The Impact of Social Media in Modern Elections

Traditional media and social (new) media strategies have been used to impact voter opinion with varying levels of effectiveness. The definition of what constitutes traditional and new media has changed through the years as (1) sometimes the difference between traditional and new media can be indiscernible as time advances and (2) the advent of ever-increasingly technological advances in communication either partially or completely displaces older media, both are effective tools that have the potential to chart and alter the course of political campaigns. For the purpose of this essay, it is noted that traditional media can be defined as print (e.g. newspapers, magazines, booklets, pamphlets, flyers), radio, and television. New media includes social media such as the internet – specifically websites such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and others.[1]
Social Media

Image: Social Media. Credit: fredcavazza. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Regardless of the type, ideally media effectively connects with potential voters on the issues that matter to them. This is particularly true with regard to elections in which a political incumbent is running. Although many factors may be implicated in the success of failure of an incumbent candidate or party in a political election, media plays a significant role. Media strategies can provide an effective guage of the incumbent candidate’s efficacy and viability for re-election.

Both traditional media and social (new) media can be instrumental in framing the views of the voters, polling potential voters with regard to their voting preferences, and enhance voter outreach in elections in which political incumbent candidates and/or parties are running.

The election of 1992 was an example of an election in which the media influenced the election outcome through its portrayal of the state of the economy in the United States. The incumbent President George H.W. Bush was an economic conservative who assumed office during the economic recession of the 1980s, not long after the stock market crash of 1987. Toward the end of Bush’s presidency, the economy had begun to show signs of improvement. However, this improvement clearly did not occur quickly enough to appease dissatisfied voters.[2] Additionally, voter priming, in which the negative perception and feeling of voters surrounding the issue of the economy were targeted and amplified by media exposure, played an important role in Bush’s election loss.[3] [4] Thematic framing by the media was instrumental in having the voters direct their anger with regard to the poor state of the economy and its sluggish recovery toward Bush and the government policy and decision-makers in his administration.[5] Thus, campaigns directed against Bush seized upon this vulnerability in order to siphon votes away from him and toward the Democratic and Independent presidential campaigns.

Social media has a significant impact on voter behavior with regard to its relevance in voter outreach as a tool to unseat the incumbent political party. Vehicles such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube provide potential voters with a platform to voice their concerns. Voters self-segregate demographically, also choosing to separate themselves via similar values and views.[6] These voters, once grouped, are frequently resistant to considering other points of view with regard to either candidates of other parties or candidates within the same party who hold views divergent from theirs.[7] With regard to its impact on incumbent wins or losses, social media has the power to quickly shape opinions and mobilize voters for action. Consider the 2008 election, in which social media played an important role. Although not officially designated as an incumbent, many political analysts considered Hillary Clinton the incumbent candidate simply due to her sheer political experience and history of involvement in Democratic election politics. This was also known as a “virtual incumbency” or “quasi-incumbency.”[8] Barack Obama effectively used social media to reach younger voters – a previously neglected group of voters, targeting them both for campaign and financial support (through appeals for small dollar amount donations) during the election campaign. After engaging voters through social media, they were then mobilized to action in a ground campaign. Although the response with regard to Facebook was somewhat tempered due to the lack of propensity of users to generate excessively long posts, activity via twitter, YouTube, and other means more than accommodated for the difference.[9] [10] [11] The Republican Party, the incumbent political party in 2008, was rendered vulnerable through its reluctance to embrace social media strategies as quickly and effectively to reach potential voters. The result was an election loss in November 2008.[12]

Dorkina Myrick, MD, PhD, MPP, is a physician-scientist and pathologist trained at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Myrick also previously served as a Senior Health Policy Advisor on the United States Senate.  She obtained her Master of Public Policy degree at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. Dr. Myrick is currently a JD candidate at the Boston University School of Law.


[1] Chadwick, Andrew. The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power. Oxford Scholarship Online. 2013.

[2] R. Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler. “Economics, Issues and the Perot Candidacy: Voter Choice in the 1992 Presidential Election.”American Journal of Political Science. vol. 39, No. 3. Aug 1995. pp. 714-744

[3]Pan et al. “Priming and Media Impact on the Evaluation of the President’s Performance.” Communication Research. Vol. 24. No.1. February 1997. pp. 3-30.

[4] McGrane et al. “Priming the Voter: Assessing the Implications of Economic Perceptions on Evaluations of Leaders and Parties.” Canadian Political Science Review. vol. 9, No. 1, 2015, 92-111

[5] Stray, Jonathan. How much influence does the media have in modern elections? Nieman Lab. Online:

[6] Biswas et al. Influence of social media on voter behavior. Journal of Power, Politics & Governance. June 2014, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 127-155.

[7] Bond et al. “A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization. ” Nature. 489, 295–298 (13 September 2012).

[8] Geraghty, Jim. “The Campaign Spot: Obama Campaign Calls Hillary ‘The Quasi-Incumbent'” National Review Online. Monday, July 02, 2007.


[10] Juliet E. Carlisle and Robert C. Patton. “Is social media changing how we view understand political engagement? An analysis of Facebook and the 2008 election.” Political Research Quarterly. Vol. 66, No. 4 December 2013, pp. 883-895

[11] Carr, David. “How Obama tapped into Social Networks’ Power.” 9 November 2008. New York Times.

[12] “McCain vs. Obama on the web.” Pew Research Center. September 15, 2008.


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