A few weeks after President Obama set up his own Twitter account, Hillary Clinton joined Instagram. As of this posting, she has 42,000 followers and two posts. The first is an image of a wardrobe with three different colors of pantsuits — red, white and blue — with the caption “Hard choices.” The second is a shot of Clinton being filmed with the caption “Coming soon: Hillary on the fights that matter.” These are two relatively innocuous first posts for a fledgling Instagram account, but it’s obvious Clinton is looking to use the platform to leverage support from younger voters.
Maintaining a social media presence has almost become a necessity for politicians. Almost every elected official has at least one profile on a major social networking site. People like Corey Booker have made a name for themselves by interacting with people through various networks. Obama’s early adoption of YouTube and Facebook campaigns played a large role in his 2008 election.
Engaging with the public on social media can have Anthony Weiner-like consequences if politicians aren’t careful. That’s why most accounts have become more like elaborate PR schemes than the unfiltered voice that platforms like Twitter are supposed to offer. Obama has had a Twitter account for years, and he only launched the new one so that his followers could be assured the words were his own. Somehow it seems unlikely that he spends time posting the canned photos and captions you can find on his account. Yet his message still gets out to 2.65 million followers.
Social media sites are growing in popularity in the U.S. According to the above Statista poll, 73 percent of the U.S. population have a social networking profile as of 2015. Those numbers represent a 6 percent growth compared to last year. Using social media to get involved in politics has also been increasing. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, 16 percent of registered voters follow candidates for office on social media. That represents a 10 percent increase from the 2010 midterms. An active, well-planned and well-monitored social media presence can give candidates a huge advantage in the upcoming election, especially with younger voters.
A common debate among members of the social media generation is whether all of our constant posting will have an adverse effect later in life. Many have warned how Facebook pictures of partying or wild behavior could prevent you from getting a job, but what will the effect be when you’re applying for the position of president? As people like Trevor Noah have already learned the hard way, Internet users are diligent in scrounging up the worst about people online.
When someone who is born today turns 35, it’s possible that almost every aspect of that person's life will be documented and searchable online (presuming they, like too many of my Facebook friends, have parents with a tendency to overshare updates about their kids). At that point, more of the world could be accustomed to all the flaws and bad behavior that can be exposed through social media, and it's possible that it won’t affect voters’ decisions. We already know Bush and Obama both did drugs when they were younger — a Facebook photo or video of that happening wouldn’t necessarily change much.
For now, however, candidates would be smart to continue censoring themselves through PR departments, using social media to attract a larger following as voters prepare for the 2016 election. As long as candidates don't make any mistakes, using social media can only be a beneficial way for them to communicate their ideas and establish a direct connection to voters.