As the campaign began, analysts assumed that, because of the increased reach and capacity of social media sites of all kinds since the last election cycle, social media would be used in potentially powerful new ways. The Wall Street Journal predicted that the use of campaign advertisements targeted at individuals using newly available data would be among the more notable innovations.
The political newspaper, The Hill, concluded not only that "[s]ocial media's influence in this presidential election is stronger than it has ever been," but that it "will shape campaigns for years to come." According to The Wall Street Journal, the "traditional media" and the Democratic and Republican parties have lost "dominance" of public opinion to the "digital revolution."
Frank Speiser, co-founder of SocialFlow, said, "This is the first true social media election." He added that before the 2016 presidential primaries, social media were a mere "auxiliary method of communication," but in this new era, "folks on social media to act on your behalf by just sharing it around. You don't have to buy access to reach millions of people anymore." According to Republican political strategist Patrick Ruffini, in the 2012 election cycle, candidates would make short statements, and re-tweet or thank followers. The candidates were able to use social media to get free advertising from their supporters. Attendees of political rallies would take photos with the candidates that would then be shared on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. This generates more visibility for the candidate at no cost to them.
The Guardian compared Internet memes to political cartoons, arguing, "For the first time in a US election cycle, community-generated memes have grown to play a significant role in political discourse, similar to the classic printed cartoon." While an Internet meme is unlikely to destroy a political career, lots of memes targeting a candidate might.
The Trump presidential campaign benefited from large numbers of supporters who were active on social media from the beginning of the campaign.
In the first Republican Presidential debate, held on August 6, 2015, the moderator asked candidate Jeb Bush if he stood by a statement made the previous April that illegal entry into the U.S. by undocumented migrants is "an act of love." Bush replied that he did and the Trump campaign immediately posted his comment as part of a video showing mugshots of illegal immigrants who committed violent crimes in the U.S., alternating with footage of Bush saying, "Yeah, they broke the law, but it's not a felony.... It's an act of love."
According to Eric Fehrnstrom, political analyst and media strategist, the video marked a crucial turning point in the campaign for the Republican nomination. Political analyst Michael Barone regarded the ad as a key moment in Trump's political rise.
The San Francisco Chronicle described the ad as pivotal in transforming Instagram from a personal photo-sharing app that some celebrities and politicians used to enhance their images, into a propaganda tool.
"The Great Meme War" was an Internet campaign conducted by supporters of Donald Trump between June 2015 and November 2016 in an effort to sway the election. During this time period users of social media, especially Reddit and 4chan, conducted numerous "operations" to sway public opinion using Internet memes, Internet posts and online media.
Right Side Broadcasting Network frequently uploads live streams of Donald Trump rallies on YouTube. As of September 2016, the channel has received over 210 thousand subscribers, exceeding the subscribers of MSNBC's YouTube channel.
On Reddit, /r/The_Donald is a pro-Trump subforum (termed a subreddit on Reddit) which ranks consistently as the most active on the site. Due to the very active community that outpaced the rest of the website, the algorithm that dictated what content reached the "/r/all" page of the website resulted in the significant portion of the page being /r/The_Donald content. In response, Reddit made changes to its algorithms on June 15 in an attempt to preserve variety of /r/all. On July 27, 2016, Trump participated in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on /r/The_Donald, answering thirteen questions from his supporters. /r/The_Donald is more active and has a higher subscriber count than the subreddit for Hillary Clinton, /r/HillaryClinton.
Trump has become well-documented in his frequent Twitter posts and rants. With social media acting as free media and publicity, Trump harnessed Twitter as a platform to respond quickly to his opponents and tweet about his stance on various issues. Before the Republican National Convention where Trump was named the Republican candidate, he would relentlessly target his fellow Republican candidates when their poll numbers would rise. President-elect Donald Trump utilized Twitter frequently both during and after the 2016 presidential election, explaining that social media helped him win the primary and general elections even though his opponents spent "much more money than [he] spent". While Slate explains that Trump succeeded because he retained his "vulgar vigor and translated it into the political arena", the Washington Post has called his Twitter account "prolific, populist, and self-obsessed".
In April 2016, Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton super PAC, announced a program called "Barrier Breakers" intended to rival the largely online volunteer efforts of Sanders and Trump supporters. With $1 million in funding, Correct the Record employed paid staff described as "former reporters, bloggers, public affairs specialists, designers" to post "exclusively positive content."
On June 9, 2016, as a response to Donald Trump's tweet regarding Obama's endorsement to Clinton, she wrote with a three word tweet: "Delete your account". This tweet has become her most retweeted tweet of all time. After the Democratic National Convention, Clinton began campaigning with running mate, Tim Kaine, and while on the campaign trail, she made the statement of "I don't know who created Pokémon Go ... I try to get them to have Pokémon Go to the polls."
By the end of the June, 2016, this most retweeted tweet of all time surpassed 1,000,000 interactions.
Clinton began using social media platform Snapchat to chronicle her campaign across America. One of her videos, where she proclaimed that she was, "Just chillin', in Cendar Rapids," quickly became a meme on video-sharing app Vine.
The humorous Balanced Rebellion video in which "Dead Abe Lincoln" endorses Johnson has been the most widely viewed viral video of any candidate the 2016 campaign. The advertisement shows the many negative aspects of both Hillary and Trump, and states that Johnson will protect our freedoms. Another video that made headlines shows the former New Mexico governor faking a heart attack during a debate on the legalization of marijuana. Johnson also received a 5,000 percent increase in Google searches when Ted Cruz dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. As a third party candidate, one of Johnson's main focuses was to convince dissatisfied Republicans and Democrats to vote for him. One way to attract more voters was to go to the Democratic National Convention to persuade disheartened Bernie Sanders supporters to vote for him. This method proved to be somewhat effective as Johnson had a surge in online interactions about the former Governor during the two days of the convention, July 26th and 27th.
Jill Stein has made extensive use of Twitter for her presidential campaign. She used the social media platform to communicate with Americans before, during, and after the presidential debate at Hofstra University. Stein used her Twitter influence in hopes that it would demonstrate a "changing political landscape" where voters weren't only faced with two options for president. Stein was trending for the first time on Twitter the week of July 20, 2016 and gained 27,000 new followers. Stein also had the same idea as Gary Johnson to sway discouraged Bernie Sanders supporters to vote for her in the election. This led to a boost in online conversation about Stein during the DNC, just as it did with Johnson. After the end of the election, Stein has requested a recount in Wisconsin. She used her social media influence to raise millions of dollars for recounts in not only Wisconsin, but also Pennsylvania and Michigan. Stein states that the reason for the recount is to assure that no hacking of voting machines or voter results occurred.
Social media is widely acknowledged to have played a crucial role in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. As of May 2016, 450,000 people belong to the Facebook group Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash, one of the several online groups supporting Sanders. Bernie Sanders' Dank Meme Stash was devoted to creating and circulating memes "skewering" rival candidates Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton. Another group, Bernie or Hillary?, is dedicated to creating mock-campaign posters comparing Sanders to Clinton.
According to The Guardian, Cruz was "skewered by social media memes". His run for the Presidency was ended by a series of memes, including a viral video of an unusually awkward attempt to shake hands with his running mate Carly Fiorina, which was edited to emphasize his awkwardness in reality. The video was viewed 3.5 million times online. In addition, a mock-conspiracy theory faux-asserting that Cruz was actually the Zodiac Killer, an unidentified serial killer active in northern California from the late 1960s to the early 1970s.