Will Trump Win? podcast: Why a weakened Donald Trump still holds the advantage in the digital battle

Donald Trump's Twitter page
Donald Trump speaks from a very powerful platform to his 84.7 million followers. Credit: Twitter

Fred Dimbleby will be analysing the 2020 US election digital campaigns for our brand new podcast Will Trump Win?

Here he explains why Donald Trump is weaker online than four years ago but still holds a key advantage over Joe Biden... Unless Kanye West has a surprise surge, whoever triumphs out of Donald Trump and Joe Biden will enter office as the United States' oldest president in history.

And yet these two septuagenarians will be relying on one of the most digitally active campaigns to win this election.Thanks to the pandemic, convention centres filled with flag-waving supporters look to be out in 2020.

And into the vacuum, with all its noise and contested claims, will be digital campaigning.

So what's different this time round? 

In 2016, a weak digital campaign damaged Hillary Clinton's electoral hopes and a well-organised online campaign helped Trump reach the 270 electoral college votes needed to access the White House.

But four years is a virtual eternity online, and a lot has changed.  

At the last election, tech platforms still had a veneer of being disruptive, innovative and of existing outside of the establishment.

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Rightly or wrongly, they were viewed more as start-ups where employees played ping pong in their lunch break, rather than institutions capable of changing the course of electoral history.

But 2016 quickly changed that view - allegations of foreign interference, disinformation online, and suspicion about mass data gathering operations led to a fall in their popularity.

The recent antitrust hearings, where the heads of the major tech firms were virtually hauled before Congress, emphasised that the companies had become part of the establishment - attacked by politicians for being too big and all-encompassing.  

The coronavirus pandemic has cemented this increased scrutiny of social media and big tech.

When truth and fact became a matter of life and death, it is unsurprising that any platform hosting disinformation is criticised.

Donald Trump has made Joe Biden’s cognitive abilities a campaign issue Credit: Niall Carson/PA

All of this impacts the Biden and Trump campaigns.

Forced to be accountable, social media platforms more actively crack down on false or suspicious information than in 2016.

TikTok and Twitter have banned political ads and Facebook has set up a Voting Information Centre for this election, broadcasting public service information to their users.

Both Twitter and Facebook have added caveats to misleading posts from President Donald Trump's accounts and Twitter even temporarily restricted the ability of his son, Donald Trump Jr., to post on the platform.

In other words, some regulation has been added to the online free market that existed in 2016.  

But misinformation is still all too present online.

A pro-Trump conspiracy group, QAnon, has Facebook pages with huge followings, anti-vaccine misinformation exists on most major platforms, and prominent users continue to post fake information with little scrutiny.

Offensive posts are still present in all parts of the online space and many have called on platforms to improve rapidly. 

Campaigning online may be more regulated, but many of the problems of 2016 remain.  

How do Donald Trump and Joe Biden's digital presences compare?

Donald Trump starts this campaign ahead again, building from his successful disruptive blueprint in the last election.

Online campaigning is not just about advertising but organic content - a message delivered straight to a voter from a candidate's account may be more effective than an advert.

In terms of the people he can reach organically, Trump has a huge head start.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik

He has 26 million more likes on his official Facebook page than Biden and his opponent’s 7.7 million Twitter followers looks measly in comparison to Trump's 84 million.  

This imbalance means that, when Trump posts on social media, more people naturally view it.

The Trump campaign have solidified this advantage with their financing on advertising.

Since the start of July, they have consistently spent more than Biden on Facebook ads and, in the most recent week of data, Trump spent $2 million (£1.5 million) more than his opponent.

Biden ads admit to this disparity, by using Trump’s fundraising success to motivate donors to give money to the campaign.

But it's not all easy sailing for the Trump campaign.

TikTok, the video-sharing app that is a new player in the online political scene in 2020, has already caught the campaign out.

Its young user base reportedly helped disrupt Trump's rally in Tulsa, Florida earlier this year.

Trump's former campaign manager, Brad Parscale, who once seemed to be fully in control of all things digital, was moved into a different role after the failed rally.

TikTok has become an internet sensation due to its catchy videos and ease of use. Credit: Ng Han Guan/AP

To repeat success online twice is a tough ask – with many of the trick cards already played in 2016, the Trump campaign may struggle to innovate this year and to build a digital strategy suited to the political climate of the election.  

So what should we look out for in the coming months?

This all comes down to two digital campaigns that have never been more important and more scrutinised.

Forced online by a global pandemic, the pressure is on for both candidates to maximise this opportunity.

This online election pitches a previously successful campaign adapting to the new rules online, against an underdog rapidly trying to catch up.  

A good digital campaign helped Trump win in 2016, in this election his campaign hopes it will stop him from losing.

You can follow Fred Dimbleby throughout the campaign on Twitter @freddimbleby

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