The Donald and The Swarm

In a tweeted response to my Politico essay on social media’s influence on the 2016 campaign, The Atlantic‘s political editor, Yoni Appelbaum, suggests that cable TV, rather than social media, is the real driver of the Trump phenomenon. He offers a chart as backup:

I think Appelbaum may be mistaking effect for cause. Yes, Trump has dominated cable coverage over the last month. But Trump has dominated all coverage over the last month. Pull together the same chart for, say, print news or radio news — perhaps even for — and you’ll almost certainly see a similar picture. The news media is a swarm organism. No individual medium operates in isolation.

Raw measures of media coverage, in other words, reveal who’s getting covered, but they don’t say much about why coverage is playing out the way it is. 

I certainly don’t think Trump is a product of one thing. He’s a product of many things, some having to do with media and some not. (His flying machines help, apparently.) But I would argue that the best way to explain his rise and his staying power in the race — despite making and standing by statements that would likely have doomed him in any earlier presidential contest — is by looking at what’s changed in campaigns and their coverage. What’s changed is that social media has reached a critical mass of influence — just as radio did in the 1924 race and TV did in the 1960 race. And, for the reasons I discuss in the Politico piece, social media is particularly well-suited to drawing attention to and sustaining a candidate like Trump.

Radio didn’t kill off print, TV didn’t kill off radio or print, and social media isn’t going to kill off TV or radio or print. All those mediums affect and reflect the race. But, increasingly, it’s the social-media swarm that’s determining the direction of the news-media swarm.