How the Social Media Dumpster Fire Hijacked the Election

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There are a lot of theories floating around about how we wound up with (shudder) President Donald Trump.

The Bernie Sanders camp is crowing, “We told you so, Bernie would have won!”

The media likes to go on about how little Hillary Clinton was trusted; an impression created entirely by the media.

An article in Ad Age by Simon Dumenco theorizes that Clinton’s messaging was wrong. She wasted airtime pointing out the obvious–Trump is a horrible person. Hell, everybody knows that.

In the aftermath, however, what really happened is becoming increasingly clear: Welcome to the post-truth “Idiocracy.”


It started with the media. To compete for viewers, channels pretending to be news sensationalized every morsel of fake news. They gave more airtime to the endless Benghazi hearings than to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

When they finally milked that for all it was worth, the fake email scandal launched a slow, poisonous drip, with each outrageous false claim spreading like wildfire on social media.

Search for Hillary + email in BuzzSumo, and you get something like this:


Hillary’s ISIS Emails. FBI agent investigating Hillary found dead. Hillary’s anti-Trump Muslim dad? Her father died in 1993.

Now check out the share counts–and note that exactly none of these websites are bastions of journalism.

Real journalist Matt Yglesias wrote, “The real Clinton email scandal is that a bullshit story has dominated the campaign,” and he got a paltry (by comparison) 362,558 shares.

Fake news sites and the propaganda machine

BuzzFeed identified more than 100 pro-Trump fake news sites run by teenagers in Macedonia designed to feed the disinformation machine. Fake news is a great money-maker for enterprising broke youngsters with no scruples.


You have to hand it to right-wing bloggers. They built an unstoppable network. You have to go several pages in to find credible news, and then only if you know what credible news looks like. The top listing, WND, for example, is one of the more successful fake news sites. And the disinformation on these sites has been picked up by media outlets on several occasions and spread to other news shows that didn’t want to be scooped.

Now that the election is over and it no longer matters, Facebook and Google have decided to do something about it. Thanks, guys. Good work.

Foreign interference

The Russian government hacked Democratic National Committee servers. There’s no question of that now. And a Russian diplomat claims that Moscow was in contact with the Trump campaign before the election. The president-elect encouraged Russians to hack Clinton’s server. In any other year, this would be a Watergate-level scandal. This year, it hardly caused a ripple.

While security experts speculate that Russian President Vladimir Putin won the U.S. election, social media was obsessed by that one staffer suggesting that they needed to do damage control when Sanders was trashing the DNC in the news. Somehow, that became evidence of the DNC “rigging the election.”

Social media drove it all home


Amplification is the process of harnessing the power of influencers–bloggers, vloggers and social media people with lots of friends who respond–to spread a message. Clinton didn’t get it. Her team used the cutting-edge email methods pioneered by President Barack Obama’s team–eight years ago.

Clinton never had control of the message, and worse, she did little effective damage control. She didn’t get personal.

Her team should have been online 24/7 identifying and communicating with influencers, joining support groups to answer questions, tweeting her message relentlessly, shifting the focus off non-stories and insane conspiracy theories and drawing parallels between the debunked lies told about Obama and the wild stories circulating about her.

Trump mastered amplification early in the game. He understood, “If it bleeds, it leads.” He spoke directly to the fears and prejudices of the people most likely to spread his message, and they did.

Russia was only too happy to help out. The Russian government deployed bots, paid “trolls” and launched complex networks of websites to portray Clinton as a shady criminal with near-fatal health issues, in the pocket of Wall Street, married to a rapist.

Bernie’s hands are not clean

After promising to keep it clean and above board, Sanders became the ultimate influencer. He chose to attack and amplify Clinton’s mythical untrustworthiness. In doing so, he delivered a targeted message to splinter young voters from the Democratic party.

The “Bernie or Bust” movement became so virulent that many vowed to vote third-party or Trump if they didn’t get their candidate after it became apparent he would not get the requisite votes. Sanders eventually supported Clinton, but the damage was done. The false narrative was validated by a powerful influencer.

The nail in the coffin: ‘Lesser of two evils’

Negative social media disinformation was not confined to detractors. The poison spread to marginal supporters–people who might have made a difference. Reluctant supporters called Clinton the “lesser of two evils” and let everyone know they would hold their noses and vote for this crooked candidate only to avoid the alternative, which effectively enforced the false narrative.


True supporters huddled in private groups where it was safe to talk about her positives. Pantsuit Nation was formed in October, and it grew to more than 3.6 million ardent Clinton supporters in under one month.

On the upside, a historic number of women were elected to Congress, bringing the total number to a ridiculously pitiful, but still improved, representation. And the medical marijuana movement is gaining steam, fueled by society’s changing views and amplified by the same social media. I have a feeling we’ll all need an effective painkiller in the coming years.

Say what you will about this dumpster fire, the election was a stunning triumph of influencer marketing and social media amplification. Businesses, are you paying attention?

Sherry Gray is a freelance content writer from Key West, Fla., currently suffering in the suburbs of Orlando. She is a science geek, a social media junkie and an unapologetic fan of all things bacon. Follow her on Twitter: @SheriSaid.

Images courtesy of Adobe Stock, The Oxford Dictionary, BuzzSumo, Google, AZQuotes and Adobe Stock, respectively.