Remix via Max Fleishman Photo via U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv / Flickr | Photo via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The Internet has created an echo chamber in the 2016 election

Is anyone even listening anymore?


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Published Apr 27, 2016   Updated May 26, 2021, 9:20 pm CDT

Contrary to what the media would like you to believe, the 2016 election has been somewhat of a snooze.

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Despite the controversies, the internal drama, and the unstoppable rise of a reality TV star to the top of American politics, this current election cycle has proven to be amazingly static and certain.

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Currently, Donald Trump is well on his way to the requisite delegates needed for the Republican nomination—despite his party’s best efforts to prevent such a catastrophe—and the nomination of Hillary Clinton seems once more inevitable for the Democrats. Their respective victories in the so-called “Acela Primary” Tuesday night only cements what has for months been the most likely scenario.

Had you asked any armchair poll watcher in the summer or fall of 2015 what April 2016 would look like, they very well might have guessed this exact outcome.

Soon after announcing his candidacy, Trump took a commanding lead of the Republican field and has only gained on his competitors since. And despite an impressive insurgency under the banners of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic race is right where everyone has suspected it’d be for years—in due course towards a coronation of Hillary Clinton. In all, the supporters of either leading candidate have proven to be outstandingly stubborn—meaning much of the spectacle of the last nine months has been nearly pointless.

Without either side talking to each other instead of at each other, it’s unlikely either will change their minds. 

Despite the fervor with which candidates argue, battle, and hustle over the choices of voters, voters actually stand little chance of changing their mind. Watching social media during this campaign and you’d be forgiven for thinking this cycle had been a titanic matchup with ups and downs and lows and highs. Checking in on Twitter during any debate will show guffaws and snide jabs as well as fact-checking and ideological sparring from experts and pundits.

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An analysis of the partisan lines on Twitter published in the journal EPJ Data Science finds that much of that conversation is meaningless.

According to the data, there is very little crossover between “conservative” Twitter and “liberal” Twitter in both chatter and who follows who.

Without either side talking to each other instead of at each other, it’s unlikely either will change their minds. We might be adamant in shouting our disdain for Candidate A or Candidate B, but none of the people likely to change their minds are actually listening. It appears much of the public debate we might consume or participate in is merely to pat ourselves on the back for having made the right choice all along.

It’s been a long-known fact that, when given a choice, consumers are most likely to pre-select facts and news sources that more closely reflect their own ideological assumptions about the world. Conservatives have remained extremely loyal to Fox News and other outlets like Drudge Report and Breitbart, while liberals have stuck to MSNBC and the New York Times.

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Social media has only worsened this phenomenon, mostly by allowing people more ways to filter what news they choose to consume. 

Social media has only worsened this phenomenon, mostly by allowing people more ways to filter what news they choose to consume.

According to a Pew study from last summer, 63 percent of both Twitter and Facebook users cite each social network as their major method of reading the news. This means a growing number of Americans are likely being swayed by what researcher Eli Pariser famously called “the filter bubble.”

Because we naturally pushed towards narratives we already accept to be true, argues Pariser, the algorithms that suggest and provide new content for us on Facebook, Google, and Twitter are more likely to worsen the degree to which we only consume what we want to hear.

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It’s a probable cause of the increasing partisanship seen across American society over the last decade. This is itself leading to the fracturing of the two parties. All the excitement and controversy over the past year has felled many a candidate, from the seemingly inevitable (Jeb Bush) to the completely obscure (Lincoln Chafee). What it hasn’t done, however, is upend the sides that voters selected months ago.

In all likelihood, barring a historic upset (who’s very historicity would only prove this point further), we are headed for a general election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

According to the polling average at RealClearPolitics, Hillary Clinton held 47.8 percent of Democratic primary voters in November, while Sanders held a mere 25 percent. Today, that same average finds Bernie Sanders has gained enormously–but not by changing the minds of Clinton supporters. Support for Sanders has ballooned over the last six months, standing at 46.3 percent. Support for Hillary Clinton, however, has actually gained slightly, standing at 48.5 percent.

Likewise, Clinton has earned the vast majority of the popular vote, collecting 10.4 million primary votes to Sanders’ 7.7 million. Once Clinton supporters chose Clinton, it seems, they refused to be budged in the same way Sanders supporters have proven unlikely to suddenly jump ship.

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On the Republican side, the matter is a bit more messy. As Trump has bested his various competitors, a common meme among the #NeverTrump forces of the GOP was “adding up” the support of his opposition, as if the supporters of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or Ben Carson would magically equate to more votes for Ted Cruz or whomever else the Republican establishment would prefer over Trump.

Aside from his cynical and dangerous turns toward xenophobic fear mongering, what Trump has done in the face of a mounting and increasingly unified opposition is, politically speaking, rather impressive. No other candidate in either party’s history has faced such widespread refusal by the actual party itself, with conservative intellectuals and leaders actively campaigning against him, and a fundamental refusal by many Republican voters to support him.

In the face of this, Trump supporters have proven to be just as hardheaded as Clinton supporters. Despite the positive thinking of party establishment, the GOP race has remained a two-man race between Trump and Ted Cruz since December.

Trump leads despite an unprecedented level of drama, the kinds of details, events, slipups, and barbs that political pundits like Mark Halperin and John Heilemann dream of. Despite Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, his waffling on abortion, comments about his hands and his hair and his manhood and his wife, Trump’s support has remained stagnant behind him—or, more likely, against the GOP leadership.

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Looked at through this lense, the American voter appears to be nullifying the traditional focus of presidential politics and creating an echo chamber that’s becoming deafaning.

The concrete partisanship that has largely sunk Washington for the last eight years may either be a cause or a reflection of the electorate’s own unwillingness to listen.

Political junkies might be overjoyed at a race as exciting as has this one has been, but the excitement is mere decoration to what is obviously a very slow and very boring process by which hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to change the minds of precisely no one. 

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

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*First Published: Apr 27, 2016, 2:42 pm CDT