How Social Media Nullified Citizens United

When the Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 Citizens United case that political action committees -- as well as unions -- could be organized and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for a particular policy or political candidate, it was widely believed -- and still is believed by some living in the past -- that the average person would no longer have a voice, that millionaires and billionaires would seize control of the U.S. government, and by consequence the American way of life.

It turns out that big money does not control politics anymore. 

Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964 “true social and political navigation depend upon anticipating the consequences of innovation.” Social media were first used effectively by Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign. But he used it as an extension of existing methods of communicating with the electorate. His campaign organization compiled lists of millions of potential voters and contacted them with what may be characterized as political advertisements; political messages.  He used Facebook as an advertising medium. 

Before social media the technology of mass communication was owned and controlled by a few wealthy newspapers, TV corporations, and radio conglomerates. These were the “channels” through which messages were transmitted to the public. They were expensive, and those who controlled it controlled the amount of words or space that were purchased, or time as in TV and radio ads. The value of these media channels then were in the circulation numbers of newspaper; or how many people watched on TV ad or heard ads on radio. These different channels of communication were jealously controlled. A history of this was written by David Halberstam

So when Citizens United enabled huge political PACs to operate in campaigns, these PACs and the politicians who use them felt that the door was wide open for them to control the messages. They would be provided with the tens of millions of dollars required to take out ads on radio and TV, and thereby carefully control what the electorate heard.

But Facebook and more recently Twitter changed all that. Anyone can open an account on these social media sites for free. So Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders can give their versions of events at any time. And anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account can connect to the politicians’ accounts and follow what they have to say for free. They don’t have to buy a paper or watch a TV ad.

Social media have created an explosion of not only press freedom but free access to tens of millions of members of the voting public. Candidates can directly communicate with their potential voters. They don’t have to kowtow to any political party. The main effect of this is that political candidates have achieved two historic goals: they don’t need the approval of one of the two parties, and they don’t need tens of millions of dollars in a campaign war chest to finance their own ads.

This change, from big money campaigns to social media campaigns, has taken place so rapidly that newspaper and TV political pundits failed to grasp it. It didn’t fit their old paradigm what works in political campaigns and what doesn’t. There is also a strong factor of cognitive dissonance: they have to deny that social media are stronger than themselves. This is because they make a lot of money from political advertising and the last thing they want political candidates to realize is that they don’t have to buy ads on their networks to get elected. 

The interesting thing about this is that unlike campaign messaging which often escapes hard financial analysis, it is possible to compare the results of social media messaging to money spent on traditional campaign advertising. Trump was quick to point out that in the state of Florida millions were spent on negative ads against him, and these millions failed to influence voters.

But it must also be said that Trump did achieve a lot of free coverage on traditional television. Not through paid advertisements but their coverage of his boisterous antics and sometimes offensive use of language. Trump was shrewd enough to understand, and act on, the marketing strategy that reality has taken over ideology on TV coverage. And he used the media’s thirst for entertaining, startling events to cover his campaign speeches. So Trump used both the new social media and the old television and radio media to his advantage. 

And he did this all without the traditional media knowing what was going on, they failed to catch on to his approach, to appreciate the effectiveness of his tactics. 

Bernie Sanders is also using social media but in a way more consistent with tried and true Democratic campaign tactics: the organization of rallies, protests, and demonstrations designed to get media attention. The Democrats’ greatest achievement in using social media as an organizing channel was the March 11 anti-Trump demonstration. But it must be mentioned that a major reason that demonstration worked was that Trump was appearing at a large university, located in a major city, which had thousands of students living nearby and to which thousands of others had access on public transportation and major highways. 

The effects of this implementation to social media, combined with Trump’s teasing of traditional media, are dramatic.  Jeb Bush spent over 30 times as much money per voter as Donald Trump in New Hampshire and had a very poor showing. In fact, Jeb Bush spent $150 million on an overall political campaign that may be characterized as a complete failure. Bush was financed by a PAC, Right to Rise, the sort of PAC that was enabled by Citizens United. Bernie Sanders started with very little money compared to Clinton’s PAC money, but received tens of millions through internet donations.

In the final analysis, the critical factor in Trump’s success was that Trump’s campaign tone worked, and it worked because he had a sense of what the voters were feeling. He had a sense of the reality the voters were experiencing; that the government was oppressing them with high taxes, had made promises they didn’t keep, and sent their jobs overseas through trade agreements made without the voters’ best interests in mind. 

The point is, Trump used both traditional TV and radio through his understanding of their need for attention-getting theatrics, and social media as a channel for directing communicating with potential voters.

Citizens United was seen as a revolutionary ruling because it enabled small groups of people with huge amounts of capital to control, it was expected, access to message channels. But with the introduction of Facebook and Twitter on the Internet, messaging is no longer under the control of a few. Social media has freed the First Amendment to be used by everyone. But more importantly, it provides everyone access to everyone else without cost. This has nullified the influence of money and the PACs that were considered a threat to the electoral process. 

And Trump, along with Bernie Sanders, put this all together in the 2016 campaign. 

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