100 days to the election – Trump v. Biden: The last 30 days on Facebook

It is 100 days to the US 2020 Elections. Over the next few months millions of dollars will be spent on the parties’ digital campaigns. Much of this will go on Facebook, especially on targeted advertising. However, although advertising is key to a campaign in the modern era, targeted advertising is inherently not as powerful as viral socially located organic communications. Adverts cannot replicate the nature of peer-to-peer communications, and this may be why evidence of impact is so scant (although this is also arguably due to data access).

The two parties will thus also be expending huge efforts in getting their online digital activists to engage with refined organic content online. Using digital activists like online virtual members, digitally door-knocking their friends and family. This is important because people don’t generally trust parties, politicians or political adverts; instead most of us trust our friends and family. This means organic engagement, often maligned as meaningless slacktivism, can actually signal something much more important. Engagement with content online can show both digital activist enthusiasm, as well as how effectively parties are spreading their messages out into the public.

The polls look terrible for Trump, including in supposedly more safe seats.

Despite the polls currently showing total Biden supremacy, if Trump smashes it on election day, or even wins but un-bigly, you will see elements of these trends on Facebook first. Only Facebook offers a pertinent view of the online machinations of a mass election. The platform will show potential Republican success and Democrat failure or vice versa. Only Facebook engagement showed the rise of UKIP from 2013-2014, Trump’s 2016 success or mirrored the eventual 2016 Brexit Referendum result. Each time Twitter and other social networks presented a totally different reality.

Facebook is thus a strangely right leaning, but thus more reflective mirror of the UK and USA’s voting public’s. Therefore to ignore clear trends on the platform is to laugh in the face of a potential political tsunami. Facebook, is generally more reflective of the offline, as Twitter, Reddit or many other networks generally show wildly left-wing skews and feature younger more urban demographics. Facebook is in contrast geographically, demographically and politically broader, a place where effective messaging can reach and persuade middle-aged and older people, unlike the more divisive open hierarchy Twitter offers.

However, although Facebook offers some insight it is very much not a perfect tool, given demographic changes on the platform (Facebook is getting older and is near-stagnant in USA userbase growth) it may be becoming too right-wing skewed. Therefore all subsequent analysis must be taken with a large pinch of salt. Facebook engagement does not reflect votes, but that is not to say it does not offer important insights into how political campaigns are operating.

From the 27th June to the 26th July the Official Trump and Biden pages engagement fluctuated enormously. However, when both averaging the data (due to Trumps higher posting rate) and in total, we see complete Trump supremacy.

Averaging the data to present per post engagement helps Biden’s page a lot. However, it is clear that the candidate is not activating many Democratic Party activists. This is in total contrast to the activism former candidate Bernie Sanders generated on Facebook earlier in the year, showing this is not an issue of potential audience but of activation. Democrat leaning Facebook users are just simply less interested in following Biden and thus less inclined to share his content.

In the table below you can see that Sanders still prompts a large amount of engagement, although this has considerably declined since his standing down. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn (former Labour Party leader in the UK) also maintains a relatively high activism rate, showing how figures can live on politically via the platform long after standing down.

A silver lining is however visible for Biden’s campaign, although he features fewer followers than Trump (only 2.2 million against 28 million), this small group is very active. As such his activism rate (a rough tool – simply engagement/followers) is double that of Trump’s and over four times that of Sanders. However, in overall scale Trump is dwarfing Biden due to his sheer scale of follower-ship and engagement. As we progress through the election we may see either Trump or Bidens activism rate shift, signifying a campaign that is getting a very good bang for buck. This will be something I will be looking out for in future. The worrying fact that Biden (US population 328 million) features only around 500,000 more followers than Jeremy Corbyn (UK population 67 million), is something the Democrats should be working on. His page innately has little capacity for the spread of messages to a broad set of the Facebook userbase (caveat – obviously not all followers will be based in country of page – this is an unknown).

Total EngagementNumber of Followers“Activism rate”
Data from the 27th June to the 26th July

The pattern may change over the next 100 days, if Biden rises up you will see it in Facebook engagement relatively quickly. I will be doing regular analyses of the Facebook organic campaign to glean insights for the election, posting every day the previous day’s engagement, alongside more in depth analyses such as this.

Given the Trump campaign are operating so many pages, this trend may be even worse for the Biden campaign. I will also be investigating this, alongside providing recommendations for what the Biden campaign should do.

Finally, a caveat emptor, don’t go put a load of money on Trump like I did after seeing his online engagement in 2016. The digital media landscape has shifted enormously since 2016. All this online activism could be flowing into echo chambers, not breaking through online activists into their friends and family. However, given how many studies are sceptical of the power of echo-chambers and heterogeneity, engagement still presents a clear insight into some pertinent factors of campaign success. So at the moment I am waiting for more evidence, given Covid, so much is up in the air with previous trends potentially overpowered by new events.

Follow me on Twitter @tristanhotham.

All data gathered and accessed using @crowdtangle.

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