Interviews

"Social media can change people's minds about political issues"

Photo: UOC
30/11/2017
Germn Sierra
Jayeon Lee, assistant professor at Lehigh University in the state of Pennsylvania in the United States.

 

Jayeon Lee is an assistant professor at Lehigh University in the state of Pennsylvania in the United States. She grew up in Seoul, South Korea, and earned her bachelor's degree in Law (LLB) from Korea University. After working for 9 years as a staff writer at a national newspaper in South Korea, she earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and a doctoral degree in Communication from the Ohio State University. She has published in journals such as Computer-mediated Communication, Communication Monographs, and Mass Communication & Society. Her research interests include male and female politicians' self-presentations, and user perceptions and behaviours in various social media environments. Ms Lee was invited to the Men in Movement International Workshop, where she presented Gendered campaign tweets: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a paper based on her recent studies.

 

How important was the use of Twitter during the US election campaign?

I think Twitter played a big role in the election. Trump was a nonstop newsmaker during the campaign, and this was possible partially because he could tweet and get his messages out without waiting for news media to cover him. Social media made this possible even before last year's election, and Obama used it too, but Trump used Twitter extensively and in a very aggressive and controversial way. His tweets made news almost every day, and news media tend to fully quote tweets, because tweets are short. This gave Trump extensive amounts of free media publicity.

Do you think Twitter is useful in opening up political debates? Is it a political tool or just a propaganda tool?

Any communication tool can be utilized for promotional purposes in both good and bad ways. It depends on the people who use the tool. Like other tools, Twitter can have the positive effect of promoting political debates and deliberation. In my other study, I found social media could change people's minds about political issues. Twitter's wide reach makes it possible to expose young voters who are not interested in politics to a certain degree of political information. Twitter is an interactive communication tool that allows voters to show their immediate reactions to politicians. In that sense, it is better than the one-way, top-down communication of the traditional mass communication era. Political actors and business entities will try to promote their goods or services, or themselves, through social media while building relationships with consumers. Voters should stay wise to this and be able to differentiate reliable sources from unreliable sources that provide false information.

Who generated more impacts, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? Who would you say “won” on Twitter?

Definitely Trump. He tweeted less than Clinton, but his tweets received three times more voter reactions in the form of favourites and retweets during the three months I studied. His tweets got more media coverage, which also could have created salience in voters' minds. Tweets such as these could affect uninformed voters. I think Clinton's campaign was a team effort based on extensive research and brainstorming, while what Trump did was broadcast his ideas. His tweets were so unconventional and incendiary, it is hard to imagine that professional political strategists planned and designed such crude messages.

Do you think Twitter is more effective for someone more aggressive like Donald Trump?

Maybe, because he did not seem to care about any of the possible backlash his tweets could have brought about. Civility and manners did not seem to matter much to his supporters, either. His main supporters were those white males who were losing jobs and power at home and in society and looking to recover their authority, and Trump's tough and powerful macho image satisfied their fantasy.

It's obvious that Trump himself is using personally his own account. Is Hillary doing the same, does she manage her account or does somebody on her team write her tweets?

It seemed there were two types of tweets – written by the candidate or written by their teams – for both candidates. Some of Trump's tweets were from another phone, and had more visuals and were a bit more civil, so we assume those were from his team. Clinton marked her own message with “– H” at the end. I did not particularly examine the difference, but her own messages were as professional and predictable as her team's messages, probably edited or approved by her campaign strategists, so the difference may not be that big.

"Twitter's wide reach makes it possible to expose young voters who are not interested in politics to a certain degree of political information"

 

According to your research, tweets containing attacks or tweets with negative information receive more attention than positive ones. Why is that?

It is said that humans tend to pay more attention to the negative information they receive than the positive. Historically we might have been trained to be more sensitive to negative or hostile signs so we could get ready for any danger. However, I cannot say that attack tweets receive more reactions because we are programmed that way. If a candidate speaks negatively all the time during a TV debate, it won't always get positive reactions. There were unique things about the last election. First, it was a very competitive race. Campaigns tend to become more negative in close races. Second, Trump led his campaign in a very uncivil and aggressive way, insulting and demeaning many people, including other candidates, and I think it made the overall atmosphere of the election more competitive and negative. It would have put him in danger if he had been a regular candidate, but as the star of reality show, Trump's character already had an aggressive nature that had become popular, so it seemed that acting aggressively did not hurt his popularity. Particularly, I think the powerful white male's tough and aggressive messages resonated with his major supporters – white males who missed the authority they used to have, or those who were afraid of change, namely changes in the statuses of women, non-whites, immigrants and refugees, and terrorism.

You mentioned in your presentation that Donald Trump's and Hillary Clinton's campaign tweets, as well as their campaign websites, reflect political candidates' gendered communication strategies.

I think social media are now playing roles as major communication platforms, even replacing campaign websites. I found that both Trump and Clinton used their websites and Twitter to emphasize similar issues and personality traits. Trump emphasized his masculine traits and masculine issues, while Clinton stressed her masculine traits and feminine issues, as predicted based on literature and gender stereotypes. That is why I am saying their tweets and websites reflected their “gendered” communication strategies.

Can social media change your vote?

This question involves another study I actually did before. It was published in Social Media Studies in 2016. My answer is yes, but only under certain conditions. In my study, I found merely being exposed to different opinions did not significantly change people's minds unless they (a) were highly motivated to seek political information, or (b) were actually involved in a discussion with others with different opinions through social media. People were more likely to change their minds about an issue or get involved in an issue when they had at least one of the two conditions. Of course, I did not test all possible factors, so there could be many factors. I just want to say that it is important to stay open-minded and accept new information even when it conflicts with our own pre-existing knowledge or beliefs, and to not be afraid of talking about politics even with people who may not agree with us.