New Tech for Old Candidates: The Digital Battleground in the 2024 Election

Presidential campaigns can be exhausting, especially for the two oldest candidates to ever run. Plus, techniques long used on the campaign trail are no longer feasible to win over an increasingly divided and younger electorate. The digital battleground has provided solutions to these challenges in the past, but 2024 is a different story. So, how has social media changed since 2020, and how will these changes help determine the next president of the United States?

As America braces for a presidential rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, social media is poised to play a transformative role in shaping public opinion, influencing campaign strategies, and mobilizing voters. While campaigns have experimented with the technology since the early 2000s, the past few election cycles have seen substantial developments in how social media influences voters.

In 2008 and 2012, candidates began experimenting with digital technologies in several ways. Barack Obama changed the game in 2008 by using social media to raise money and develop an army of volunteers who successfully campaigned his vision to Americans on his behalf. Obama also found the platforms useful for displaying policy information, mainstream media news, speeches, and other content vital for attracting younger audiences in a contest about change. Contrastingly, McCain’s campaign lacked a sophisticated website and social media apparatus which distanced itself from both potential voters and small donors. Obama doubled down on this strategy in 2012 whereas Romney, the heir to the Republican Party, similarly failed to win the social media battle. And who ended up winning those elections?

The role of social media in campaigning only expanded and sophisticated going into 2016 and 2020. The spread of misinformation, introduction to influencers and echo chambers, and overall technological advancement in data gathering and advertising on these platforms all contributed to the growth of the digital battleground. In 2016, Russia spread misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media in an attempt to sow societal divisions and erode public confidence in government. On the other end of the spectrum, in 2020 Joe Biden virtually ran his campaign on social media due to COVID lockdowns. This allowed him to use influencers to engage with young voters, diminish the importance of Twitter by targeting ads on Facebook, create viral content, and incorporate other strategies that worked to win over an electorate stuck at home. 

Although COVID is no longer a factor, these trends remain going into 2024. Real-time engagement with voters has proven crucial in modern presidential elections, and social media has provided candidates with an array of outlets for messaging, fundraising, and more. Now, over 40% of TikTok users get their news from the site, and that rate rises to over 50% for X. The integration of advanced data analytics and AI will provide well-financed campaigns with the opportunity to micro-target key demographics on social media and personalize content. Campaigns will also be more adept at crowdsourcing donations via vast grassroots influencer campaigns, reaching both ends of the political spectrum and potentially resulting in record-breaking contributions. 

The enhanced digital battleground affects voters in several ways. Content posted by campaigns or relevant actors on social media has the potential to become viral and serve as free advertising for the candidates. Damaging content (remember the Access Hollywood tape?) can flood communities across platforms and as a result shift opinions at critical moments in the campaign, making campaigns scramble to gain control of the narrative. In a similar vein, misinformation and AI-created content can spread just as easily and distract voters from policy issues and campaign messages. Recently, platforms such as Instagram and Meta launched more robust fact-checkers and strengthened privacy features for users. Meta is even stepping back from politics, forcing candidates to adapt to different advertising platforms. But, these mechanisms aren’t perfect and don’t address fundamental concerns such as echo chambers and foreign interference. 

The developments since 2020 will not only serve to mobilize and engage voters in new ways but they will also move more of the campaign online, where the candidates will be forced to fight for positive virality and screen time. The 24-hour news cycle no longer applies when the public can control the narrative rather than the networks and campaigns. 

While these are only assumptions based on lessons learned from past elections, it will be interesting to see how the two candidates will address AI, Russian or Chinese interference, influencer marketing, robust data analysis, and other factors that weren’t at play just a few election cycles ago. There will be both similarities and differences in how Trump and Biden utilize social media this time around, and because of the newfound importance of social media, these strategies just may determine the next president.