I think one of the best ways for the presidential election candidates to utilize social media is to actively engage with their competitors in conversations.
Honestly, I know little about the U.S. presidential election, nor do I care much about it. There’s one thing about the elections I find particularly interesting though: the elections seem to be as much about attacking your opponents as about promoting yourself. Coming from a country where even commercial attack ads are illegal, I have always found this a little hard to believe, and of cause, a little morbidly fascinating. Considering how creative Chinese can be with cursing without dirty words, it’s a real pity that we don’t get to see ads like Sprint’s “Goodbye AT&T” commercial in China.
A very noticeable example of such attack ads in all collective history of presidential elections is the classic and (in)famous “daisy ad”. In the 1964 presidential election, while America was still shrouded by the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis, the republic candidate Barry Goldwater suggested the used nuclear weapons. The incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson responded by the “daisy ad”. The message of the ad was hardly subtle: vote for Johnson or risk your children being blown up by nukes. This ad, though only ran once as a paid advertisement, was repeated discussed by other media channels, as it was clearly a news-worthy topic.
This is an example from long before the age of social media. However, the general theme still runs: adversarial conversations generate publicity. We have known this even before the time of communication studies. There’s this anecdote that when the “bible of communism” Das Kapital was first published, nobody give any attention to it, so Friedrich Engels published a harsh criticism of the book with a pseudo name, and effectively incited a heated debate over it and established its publicity. To draw on the good old Cohen quote, the media “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about”. Generally speaking, controversy and negativity contributes to new values in the gatekeepers’ eyes, and that helps adversarial conversations almost always stay high on the media agenda. More importantly, if the candidates are clever about it, like the use of the well designed and produced “daisy ad” focusing on nuclear weapons, they can use such conversations to not only increase their own publicity but also make the topic of their choice become a salient topic, so that voters are more likely to judge candidates based on that particular issue. I hate to say this, but Donald J. Trump is the king in this department…
Nowadays, social media have given election candidates the convenience to strike conversations in a much more interactive and timely fashion. Some of the 2016 election don’t waste any time to take advantage of this. For example, Hillary Clinton, and she’s clearly got a beef with Jeb Bush.
I’ll admit that this is probably not the most constructive way to use social media in an election campaign. However, I would argue that it is highly effective in setting media and public agenda.