Seven ways US election shows how the Networked Age is shaping political comms

As the final votes are counted in the US Presidential Election, here are seven key takeaways from the contest for communicators who want to understand how this Networked Age is changing politics.

Never mind your political campaign materials – James Gurling asks: where are your influencers?
Never mind your political campaign materials – James Gurling asks: where are your influencers?

1. The ‘reality gap’ is getting wider

Are masks an effective way to the combat the spread of COVID-19? Did Trump ever build a wall? Does Antifa exist any more than QAnon? Democrats and Republicans would give very different answers to these seemingly provable or disprovable questions.

In a polarised world, the problem is not just a difference of opinion – it’s a reality gap.

2. 'Who you’re against' tells people who you are

The image of both presidential candidates was shaped primarily by who they stood against. Trump used the media’s antipathy toward him to reinforce his ‘Drain the swamp’ credentials. Biden was the ‘Not Trump’ candidate, who would return decency to The White House. His biggest viral hit was a video which pointed out that, unlike Trump, he was a dog-lover.

3. Everyone is their own PR person – making the pollsters’ jobs harder

The polling firms that got closest to the accurately predicting the final results were those that worked hardest to identify the ‘Shy Trumpers’ factor. Birkbeck professor of politics Eric Kaufmann says this shyness is particularly prevalent among highly educated Republican voters. The more polarised the environment, the more likely people are to lie.

4. Social justice was a big factor in this election

The protests that followed the death of George Floyd in May were an important factor for US voters, polarising opinion sharply. The New York Times reported that among those who cited the protests as a factor, 53 per cent voted for Mr Biden, and 46 per cent for Mr Trump.

5. Identity politics – it’s complicated

In fact, the Republicans surprised many commentators by making big gains among Black, Latino, Muslim and LGBT voters. This was helped by the Walk Away campaign, which exploited people’s biases toward social norms and familiar messengers. The storm following Biden’s interview with Charlamagne tha God – in which he told the black interviewer: 'If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black” – will also have cost him votes. Social reinforcement doesn’t work if it comes from a septuagenarian white man lecturing black voters on what to think.

6. This is not the end of the Culture War

Networked communication is inherently polarising. Factors such as inequality, uncertainty and generational change are behind the increasingly tribal and activist political landscape. These factors are not going away any time soon, on either side of the Atlantic.

7. The election has permanently changed the political media landscape

This election cycle has seen an accelerated trend towards the decentralisation of social media, with many on the right moving to platforms such as Parler and Discord. Meanwhile, Fox News’ pivot away from Trump and toward the centre right has left room for challengers such as The Daily Wire and Newsmax. Future political battles will be less about party machines commanding the ‘airwaves’ than opinionated influencers directing the gigabytes.

James Gurling is joint head of public affairs at Engine MHP

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