Donald Trump Engages People on Social Media Like No Other Presidential Candidate in History

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The presumed Republican nominee offers strong reactions to the news and the day’s public discourse … and the Internet loves it.

By Francie Diep


Donald Trump campaigns in Reno, Nevada. (Photo: Darron Birgenheier/Flickr)

If you had to hire one of America’s presidential candidates to run your company’s social media accounts, you’d be wise to choose Donald Trump.

An analysis by the Pew Research Center into the websites, Twitter accounts, and Facebook feeds of Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders found that the presumed Republican nominee engaged far more with the news and with his social media followers than his Democrat rivals. Trump’s social media posts also received more attention from the public.

A politician’s choices on social media can make a big difference to how people view their candidacy. In January, 44 percent of American adults reported they become educated about the presidential race through social media, according to other research by Pew. That tops candidates’ websites, applications, and emails—along with newspapers—as a tool for learning.

The Pew Research Center examined Clinton’s, Sanders’, and Trump’s websites between May 1 and June 15, and their Facebook and Twitter posts between May 11 and May 31. Here’s what the researchers found:

  • Clinton, Sanders, and Trump all retweeted sparingly and almost never re-posted on Facebook. Still, Trump was far more likely to amplify the voices of his ordinary followers. Seventy-eight percent of his retweets were from members of the public — “people who were not famous and had no discernable ties to news media, government or other organizations,” in the researchers’ words — compared to 2 percent of Sanders’ and 0 percent of Clinton’s. Trump’s approach differs not only from his rivals’, but from any candidate before him: In 2012, Barack Obama retweeted the public only 3 percent of the time, and Mitt Romney, never.
  • Clinton’s website mostly featured articles written by her campaign staff, while Trump’s staff mostly posted about stories in the news. The candidacy website for Sanders posted a mix of both.
  • Trump’s Facebook posts sent followers to news stories 78 percent of the time, while Clinton’s posts directed people to her own campaign pages 80 percent of the time.
  • All three candidates posted with equal frequency on Facebook and Twitter, but, as the Pew researchers write, “In every measurable category of user attention — Facebook shares, comments, and reactions, as well as Twitter retweets — the public responded to Donald Trump’s social media updates more frequently on average than to either of the other candidates’ posts.” Trump’s Facebook posts, for example, received 8,000 shares, on average, compared to 6,000 for Sanders and 2,000 for Clinton.

Because the Pew Research Center has been conducting analyses like these since 2000—when George W. Bush ran against Al Gore—the researchers were able to dig up some interesting historical notes:

  • Comments are dead. In previous campaign cycles, some presidential candidates’ websites would allow people to comment on their pages. No more. Following the lead of many news organizations, this year, politicians have banned comments.
  • Once upon a time, Myspace was important. In 2008, the Obama campaign killed it on Myspace. He had more than 100,000 Myspace friends, when most of his opponents had fewer than 40,000. Now, no candidate has a Myspace presence, but everyone uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.
  • The social Internet is getting bigger. In 2008, having more than 100,000 “friends” seemed like a lot. Candidates now have millions of Twitter followers.

What does all this mean for each candidate’s campaign? The numbers reinforce the popular notion that Trump excels at appealing to certain, ordinary voters. But while social media is important, it isn’t everything. Sanders’ social media posts tended to perform much better than Clinton’s, yet Clinton won the Democratic nomination. Trump’s and Sanders’ support bases may be especially comfortable talking on the Internet compared to Clinton’s, but the proof remains in who’s motivated to get out and vote.