If you like political rollercoasters, 2016 has been your year. But what about the digital front?
From Donald Trump's tweets to Bernie Sanders' digital donors, the internet has shaped the political environment and the contours of the presidential race. Revolutionary? Mostly no, but with a big exception. Let's take the major trends one at a time.
In 2004, online fundraising was revolutionary. In 2008, it put Barack Obama in the White House. In 2012, the revolution was finally mass produced: we saw the democratization of campaign funding via the internet, as it realized its power to support political operations of all stripes.
The Sanders movement comes naturally to mind, but online donations also bolstered Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. Clinton was no slouch, building a small-dollar donor list that served her well even on the verge of Election Day ($11.3 milllion in the 72 hours after FBI Director Comey's October 28th email surprise). Meanwhile, after Trump sealed the nomination, he and the RNC spent heavily on a small-dollar fundraising program, helping him build an email list we may hear from again.
Beyond 2016, watch for fragmentation. Email fundraising can build mass movements, but it can also sustain niche organizations outside the recent political mainstream. "Our Revolution" will have company — some of it might be frightening.
Bernie's crusade illustrates another double-edged trend: the expanding power of people acting outside of the campaigns themselves. Sanders supporters organized on Reddit and Slack, and they dominated social media during much of the primary season. Unfortunately, a few took online politics a step too far: they harassed Democratic super-delegates online. Worse? The death threats — anti-Semitic and otherwise — sent to reporters apparently by Trump supporters.
Wikileaks aimed higher. By dumping hacked email records, the online organization tried to derail Clinton's campaign outright, perhaps at the behest of a certain foreign government. Online organizing as war by other means?
Regardless of the group or the target, though, we're still talking broadly about non-traditional actors injecting themselves into the political process using digital tools, not exactly something new. For context, let's remember that Howard Dean's supporters gathered via MeetUp in 2003, followed by Ron Paul moneybombs four short years later.
What's next? More of the above, I suspect, with politicians riding the digital tiger one day and bleeding in its jaws the next. Every possible story will fight for its day in the sun, while gatekeepers and fact-checkers sprint to stay behind. Voters and others will lob grenades as they see fit.
This leads us to the big outlier. In 2016, I'll argue that social media actually did something we haven't seen in politics in America before. For real.
Of course people organized and messaged and memed, but they've been doing that for years. The difference in 2016 has one name, and it was Trump: in his hands, Twitter and Facebook became a strategic weapon, the preferred medium for shishkabobing "Little Marco,” "Low-Energy Jeb" and "Crooked Hillary.” Trump understood that social media is personal, and he's the first major presidential candidate to revel in these channels unfiltered.
To his supporters, his tweets were saying what "everyone else is thinking." To everyone else, they were a spectacle we couldn't escape — horrifying or otherwise, they dominated cable news and drove 2016's political discourse. As I write this article one week from the final vote, he still could find himself president, in part through the passions they amplified.
Will others follow in Trump's digital path? When it comes to traditional candidates, I suspect that the answer will mainly be no. Few candidates (and their staffs) would risk an unfiltered Trump-style dumping of the id. After all, those who live by the tweet may die by the tweet.
But what about those nontraditional actors, who might see in Trump a new path to political power? Social media demagogues and unaccountable activists make a great team, and we'll all have plenty of places to feed on raw political meat. The next people-powered movement may thrive on dark moods, whipped on Facebook Live.
And The Rest
Of course, we've left out big chunks of the digital campaigning world. On the data and grassroots fronts alone, Clinton's field operation may be the only thing to hold off a late Trump surge. But political data is so 2012, and the evolution we've seen this year is one of degree rather than kind. Likewise video: watching the unfiltered "Access Hollywood" video opens up a door into Trump's mind, but it's really another Macaca moment, bigly.
When we look back on this year in digital politics, I suspect we'll mainly remember things that professional campaigners didn’t do. I just wish we could be more sure about where we'll go from here.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.