Communications technology lies at the center of politics: The printing press, the telegram, radio, television, and the Internet have successively formed a long cascade of change in how politicians and leaders communicate with citizens. Twitter TWTR seems to be the latest iteration in this evolution. Studies like Twiplomacy, which conducts a yearly survey of how world leaders tweet, attest to the global importance of the platform.
Barack Obama and Donald Trump both notably relied on the social media platform to build their presidential campaigns and build direct, personal rapport with their supporters. And yet, there is one glaring difference between their profile pages: Obama has around three times as many followers as Trump.
Make no mistake, both have a disproportionate amount of power on social media. Klout, a firm that measures social media influence, puts them at around the same score—98 for Obama and 95 for Trump, on a scale of 100. Even casual observers know that both can elicit worldwide reactions from their tweets, which is most lamentable with Trump’s proclivity for tweets on North Korea and nuclear war—and yet, Obama boasts 93.6 million followers on Twitter and has six of the 10 most-liked tweets of all time, while Trump has a comparatively paltry 36.1 million followers.
It is important to realize that all high-profile politicians, regardless of country or party, have fake bot followers on social media. This fact in particular makes the Trump administration’s claims of popular support based on his online following tenuous at best. This is a phenomenon Oxford researchers have deemed “manufacturing consensus.” All the same, given Trump’s savvy for digital propaganda, it is surprising he only commands a third of the following that former president Obama does. Obama’s longer tenure as a figure in the international public eye may have contributed an initial boost to this following, but something deeper must be underlying the numbers. What’s behind the enormous gulf?
A Harvard scholar of political science, Joseph Nye, coined the term “soft power” in the 1980s. Nye has written that “Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use … economic and military might to make others follow your will.”
Unlike real-world politics, there is no hard power in the online sphere. Soft power—essentially a synonym for coolness, received admiration, or genuine respect here—is the currency of social media. Obama exuded a presidential equanimity and global consciousness that drove worldwide perception of the United States up 15% during his eight years as president, according to Pew Research. That positive view of the States immediately suffered a precipitous drop when Trump took office in January. Where 64% of global citizens favored Obama, only 22% of them have a positive view of Trump.
These numbers, coupled with the fact that Trump’s first day in office inspired the single largest protest in U.S. history, underlie one simple conclusion: People simply don’t like Trump. They don’t like him in real life, and they don’t like him online. In the real world, they may laugh at his antics, they may watch his borderline syntax-less speeches, they may even obligingly vote for him as the least worst of two options, but they still don’t like him. Conveniently for the electioneering Trump, this fact can be hidden in real life, but online—where popularity among human users is truly democratic and organic—the numbers tell the whole story.
Nick Monaco is a research affiliate at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and ComProp, the Computational Propaganda Project at OII.