Back in June, when Donald Trump slammed President Barack Obama’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton on Twitter, the Democrat’s campaign was quick to tweet back a chilly three-word response: “Delete your account .”
It was a telling exchange, and not just because it set the stage for what has become the country’s first nationwide Twitter election. It also highlighted the striking, and very different, ways both presidential hopefuls have used the service to hone their messages, hurl accusations at one another and speak directly to voters — in effect, bypassing traditional media while also relying on it to amplify their retorts.
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So entrenched has Twitter become in the 2016 election that it can be difficult to remember just how new it is in this context. Four years ago, candidates Obama and Mitt Romney were just testing the waters with social media. This year, it’s a major source of information — political and otherwise — for a huge number of Americans. In a Pew Research Center poll last January, 44 percent of adults said they had learned about the election in the previous week from social media, more than cited print newspapers.
“People are using Twitter to connect more directly to the live events, moments and candidates of this campaign in a way that voters have never been able to do before,” says Adam Sharp, Twitter’s head of news, government and elections.
STILETTO VS. BLUDGEON
The candidates are certainly making the most of it. While Trump says he writes many of his tweets himself, especially at night, Clinton’s staff acknowledges producing the vast majority of hers. And Trump is definitely ahead by one crude measure: His followers outnumber Clinton’s, 12.7 million to 10 million.
The former reality-TV star and GOP presidential nominee draws outsized attention for what he’s tweeting and retweeting on a near-daily basis, most recently for his attacks on fellow Republicans and unsupported claims that the Nov. 8 election will be “rigged.” During his primary campaign, Trump drew regular news coverage for Twitter assaults that bludgeoned opponents with insults and sometimes baseless charges.
Trump’s approach hasn’t changed much in the general election, although his focus on his political opponent sometimes wavers. While he constantly refers to Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” and has continued to criticize the media for reporting that he is falling behind in the polls, he’s also launched long, and sometimes late-night, Twitter broadsides on a beauty queen, the Muslim family of a slain U.S. soldier and a federal judge.
The Trump campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.
When the Clinton camp goes on the attack, by contrast, it uses Twitter more as a stiletto than a club. “Delete your account” is a popular internet meme, an arch putdown that suggests someone just said something so embarrassingly stupid that they should just slink away and disappear. The response was an immediate hit that ricocheted around blogs and news sites for days; it’s been retweeted more than half a million times.
Trump is “that rough individual who will say anything,” a stance that his supporters find “very refreshing,” says Ian Bogost, a communications professor at Georgia Tech. Clinton’s tweet, by contrast, “signals to her base that she’s with-it on the internet,” he noted in an earlier piece in the Atlantic.
In his first debate with Clinton on Sept. 26, Trump denied saying that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. Clinton’s social media team immediately pounced, retweeting Trump’s own 2013 tweet in which he said just that.
After Clinton referred to a large fraction of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables ” for their sexism and racism, Trump retweeted a 2012 Obama tweet that argued the country doesn’t need a president “who writes off nearly half the country.” But Trump has also drawn fire for repeatedly retweeting white nationalists and promulgating at least one image condemned as anti-Semitic , an association Trump denied.
SEIZING THE WHEEL
Unsurprisingly, the two campaigns have very different social media goals. Trump, who joined Twitter in 2009, has long used the medium as a direct channel to the public for promoting himself and testing the political waters — for instance, by fueling the lie that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.
Trump’s campaign staffers do sometimes seize the wheel, as when the account tweeted “thoughts and prayers ” for NBA star Dwayne Wade following the shooting death of his cousin in August. Trump’s first tweet on the subject 82 minutes earlier had noted the shooting and crowed, “Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!”
Some analysts have noticed that most Trump-y tweets from Trump’s account originate from a different mobile device than ones that could have come from any traditional politician. That has spawned endless jokes — mainly on Twitter, naturally — along the lines of how his campaign staff fails to take away Trump’s phone during his tirades.
The Clinton campaign takes a more traditional approach, operating as its own massive brand rather than as a singular, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants candidate. (Rare tweets directly from the candidate are signed “-H.”) Many of the campaign’s tweets are the typical boilerplate of politics — thanks to supporters, reiterations of the candidate’s positions, forwarding news of endorsements and other developments.
Clinton’s approach hasn’t always fared well; an early tweet asking people to share how student debt makes them feel in “3 emojis or less ” quickly backfired. Responses on Twitter included, “This is like when your mom tries to be hip in front of your friends and totally fails at it.”
THE DIGITAL 100
Twitter is just part of a much larger Clinton digital presence run by a 100-person “digital team” that extends from Twitter to Snapchat to Quora to YouTube to Pinterest. It’s designed to draw in a broad range of voters, from young, social media savvy fans to Pinterest moms, while also working to undercut her rival on some of his favorite stomping grounds.
Clinton’s digital team offered Snapchat filters during the GOP convention that let people paste old Trump quotes praising Clinton over pictures of the gathering. There’s the “Trump yourself” Facebook app, which lets users see how Trump would insult someone like them. “Fat pig” and “women are always ‘griping and bitching'” are just some of the options.
Clinton even has a tool that invites people to “Troll Trump ” by signing up for automatic donations every time Trump tweets something offensive — which the campaign defines simply as every time Trump tweets.
TWEETING FOR EFFECT
The Clinton campaign argues that social media is just a means to an end: winning the election.
“Anyone who wants to say something unhinged, or (retweet) neo-Nazis” will likely get outsized attention, says Teddy Goff, chief digital strategist for the Clinton campaign. “Car wrecks get a lot of attention.”
Trump, of course, has rarely suffered for lack of attention. But while his unfiltered tweets helped him lock up the GOP nomination, they’ve proven less effective in the general election. Falling poll numbers, however, haven’t cowed him. On Monday, he tweeted (without evidence) that Democrats are “making up phony polls” to suppress “the Trump.” He concluded: “We are going to WIN!”