual-as-a-media-organisation is conservative writer, Ben Shapiro. At 34 years old, he represents the younger generation of conservatism. A former Breitbart editor, Shapiro left the online news portal to found “The Daily Wire”. He also operates a podcast, “The Ben Shapiro Show” which is downloaded 10 million times a month. Other pure digital media organisations with significant followings include; “The Young Turks” a progressive YouTube channel with 3.9 million subscribers, and over 4.2 billion views; and Vox Media group, an independent liberal digital media company, which attracts 73 million unique visitors per month across eight digital platforms.
TRUMP AND BREITBART: A SHIFT IN THE INFORMATION LOCUS OF POWER
It is difficult to overstate the impact of Breitbart in framing the right-wing narrative, particularly on the decisive immigration issue, and aiding the Trump campaign through message amplification and connecting like-minded voters.
A 2017 study by Faris, Roberts, Benkler, Etling, Zuckerman and Bourassa of the most popular news sources between 1st May 2015 and 7th November 2016 show Breitbart, among conservative media, topping the table across hyperlink networks (stories linked to the site), Twitter (as shares on Twitter), and Facebook (as shares on Facebook).
Breitbart beats out established conventional conservative media organisation, Fox News. The authors state “Breitbart emerges as the nexus of conservative media”. In a network map based on open web content strength (who links to who) covering 70,000 media sources and 2 million stories, Breitbart’s weight is roughly equal with MSNBC, NBC and ABC. This is astonishing given that Breitbart is a relatively young, digitally native, independent media organisation with budgets and revenues a fraction of its conventional competitors. Factoring in Twitter and Facebook sharing, the gravitas of Breitbart is exponentially greater. Breitbart emerges as the 4th most shared media source on Twitter and the 3rd on Facebook, outranking the major established conventional media organisations; the Washington Post, MSNBC, NBC News, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Bloomberg, Reuters, Fox News, ABC News and the New Yorker.
According to the study, on the critical immigration topic, shares of Breitbart articles far outstripped any other media organisation, “Breitbart stories on immigration were shared more than twice as often as stories from the Guardian, which ranked second”. Breitbart succeeds in practically single-handedly shifting the Overton window to the far-right. This is a significant point. If the Trump campaign advocated hard on an anti-immigration stance, it was Breitbart which ensured that this topic was widely distributed and circulated among its audience. Therefore, when it comes to framing and controlling the narrative, Breitbart stands heads-and-shoulders above the rest.
“Breitbart emerges as the nexus of conservative media”
As observed by Faris et al, the standout issues covered and amplified in the media landscape during the 2016 US presidential campaign, were indeed ‘immigration’ and ‘Muslims/ Islam’. These two topics were owned by Breitbart and by extension, Trump. Overwhelmingly. It is hard to overemphasize just how central immigration was in the coverage of the election campaign; registering mentions in the media landscape an order of magnitude greater than ‘education’ and ‘climate change’, and about eight times more than ‘healthcare’ or ‘guns’. And it is the digital media organisation which proves vital to this advocacy.
The hard-line immigration stance and corrosive rhetoric used by Trump was challenging for conventional media organisations to support, even conservative Fox News. Not so for Breitbart. Recall that candidate Trump announced his presidential bid by claiming Mexico was “sending violent criminals, including rapists, to the United States” and promising to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. Further, on 7 December 2015, in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, Trump announced “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on”.
The far-right news portal dominated the immigration frame, averaging three times as many mentions on the topic as conservative media, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. Not only that. Breitbart even went on the attack against the established conservative media, lambasting Fox News in a series of articles suggesting the network was ‘soft’ on immigration.
As further evidence of Breitbart’s ability to control the narrative, when on 7 October 2016 the Washington Post published the expose on Trump’s now infamous lewd comments on the “Access Hollywood” tour bus with Billy Bush, it was Breitbart which sprang into action publishing stories on 9 October 2016 with alleged sexual assault victims of Bill Clinton. This was seen as an attempt to smear Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as an enabler of the assaults.
The enormous coverage on immigration courtesy of Breitbart even served to smother stories on Trump’s scandals. Both candidates suffered continuing scandal stories, but they could not be further apart in their coverage and impact. The Faris et al study also shows that the scandal stories around Trump were but minor blips on the vast media landscape.
For instance, Trump and ‘women’ (referring to alleged sexual misconduct or assault) received less than one-quarter of the coverage than his positions on immigration. Conversely, the exact opposite was the case with Hillary Clinton. The most substantial coverage on Clinton pertained to scandal topics. First, the emails. Second, the Clinton Foundation. Closely followed by continuing news of Benghazi. And not by insignificant margins. There was almost four and a half times more coverage of the Clinton email issue than there was about Clinton and ‘jobs’, which was her top-covered policy position. The authors note, “These alternative media sites on the right, along with Breitbart, served the Trump campaign and his supporters in a manner that was not paralleled on the left.”
It is clear from the quantitative evidence provided that conventional media organisations on the conservative side of the aisle were outflanked by Breitbart to a consequential degree. Breitbart as a non-conventional digital-native media organisation was arguably far more vital to the advocacy of the Trump presidential bid and his core hard-line immigration policy than any other media organisation during the election campaign. The analysis cited here demonstrates that ‘immigration’ was the most widely covered issue and that the Trump team was able to capture the narrative with tremendous success. The fact that Breitbart was able to produce the quantity of content aimed at supporting the hard-line immigration stance, whilst managing to boldly castigate conventional conservative heavyweight, Fox News, is striking.
Notable in these analyses is the influence of the ‘sharing’ concept on social media platforms as an amplification channel. Consider, that when Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy on 16th June 2015, his Twitter account @realDonaldTrump showed 2.9 million followers. By election day, 9th November 2016, it stood at 13 million. Today, Trump’s Twitter channel boasts over 53million followers and ranks as the 18th most followed account in the world. More accounts follow @realDonaldTrump than ANY news organisation in the world. Brad Parscale, digital director for the Trump campaign, stated in an interview with Wired, just days after the election, "Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing… Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising."
 Tusa, F 2013, ‘How Social Media Can Shape a Protest Movement: The Cases of Egypt in 2011 and Iran in 2009’, Arab Media and Society, Winter 2013, No. 17, pp. 1-19
 Channel statistics taken from Alex Jones’ YouTube page at time of writing. As of 6th August, the channel has been shut down by YouTube, available at https://www.youtube.com/user/TheAlexJonesChannel/about
 Statistics at time of writing sourced from Track Analytics, https://www.trackalytics.com/twitter/followers/widget/realdonaldtrump/