Three years counts as several lifetimes on social media. Twitter may have been the dominant platform mastered by then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 but it likely will not be the way most voters learn about the crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
Instead, Instagram – a photo platform focused more on storytelling through images– has become the place for Senator Elizabeth Warren to crack open a beer, for Beto O’Rourke to turn a trip to the dentist into a policy discussion and for Senator Kamala Harris to dance to Beyonce. Experts say candidates can dominate the social media game during the 2020 election by mastering tone, not platform.
”Instagram Stories has become a place where people can really weave together a lot of different types of content and engage with people that aren’t necessarily watching the day to day Twitter wars,” Alex Wall, the director of digital strategy for the Obama White House and for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, tells VOA. Wall – who is now a vice president of digital engagement at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank – says candidates are seeking to imitate the way voters use these platforms in their daily lives, mixing sports, news, entertainment and friend updates all in one feed.
Twitter remains dominated by people who follow politics for a living – journalists, analysts and politicians themselves taking to the platform to engage with issues on a level most casual voters don’t have time to closely follow.
Instagram Live and Instagram Stories did not exist during the 2016 campaign, although Facebook Live did debut in April 2016. The spread of easily accessible live video – essentially a free broadcasting platform for anyone with a phone – could be a game changer for candidates at this early stage of the presidential campaign.
During the 2016 election, campaign social media posts outpaced campaign websites and emails as the lead source for voters seeking information on presidential candidates. 24% of all adults turned to social media posts, with voters aged 18-29 heading to social media in the largest numbers at 37%, according to a Pew Research study.
“The presidential candidates this cycle really know that they need to come across as genuine and relatable and not packaged or distant,” says Molly O’Rourke, the director of American University’s master’s program on political communication. “Social media is such a valuable tool for them to do that. It allows the candidates to communicate directly, kind of more informally, and in real time, it’s more like a conversation.”
Even though it is very early in the election cycle, some candidates are outpacing others. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has gained the most followers on Instagram of any of the 21 declared presidential candidates, likely thanks in part to the active social media presence of his husband and his dog. Senator Kamala Harris led the field in social media interactions, notching 16.5 million Facebook and Twitter interactions in a three-month span, according to an Axios analysis.