How to Win Elections with a Smartphone

Kimon Seimenis on the impact of social media during the US elections.

Every day, thousands of people toil under the weight of pen and keyboard to write a nice and witty article about Donald Trump. Previously, his presence in the world of information and communication was just established; after his election, the man who branded vodka and beefsteaks with his name became the person the media love to hate. In the realm of politics, Trump was an outsider; in the presidential race, he’s been the antihero.

The problem with antiheroes is that they’re not supposed to win. Everybody expects them to do their part and then give in to the ‘logical powers that should guide this world’. This case would be different. Trump was indeed elected, and since there can be no such thing as an American Anti-President, the role-play faded. Criticism, however, did not. Today, we can see Trump’s image being shot at by people such as Wall Street sharks and associations of Catholic priests. In the international media, at least the major ones, he is at best viewed as doubtful and incompetent. For the rest of us on this side of the Atlantic, Trump gives a nice opportunity to open a discussion with the occasional visiting American, inquiring about the new ‘tyranny’ and the ‘awful changes’ in the States.

In retrospect, it seems even absurd that this man was elected, and that a rightful and sovereign part of the American people voted for him and installed him in office. Indeed, with nearly all public discourse against him, it seems as if Trump was put at the head of the most powerful country in the world by some form of magic or, rather, a well-played hack. Fantasy becoming fiction, stories have emerged of some ghost Kremlin nerds doing the trick. Either that, or there’s something fishy with liberal democracy – and judging by the lack of criticism about it, that’s a sensitive matter.

Which poses another reason to tackle it. Democracy, as everyone understands, is not about who gets power and with what means, but also how power is kept and exercised.  It is a structure, in the pinnacle of which sits the transition of power: elections. Just like every political system, democracy relies on information, which constitutes the main form of communication between institutions, decision-makers and people. Moreover, democracy differs from other forms of government because it supposedly gives the people the freedom of choice, something which makes information even more important. Most people do not vote for someone because of his looks, but because of his outlook. In simpler terms, people vote for someone according to what they know, or think they know, about him.

The critical role of providing the public with information has been, for a long time, given to the media. In a healthy democratic society, the media should be independent and nonpartisan, reflecting different views on the issues of everyday government. That’s also where their role in politics resides: the media might publish a speech, but they also make the commentary. To present pure information is just impossible and, as Foucault has successfully shown even the shortest collection of words, from a title to a caption, serves a political purpose. In fact, the media not only disseminate information, but also filter and control it. That’s why in authoritarian regimes, governments control the media. In democracies, on the other hand, governments establish pacts with them.

Returning to Trump, it is not difficult to see why his rather ‘uncommon’ political views would clash with those of the media. In the United States and in most of the world, the most powerful international media follow a political line which is described as ‘liberal’. This includes, to name a few, favorable views on the open markets, liberal democracy and gender rights. That the President of the United States would try to change a well-established status quo which has been, rather absurdly, characterized as ‘the free world’ would seem impossible. Consequently, he had to be opposed.

Faced with a dead-end, Trump had to look for a favorable communicative channel. Fortunately for him, social media, particularly Twitter, did provide the best possible solution. Twitter is free, easy to use, and accessible to everyone with a smartphone. Moreover, it is fit for political speech, especially Trump’s way of giving it: there’s no real space for long essays and argumentations. Brief, inflammatory political slogans can echo here as through speakers in a public rally.

More importantly, though, social media gave Trump a way to bypass the fact that others would control his political outlook, and with it the pact that he had to make with them. Some years ago, this would seem impossible: clashes with the media have not only diluted political views, they have also brought down governments. In 2017, Trump was fortunate enough to have a virtual podium, where his views and political lines could be published. Of course, as would happen with a live speech, the message is transmitted only to those who are present or, in the virtual domain, those who follow the user. That’s precisely why a lot of the topics on social media don’t make their way into the public discourse – tweets rarely come into newspaper stands. And that’s also a good reason why Trump won while the general public discourse was against him, and why that very victory looks like a hack.

The U.S. election of 2017 did actually prove how technology can bring changes to the structure of democracy. It challenged the way information is controlled – no longer monopolized through established organizations but spread in a way which shifts the focus to the individual. As the ‘fake news’ war is the first battle for the hegemony of information, the afternoon family ritual of watching TV has given way to the personalized streams of information coming to our smartphone screens. Does this mean that information control is no more? No, it just means that it has shifted premises to Silicon Valley.

Kimon Seimenis is a graduate student in International Relations at Leiden University.

Cut-out of a photo by dullhunk