Back to News

Faculty Q&A Series: Marcus Messner on social media in the 2016 Presidential Campaign

Sep 30, 2016

Posted in: News

By William Lineberry

Marcus Messner, Ph.D., is an associate professor of journalism in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. His research interest is focused on social media and its use in the news industry.

Can you talk a little about what your research interests are and what you are currently doing to further explore the subject?

Marcus: My research interest is mainly in social media. I’m interested in the adoption and impact of social media in journalism and public relations, but also in health communications, which became part of my research agenda when we started a health initiative in the Robertson School a few years ago. My research explores the effectiveness of the social media use and helps to develop best practices for journalists and PR professionals.

How have you tied your interest in social media into your curriculum for teaching over the years, for example with your iPadJournos course?

Marcus: I see myself as a teacher-scholar and my teaching and research both inform each other. I don’t separate my research from my teaching. I started researching blogs while working on my Ph.D. at the University of Miami. It kind of seems like a different time today, but it was only 10 or so years ago. Back then, blogs were the social media platform. When I came to VCU in 2007, my research and teaching just naturally evolved to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Now, I’m trying to wrap my head around Snapchat. My teaching and research evolves with the platforms but also with the different types of engagement on them. As a professor I am in a very lucky position at VCU. At this point, I only teach courses that I was able to create. Almost all of these classes focus on social media, whether it’s the iPadJournos class or the Global Health and Social Media course, the VCU Votes Campaign class I teach this semester or the VCU Social Media Institute in the summer. I developed all of them while here at VCU, based on my research findings as well as my own experiences.

In election years, these courses are highly informed with what is actually occurring in the electionas--this year's primary focus being the presidential race. Obviously , social media plays a role in every election—both big and small—but have you noted any major differences with social media in this election that has struck you as unique?

Marcus: If you look at presidential elections, social media really started playing a big role in 2008. There was blogging in the 2004 election, but the real impact of social media was in the 2008 presidential election when Barack Obama started using Facebook to organize his supporters and to do fundraising. It was a social media election back then in the sense that Barack Obama's campaign did it very well. John McCain, on the other hand, did not do it well at all. In 2012, we kind of saw a leveled playing field for both Obama and Mitt Romney. They both seemed to understand the use of social media in how it can help engage audiences and help with fundraising. The big difference in 2012 between Obama and Romney was the use of big data by the Obama team. His campaign was able to use all sorts of data to target specific populations in specific geographic locations and turn them out to vote. That really made a big difference.

In 2012, we also saw how social media can be used against a candidate. We saw how it was used to ridicule Mitt Romney. I’m referring to things like the Big Bird discussion about not funding PBS and the “binders full of women,” which was something he said during one of the TV debates. And then there was of course the 47% video, which was devastating for his credibility as a candidate. If you think back, these incidents just seemed minor, but they really blew up on social media. These events played a role in how the overall campaign was shaped and how social media contributed to Romney's loss in momentum and consequently to the election’s outcome.

What we’re seeing now with Donald Trump is that he is able to dominate an entire news cycle for a whole day with just one tweet. I think this is a new dimension in which a candidate has realized that he can just use social media--in his case Twitter--to say something that everybody will pick up and that will almost entirely shut out the other candidate from the news cycle. He was very successful doing that in the Republican primaries. His use of Twitter during that time really marginalized other candidates, because they were not getting nearly the same amount of attention. Trump and his campaign do this by putting some exclusive information out that’s only available on Twitter. Trump’s main focus is on Twitter, because he knows that is where the journalists are and that’s how he can dominate the news cycle.

Another thing I’ve noticed was that in 2012, the Romney and Obama campaigns had various accounts for their social media: Obama for Latinos, Obama for Women, the Romney Response Team, and so on. That’s not happening this time. It’s mainly two accounts, for example on Twitter, that are directly attacking each other. It’s much more focused on these two candidates. I think it has something to do with the 2012 election being about turning out the vote, turning out pockets of voters to ensure they are voting. This time is seems to be about making the other candidate unacceptable to the voters. It’s a different election. It’s not really an election that is necessarily about policies, but rather one in which one group of voters thinks Hillary Clinton is unacceptable and the other group of voters thinks Donald Trump is unacceptable.

As you said, there has been constant evolution of social media and its role in elections over the years, there is obviously an upside to so much political dialogue, coverage, etc., but is there a downside to it as well? Is there such a thing as social media fatigue?

Marcus: I don’t think there’s such a thing as an overall social media fatigue. I do think there can be fatigue on a given platform. For example, young voters are not necessarily that active on Facebook anymore. They have a Facebook account, but they do not want to discuss the important issues of their lives with parents and grandparents. This is why you’ve seen a move for that age group to Instagram first and now to Snapchat, where the millennial generation is basically among itself. Facebook is really a platform where everybody is, but where younger generations are losing interest. I think an impact of social media is that is has caused an even wider split than we previously had between opposing parties. These two sides are not talking to one another via social media.

I think social media, while it engages people in the discussion, also creates a minute-by-minute news cycle and that almost leads to a policy-free election discussion. When was the last time we had a real and serious discussion about the issues in this election? When was the last time we had a serious discussion between the two candidates about the nuances of immigration policy? There’s a lot of screaming and a lot of flashy headlines in the coverage but really not a lot of substance. It’s all about the horse race rather than actually making serious decisions for the country; and the more it is about the personality and making the other side unacceptable, the less we are going to talk about the topics. Horse-race coverage has been around for a very long time, but just think back to Obama and Romney. They actually had discussions about tax policy. In this election cycle we’ve not really witnessed a sophisticated discussion over policy in the general election campaign.

Without too much future telling involved, where are we headed in regards to the role and importance social media plays in elections?

In short, I think we will continue to see much more engagement through social media, but also much more attention paid to candidates through new technology. I think we will begin to see a lot more immediacy on social media, thanks in part to new tools like Facebook Live and Periscope. Anything can be broadcasted live now. Not that there has ever been a lot of privacy for candidates, but now they cannot be unscripted in any situation because of the ability to constantly document what they do. Take for example Hillary Clinton and her weak moment at the 9/11 memorial a few weeks ago. Somebody will have a phone at any point in time and will record the candidates. We will see much more of these types of incidents. On the other side, I think social media has the power to give candidates with not as much money an opportunity to reach a large audience. In that sense, I think it’s a bit of a game changer. It can level the playing field. Money is still important, but it’s not everything. It’s also about the message and how you transport that message to the voters.