At the end of the week that saw Donald Trump elected as the next President of the United States, much has been written about how he did it, and particularly how he used social media so effectively. It is absolutely right that social media platforms are behind arguably the biggest story in changing patterns of media consumption over the past year or so. The shift from destination (consumers going direct to owned properties) to distributed content (news stories showing up in social media feeds) is changing the game. Based on your preferences and the preferences of friends, in this new paradigm you get served content that supports your world view. There is no real danger of running into content that might challenge. It is the oft-quoted filter bubble.
It is a phenomenon deftly exploited by groups who seed content that presents itself as journalism but is in fact propaganda, and often lies. The lie that Hillary Clinton was a Satanist spread and took hold at quite extraordinary speed due to this effect. This is all quite important when you consider the findings of the Reuters Institute for Journalism’s Digital News Report this year that found more than half of all people are now using social media as a source of news each week, with a growing number saying it’s their main source of news. The effect it’s having is that originating news brands get noticed less than half the time now in countries like the UK. Digital has driven plurality of sources, but a narrowing of consumption.
But social media is only half of the story of the election. In the rush to call time on the mainstream media, it’s worth stopping to consider the role both newspapers and television had in the election. It’s easy to say that mainstream media doesn’t matter. The acres of negative coverage and thousands of hours of broadcast disparagement of Trump made no impact. Trump triumphed, so ergo mainstream media no longer influences and is irrelevant. But I’d argue that it does matter, and it did have an effect, but not in the way we might think.
Let’s take newspapers first. Among many unique things about Donald Trump, he stands out as a candidate that received fewer newspaper endorsements than any other candidate in history: only six that I know of, with Clinton receiving hundreds. Sounds bad. Well it is, if your strategy was to win newspaper endorsements. But imagine if it wasn’t. Imagine for a second if your strategy was to receive as few endorsements as you could to differentiate yourself from elites – and to make sure people knew that. Imagine if the rejection of the mainstream media might in fact be a net positive for you, and that the media would ensure that most of America knew of their abject view of you. If you think about that, you start to understand why Trump from the start insulted and baited the media, he didn’t try to win them over. Not because he thought they were irrelevant but because they could cast him as an anti-establishment candidate.
Turn now to television. Again much has been written about the dollars that Clinton put behind TV advertising and that it didn’t work. That is right. But does that mean that TV is no longer a powerful medium, that TV doesn’t work? In fact, you could argue that TV had a decisive role to play, not just over the 18 months of the campaign, but much longer than that. Since 2004 Donald Trump has starred in The Apprentice. There have been 14 seasons of the show on NBC. At its height it was watched by as many as 28 million viewers, lifting NBC and helping it maintain Must See TV branding on Thursday nights as Frasier and Friends came to an end.
The audience for the show isn’t elites. If they watch television at all, it’s Charlie Rose or Meet the Press. But for mainstream America in places outside of the liberal East and West Coasts, The Apprentice is a popular show. Whilst it is true that the picture of ratings has been mixed over these 12 years, the show did bring Trump into the living rooms of ordinary Americans. There he was each week, seemingly ‘cutting through the crap’ decisively, firing, hiring, getting in and out of helicopters. If any single property has defined Donald Trump as a successful businessman, it is The Apprentice. If he could be successful in the boardroom, why couldn’t he bring his particularly muscular style to the Oval Office, the argument goes. Add to the mix a strategy to dominate news broadcasts through extraordinary utterances, and suddenly TV is playing rather a dominant role through the election cycle.
So what does it all mean? Quite honestly, it’s still too early to tell. But what is clear is that a mixture of changing patterns of social media usage, peer-to-peer and direct communication played a role. But that came alongside an unconventional press strategy, and leveraging a profile already set by entertainment. It’s true, the world will never be quite the same again