The problem of media influence on election campaigns and primaries, in particular, has been an object of study for many years for sociologists, journalists, mathematicians, and psychologists. The media shape public opinion and can help regulate voting statistics and liking for a particular candidate. Recently, the role of the Internet and social networks has been growing in the media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In addition, experts often consider YouTube to be an essential regulator of the formation of public opinion.
The Internet, in general, has changed the structure and order of information consumption by people, building new filters. Now media filters are not solely in the hands of a group of editors but can be formed individually according to user requests. It radically affects the image of political life in the media and forms new types of expression of civic position. The author asks: Did social media disrupt the gatekeeping theory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by bypassing or replacing the legacy mass media? In this regard, it is necessary to find out the background of the presidential elections in 2016, explore the image of Donald Trump, and analyze the theory of media system dependency in the new realities.
General Background of the Presidential Elections
Modern journalists refer to the 2016 elections as the first held almost entirely on social media. Both the candidates and the citizens could see an unprecedented increase in activity on social networks. Candidates tried to shape their image through Instagram and Twitter, and this often applied not only to economic, legislative, and other proposals in the programs (Reuning & Dietrich, 2018). Repeatedly, candidates tried to build those images in social networks that would show citizens that they are decent family men, conscientious people, responsible employees, and much more. It stereotypically refers people to proper ethical constructs and inspires confidence.
Unlike newspapers and television, social networks form actors’ interaction horizontally, allowing them to feel on equal terms with candidates. It is desirable for young people from 18 to 25 years old, who then experience the first or second elections in their lives (Wettstein et al., 2018). Research by journalists showed that about a quarter of the people who expressed their civic position on Instagram and Twitter belonged to the generation of zoomers or late millennials.
They put a lot of hashtags (up to 30 per post) and made their statements without hesitation. For instance, they used #Imwithher, #FeelTheBern, #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, #TrumpTrain, and #myvote2016 (Adams, 2020). Through hashtags, people also easily expressed their dissatisfaction, for example, using the inscription #VoterFraud (Towner & Muñoz, 2020). Clouds of hashtags have become, in turn, the key to forming a new information filter. These hashtags and the ability to separate one from the other allowed people to become independent editors. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram users could manually enter the desired hashtag into the search line and instantly find themselves in the information field that seemed most comfortable to them. It is one of the reasons why fans of QAnon and Pizzagate were able to make such a big statement and make bright posts. In this situation, it was not their number that played the most crucial role (most likely, they did not reach a large number), but the strength of the rhetoric and the brightness of the images used.
Instagram has become a bastion for criticism of CNN, Fox News, and other TV news channels, although the speed of information from them has not changed and remained extremely fast. However, it was noticeable that the issues of migration, the army, the economy, banking, insurance, and taxes are raised by journalists on TV much more often than on social networks. Retrospectively, it can be concluded that those candidates who were focused on these topics during the election campaign, especially the primaries, received less public support and were less bright and memorable than others.
Donald Trump: Charismatic showman
Donald Trump is a memorable image that became famous in America, mainly thanks to his scandals and controversial statements. He was a billionaire, entrepreneur, and greedy man willing to increase significantly his already significant income, even to circumvent American law. His arrival in the elections in 2016 did not stun the public but made it possible to make an exciting show out of the bureaucratic operation. Racism, sexism, harassment issues, and Donald Trump’s radical statements intertwine in this show. The country’s official media, unwittingly, fueled interest in the image of Donald Trump.
Having been remembered by the public for scandals, Donald Trump continued to fill the media space. People discussed it and reacted emotionally, and it did not matter if it was presented in a positive or negative light. The official media, as well as the media on the Internet, made several mistakes when covering the primaries and the election campaign. The main error was that they tried to maintain neutrality toward Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Journalists demonstrated a desire to critically reflect on each image and each program, noticing the shortcomings. Thus, Hillary Clinton appeared before the public as a dishonest candidate whose sincerity was being questioned. Citizens did not understand if she planned to do her program; moreover, the Pizzagate scandal ruined her reputation. Thanks to filtering (gatekeeping), social networks have made possible what did not go to live broadcasts and newspaper columns (Dr. USP, 2021). Dubious information, fake news, and conspiracy theories have become prominent on social networks if their authors have shown creativity or efforts to promote this or that hashtag or post. Other users, most indifferent or doubtful, saw these posts and could only strengthen their suspicious.
The black minority often uses social media to fight for rights and express citizenship. If journalists point out that the average newspaper reader is a middle-aged white man, then the situation with Instagram, for example, is diametrically different. In parallel with the campaign of Donald Trump and other candidates, the Black Lives Matter movement developed. Violent disputes in this movement took place, first of all, on social networks.
