By David Ertischek ’01
Twitter changed the face of political campaigns forever. Back in 2007, it also changed the direction of Vincent Raynauld’s PhD.
But before 140 characters became the rage, Raynauld’s research in political campaigns really began three years earlier, thanks to a failed presidential candidate.
“What really struck me was the Howard Dean for president campaign [in the 2004 election], when they started using blogs and an informal approach to politics,” said Raynauld, associate professor of Communication Studies. “I moved on to my PhD, and my first objective in 2006 was to focus on blogs, and then Twitter came out and that changed everything. Then my interest was in micro-communication.”
Raynauld did his PhD on the Tea Party movement. Using several cloud-based political formats, he collected approximately 1.7 million tweets and did a big data study of the them.
“Who was linking to who? That was the objective of the study – mapping out the Tea Party ecosystem on Twitter, and the topics they were discussing,” said Raynauld.
It was later included in the book Political Marketing in the United States, as a chapter titled “‘Strokes for Different Folks’: Implications of Voter Micro-Targeting and Appeal in the Age of Donald Trump.”
Turn the calendar ahead to current times and Raynauld has moved onto Instagram and TikTok.
“What I found interesting is that politicians are leaving behind text-based content and moving into visual content,” said Raynauld. “On Facebook and Twitter, the visual content tends to have more engagement.
“For example, Trump’s latest post on Instagram from 23 hours ago has 3.5 million views. A post he did three days ago on Twitter – it’s got 650,000 likes,” said Raynauld. “But Trump’s tweets are what get the most attention from the media.
Raynauld said he thinks that’s because media organizations prefer Twitter.
“It’s easier to put a screenshot of Trump’s tweet on the screen and have discussions. I don’t see a lot of discussion about Instagram posts [in the media], yet they’re getting significant engagement. A picture of him [on Instagram] walking in Walter Reed Hospital got 1.6 million likes,” Raynauld said.
Former President Barack Obama really changed fundraising by utilizing social media. Political polar opposites, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Trump each do incredibly well at engaging the public through Instagram, said Raynauld.
“Justin Trudeau is one of the politicians on the forefront of using Instagram for his image. He’s a younger fellow. According to some standards he’s a good-looking guy,” said Raynauld. “He uses that in a very savvy way.
“He has an uplifting tone on his Instagram and is really pushing that he’s progressive and unifying. He alludes to his personal life through his Instagram. Oftentimes, you’ll see his wife, his children, you’ll see him interacting with people of different backgrounds, [languages], and ethnic backgrounds. He’s really broadcasting an image of being progressive.”
Trump has a very different approach, but it still gets a lot of engagement.
This presidential election cycle, TikTok has garnered lots of attention. Whether it’s Trump’s attempt to ban the Chinese social media app in the United States, anti-Trumpers targeting his campaign and campaign events, or posts from the 15-year-old daughter of a counselor to the president.
Raynauld said he’s currently casually consuming content on the platform and getting a sense of how it works.
“I’m a big proponent of understanding it before studying it. I’m mostly focusing on political content. Conservatives are quite incredible on that platform. Young individuals are really creating catchy content,” said Raynauld.
Raynauld was recently interviewed by Business Insider about Claudia Conway’s since-removed TikTok posts that included revealing that her mother and Trump administration insider Kellyanne Conway, had tested positive for COVID-19.
“Even people nowadays who are not seen as a news-makers are on the political landscape,” said Raynauld. “That was not a good look for Kellyanne Conway. You can see she’s disheveled and hear her swear. It gives an unvarnished look of a former adviser to the president. I’m fairly certain Kellyanne didn’t want this to be out there.”
TikTok account holders were also able to disrupt Trump campaign events by booking tickets, and thus shutting out real Trump supporters for the event. Raynauld said he saw another anti-Trump initiative about free buttons the campaign would send if requested. The buttons cost $1 to make and $4 to get mailed, so if you get it mailed, you’re costing the Trump campaign $5.
“It’s a really interesting platform. Music, pop culture, politics and just social trends in general are merging together. It’s an interesting amalgamation of those topics and it comes out with content that is really trendy,” said Raynauld. “Social media is info-tainment. This is info-tainment on steroids. It evolves so quickly with the dance moves…I’ve been off it for three days, and when I come back it’s different music, different trends, and different people.”
Trump’s attempt to ban the app was blocked by a federal judge. His desire to ban it wasn’t just about TikTokkers who’ve targeted his campaign.
“It’s also Trump’s stance against China. The servers and the data were being farmed out, and China has competing interests with the United States,” said Raynauld. “It’s about making political points. China has been a political foe to Trump, so banning a Chinese platform and really pushing this hard during campaigning scores some points with supporters. And with [COVID-19], they want to show they’re tough on China.”
Politics has always been personal to voters, but because social media is so centered around individual users, it’s helped blur the lines of public and private, and social and political, said Raynauld. He said the intensity of politics has really risen in the last 10 to 15 years.
“You have people who are against Trump for gender issues, who are against him because of sexual orientation issues, religious issues. Immigration is really big. There’s been an identity-based fragmentation in politics,” said Raynauld. “Social media didn’t cause it, but put gasoline on that fire. You see people talking about politics in such a personal way on your feed.”