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2016 Presidential Election Circus: Is Social Media the Cause?

Candidates have discovered the quickest way to make news is to put out a statement or comment in a social media post and avoid paying for ad space.

(TNS) -- In 12 months, the country has collectively spent more than 1,284 years reading about Donald Trump on social media.

The Republican presidential candidate's reach is unprecedented, according to the latest data from SocialFlow, a social media management company whose software handles news dissemination for many of the country's top media organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

If he sought similar attention by buying ads, Trump's social reach would cost $380 million. Instead, he's getting it for free in tweets, likes and shares -- although not all of it is positive.

Social media's influence in this presidential election is stronger than it has ever been, experts said, and the information cycle it has created will shape campaigns for years to come.

There are many reasons social media has become such a powerful influence.

More people than ever get their news mainly from social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Candidates have discovered the quickest way to make news is to put out a statement or comment in a social media post.

"It's really opened the floodgates of candidates being able to tap into this ecosystem of voters and news consumers who are getting information about these candidates 24/7," said Patrick Ruffini, Republican political strategist and founder of Engage, a digital media firm. "This election cycle is the first I've seen (where) candidates realize social media is their direct pipeline into mainstream media coverage and to voters."

This creates what Ruffini calls a "feedback loop," wherein candidates' posts on social media make news, and then those news stories get circulated through social media, building momentum and generating even more chatter.

"This is the first true social media election," said Frank Speiser, SocialFlow's co-founder and chief product officer. "Before it was an auxiliary method of communication. But now (candidates) can put messages out there and get 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."

Facebook now boasts nearly 1.6 billion monthly active users, up 60 percent from 2012, the year of the last election, when it crossed the 1 billion mark. Twitter today has 385 million monthly active users, up from 185 million in 2012.

The way politicians use social media is also markedly different.

In 2012, they tended to favor short, calculated statements -- maybe once a day -- that were highly controlled and sanitized, Ruffini said. They would retweet followers or thank supporters. But it was hardly the first place they went to espouse an opinion or issue a policy proposal.

"Four years ago," Ruffini said, "social media politics was really boring."

Social media strategy

Today, social media has evolved from afterthought to strategy, he said, thanks largely to Trump's habitual social-media-first proclamations. Candidates have begun using sites like Twitter and Facebook as a direct line to voters.

It seems to be paying off, particularly among younger voters.

Among 18- to 29-year-olds, nearly two-thirds said social media is the most helpful means of learning new things about politics, according to a study released last year by the Pew Research Center. By contrast, only half of Gen-Xers and 40 percent of Baby Boomers agreed with that statement.

Overall, Pew found, 44 percent of American adults said they had learned something new in the past week about the election from social media.

"That's a pretty large share," said Jesse Holcomb, the associate director of research at Pew. "Our data suggest that social media is a critical gateway to information about the campaign -- particularly for younger adults."

Other candidates, like Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have ramped up their social media presence to compete for time and eyeballs. But research shows they are falling far short of the reach Trump has amassed.

Clinton has garnered just shy of $100 million in free exposure via social media by SocialFlow's estimate. The only area where she trumps the Republican front-runner is in her rate of engagement -- how many people like, share or click through to stories about the former secretary of state, where she runs marginally ahead.

Convoluted messages

Since the beginning of the election, SocialFlow said, the nation has spent roughly 874 years on social media reading about Sanders and Clinton combined -- a third less than the time people have devoted to Trump on the same networks.

The reason for this, Speiser said, likely lies in Trump's bombast and convoluted messaging.

"One thing that Trump does is he will combine two or three issues in a single statement or proposal. Now, he may be muddling them, but it doesn't matter because it activates groups that are interested in all of the above," Speiser said. "Like how he'll conflate crime and gun violence with immigration. It may not be true, but the fact that he says it excites groups whose top issues are crime or guns or immigration."

In December, when Trump announced his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, the news generated more social media engagement than any other news about the election since the race began, SocialFlow said. (While Trump made the remarks in a speech in South Carolina, not on social media, they nonetheless immediately found a home online.) Trump's comments remain the single most-responded-to news event since then with roughly 230,000 likes -- more than 788 times the average number Trump-related stories tend to receive.

By January, SocialFlow said, Trump had become the most talked-about person on the planet.

"Trump, by himself, has eclipsed all the conversation around (the Islamic State), terrorism, the economy and other important issues," Speiser said. "The conversation around him is greater than the top 10 other election issues combined."

The data SocialFlow collects don't indicate whether the comments being made are positive or negative -- or whether people "favorite" or "like" a story because they actually like it, or if they're simply noting it. Some people even ironically "hate-like" social media posts.

SocialFlow's analysis also doesn't take into account posts by citizens that do not link to a news story or the candidates' own posts -- unless those posts generate press coverage.

'Story of the election'

If researchers took those elements into account, Ruffini and Speiser said they would expect that Trump's recorded reach would grow.

"It's just going to get bigger in the main election," Ruffini said. "The amount of free media exposure given to Trump -- whether that's on social media or more traditional news media -- I think is absolutely the story of the election. We've just never seen anything like it before."

©2016 San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.