The 2016 U.S. Presidential race was the first election where social media was not only employed as a campaign tool, but also as a weapon. While previously used largely for online organizing and fundraising, social media and digital communications dominated the 2016 election with viral tweets, hacked emails, and fake news sites driving the news cycle.
Just as the televised debates between candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 marked the moment TV took center stage in politics, the protracted Twitter fight between Donald Trump and his rivals may point toward social media as TV's successor.
Trump's direct access to millions of his followers through social media arguably allowed him to maintain his campaign's momentum whereas an older system — in which the choke points of media exposure roughly correspond to the choke points of political power — would have shut him down long before he won the Republican nomination. Trump's facility with social media raises an important question: Could a digital-only communications strategy have won him the White House?
At first glance, the declining popularity of live TV and the rising influence of social media, especially in politics, seems to support the idea. As of 2015, about 53% of Americans preferred to watch TV shows via streaming video, compared to just 45% who still prefer to watch live TV. For those ages 14-25, streaming is preferred even more.1 In the future, this disparity will only become more pronounced. When it comes to political news, 61% of millennials (roughly, born between 1980 and 1995) prefer Facebook as their chief source, as opposed to 37% who rely on local television. For baby boomers, those percentages are reversed.2
All this would seem to indicate a future in which live TV fades away as an advertising vehicle in politics. But don't touch that dial just yet: When you dig into the 2016 campaign, the story that emerges is not so cut and dried.