US expert Tim Büthe and social media researcher Simon Hegelich on the consequences of the US election campaign
"Trump won't just disappear if he loses"
The current election campaign is being described as the dirtiest in the history of the US. What role does behavior in social media play here?
Hegelich: Classic political topics, for example foreign policy, fade into the background in social media. Here the big questions are: Is Trump a sexist? Does Clinton have Parkinson's disease? This is connected with a highly pronounced polarization. The theory of the social media filter bubble isn't correct as people do indeed perceive opinions differing from their own, but they don't accept these opinions. This kind of polarized conflict is not caused by social media alone, but it does take on a much more aggressive form in social media. This is facilitated by a large number of bots, i.e. controlled fake profiles. And I'm thoroughly convinced that this style also influences the debate outside of the social media.
Has the populist effect so often attributed to social media been entirely lost in the US campaign?
Hegelich: No, the support for Bernie Sanders was a real grass-roots movement, to which more than anything the social news service Reddit was of great importance. But this doesn't apply to the Democrats as a whole. Clinton's presence in social media is purely show. For example, the app she offers is based on gamification. The user can play campaign manager in a design which is highly reminiscent of Google. In the meantime the app uploads the smartphone's contact lists, showing who is using Facebook. Then these Facebook friends are sent campaign advertising and calls for donations – in the name of the app user. Facebook noticed and prohibited a similar, more direct form of data access with Obama, but now the Clinton team is simply using a small technical bypass.
"signs that Trump may be planning to build a media empire"
Is this why Clinton is ahead in voter surveys?
Hegelich: Clinton may be gaining some ground as far as social media are concerned, but Trump is very present there as well. He looks good on Twitter, he's the ideal personified troll. One thing both parties are doing to the same large extent is conducting social media analyses which they combine with enormous commercially available inventories of personalized data and then use in targeted door-to-door campaigning.
Büthe: However, it still isn't clear whether or not Trump's large following in social media will help him much on election day. Surveys show that many Trump supporters were non-voters in the past, and Trump seems to have failed to get potential voters to register to vote on a large scale. In most US states, voter registration several weeks before an election is the prerequisite for being able to actually cast a vote on election day. And this step isn't to be taken for granted for people who work over 40 hours a week, have restricted mobility or less access to information than the average American citizen. The Democrats have been hard at work here for quite some time. Trump's failure to build up local networks of party activists for himself and the Republicans, who can turn supporters into voters, is one of the largest weaknesses of his campaign.
Even if this may indicate that Trump himself is ultimately not very interested in the woes of the population, has his campaign not called attention to very real problems?
Büthe: Trump has been very skillful in articulating the interests and fears of a significant neglected minority. But at the same time he has insulted many other population segments and has alienated non-whites and women in particular. As a result, the Republican party could end up losing even states such as Texas, which otherwise reliably vote Republican. This is why a number of Republican strategists are actually hoping for Trump to lose dramatically, which would make perfectly clear: The Party urgently needs to change course; it will not survive for long as the party of conservative white males. But finding the party's future direction will take a fierce fight that may take several years and has in part already begun. And there is reason to fear that a destructive confrontation within the Republican party would be seen by skeptics as renewed evidence for Washington politicians being merely concerned with themselves.
Wouldn’t that be beneficial to Trump?
Büthe: Trump won't just disappear if he loses, especially if he loses only narrowly. He and his supporters see themselves as a movement fighting against the system and as such against their own party, as long as it's opportunistic to do so. There are already signs that Trump may be planning to build a media empire that could be even more extreme than Fox News and thus prevent a course correction.
"We won't see the use of digital technologies on this scale in Germany"
What broader consequences do you see for the USA – and for Germany and Europe?
Büthe: National-level US politics have become viciously confrontational, and a drawn-out civil war within the Republican party could become a serious threat to the entire political system. This also constitutes a threat to the economy of the United States, which is of course a crucially important trade partner for Germany and Europe. It also reduces any willingness and ability to jointly address global problems such as climate change. In the short- and medium term, these political upheavals in the US may thus have very serious detrimental consequences for the rest of the world, too. For the long-term, I'm nonetheless quite optimistic, because throughout its long history American democracy has shown a remarkable self-correcting capacity.
What could a president Hillary Clinton do to combat the polarization of American society?
Büthe: One major step she could take would be to take care of those who are among the real losers of the internationalization of the economy. In the past, US politics has hardly made any effort to provide some sort of compensation for these groups. For example, in contrast to Germany, in the USA there are few programs to help individuals who can no longer find a job in their field to re-train for other professions. If Clinton would actually implement those kinds of public policies, she could send a signal to both the left-wing supporters of Bernie Sanders and to the right-wing oriented Trump supporters showing that she takes their concerns seriously.
In addition to substantial effects on Germany, could the methods we're seeing in the US election campaign affect the tone of next year's Bundestag elections?
Hegelich: We won't see the use of digital technologies on this scale in Germany – if for no other reason than it would cost millions of dollars. Not only to pay for hardware and software, but also to pay the people with the necessary expertise who also have attractive offers from other potential employers. Otherwise, let's wait and see what happens in the US election: If Trump comes away with only very poor results, it could be a sign that the discussions in social media are indeed farther away from the actual debates taking place in society.
About the interviewees:
Prof. Tim Büthe has been a professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University since 2004, having previously taught or held research fellowships at Columbia, Harvard, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. In July 2016, he joined the Hochschule für Politik München (HfP) - Bavarian School of Public Policy at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). He investigates the political aspects of international economic relationships at the Chair of International Relations.
Prof. Simon Hegelich is Professor for Political Data Science at the Hochschule für Politik München (HfP) - Bavarian School of Public Policy at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). He investigates both the political relevance of topics relating to digitalization and classical political science questions using digital methodologies such as machine learning and data mining.
Hochschule für Politik München (HfP) - Bavarian School of Public Policy at the Technical University of Munich (TUM):
In 2014 the Technical University of Munich (TUM) became the host university of the Hochschule für Politik München (HfP) - Bavarian School of Public Policy and oriented the profile of the HfP toward politics in technologized societies. Seven newly endowed professorships investigate how technological developments and political processes mutually interact in their respective fields. Political science students also study technical and life-sciences subjects at the TUM.