Communication Theory: Media-system Dependency
The dependence theory of the media system postulates the relationship between social, economic, and political processes taking place against the backdrop of total media coverage. With every decade, people have become more deeply connected with television and social networks (Chadwick, 2017). At the moment, many cannot imagine their lives without reading social networks or actively maintaining their accounts, where they can cover everyday events and talk about their thoughts and emotions.
Social networks help people cope with social and psychological needs. They help to understand the world around them, offer actions in this world and possible roles, and, under emotional pressure, allow a person to escape into a fantasy world (Chadwick, 2017). It can be said that at the moment, the media are the conductors of morals, norms, and values for many people, which is especially noticeable for young people. People learn as much as possible through the media about the world around them: they read news and comments and watch videos straight from the scene of incidents. In addition, they can use the media resources of entirely different countries, expanding the boundaries of their understanding of how other people live. It creates an inclusive culture and makes the media a vehicle for multiculturalism, particularly in the US. It is mainly due to the significant power of the press in the country, despite the apparent bias of some publications or TV channels (Fox News, for example). Nevertheless, there is an extremely high diversity of information sources in the United States.
Seeing the whole picture, the viewer often wants to receive suggestions for action. The media are thus here the conductors of ideology, which, in turn, serves as an impetus for action. In a modern context, making a post calling for protest against police brutality, for example, is a mature civil gesture. If the situation in society is unnecessarily tense, the media can provide people with a haven where they can relax and get a sense of control over the situation. Here people can especially clearly notice the work of gatekeeping when the media decide to cut information flows so that they stabilize their emotional state (Al-Rawi, 2018). Another most common and modern example is the formation of individual gatekeeping in social networks (Chakraborty et al., 2019). This gatekeeping adjusts to the needs of one user and can show many posts on the same topic, ignoring current events (Stevenson & Josefy, 2019). It can be ASMR (common especially on Instagram), cooking and recipes, gardening, or skin care.
The media thus cement relationships between systems and partly shape them. Adequate and complete media coverage of the country’s political life (scandals, elections, investigations, corruption) positively affects the formation of active citizenship. Most of the processes in modern media are aimed at shaping and changing public opinion. Gatekeeping is connected with this, as well as rhetorical manipulations (Ferreira, 2018). The same coverage and even a mention (frequency of comments and their intensity) of other events can stir up a resonance in society and support individual fighters for rights or heroes of any plot.
Impact of the Internet on Media-system Dependency
The theory under consideration postulates the omnipotence of the media in influencing the formation of human values. Only the degree of dependence of a person on the press and trust plays a role here. With a high degree of dependency, the media can not only influence likes and dislikes for specific companies, products, and celebrities (Chadwick, 2017). With such reliance, people base their internal ethical constructs on the narrative they hear. This narrative and internal constructs impact people’s behavior, relationships with others, and representation in society. With the advent of the Internet, media power has become less visible and has taken on a horizontal form. Journalists have become bloggers who act on an equal footing with other users. The exchange of opinions, it seems in social networks, takes place with equal rights for all users, which creates an atmosphere of comfort, understanding, and sometimes permissiveness. If traditional media dominated information flows and put pressure on people, now listeners have full rights to express their opinions and view any content of their choice in any quantities.
In recent years, addiction has only become more robust and less noticeable. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to control the flow of information, as the Internet has given rise to many tools for introducing new information. Some apps people download to communicate with their loved ones may still see ads, which is one example (Chadwick, 2017). Advertising in social networks, in general, is an example of how strong information flows can be hidden under the screen of a messenger, bright and offering many unique products.
The 2016 election, where Donald Trump won, was phenomenal in terms of journalism. Traditional media tools proved irrelevant during this campaign and gave way to new ones, such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Many experts call these elections the first ones fomented on social networks when the candidates themselves spent a lot of time and energy on PR on Instagram and Twitter. It allowed Donald Trump, a charismatic showman, to capture the attention of millions of people and not leave the discussion pages. This publicity spun not only on programs and proposals for reform but on the ethical images they sought to provide citizens. Instagram showed an unprecedented explosion of activity among young people (late millennials and generation Z) who, through posts and hashtags, could support each other and draw attention to the issues that worried them. Gatekeeping has changed during these elections, and journalists have seen that young Internet users can now easily adjust the amount of information and its subject matter.
The rise of social networks and the Internet’s penetration into many people’s lives have changed the information and communication flows previously delivered to people vertically, from editors to ordinary listeners. Now people can become editors for themselves and their friends, creating clouds of news and topics that only interest them. It increases human dependence on the media, even though it radically changes the appearance of the media.
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