Politics and civics Tech & society

Trump won because of Facebook? Wait just a minute …

The headline is provocative: Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook. But how accurate is the claim? Demographic data paints a more nuanced picture.

The headline is provocative:

Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook

But how accurate is the claim?

The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news… Many of those stories were lies, or “parodies,” but their appearance and placement in a news feed were no different from those of any publisher with a commitment to, you know, not lying.

Impossible to argue with.

As I read the essay, I found myself nodding my head (literally and figuratively).

We know the Facebook audience is giganormous. Pew Research data suggest more than 2-in-5 adults in the United States get news from Facebook. More nods.

Facebook has seemed both uninterested in and incapable of even acknowledging that it has become the most efficient distributor of misinformation in human history.

Hits all my confirmation bias buttons.

Max Read moves on to disintermediation — eliminating the gatekeeper. No arguments there, either. Sold!

An hour or so later I realized that in the back of my mind I was toying with the article like a child wiggling a loose tooth. Something was bothering me.

And then I remembered the demographic breakdown in this election mirrors most: older voters tend to vote conservative.

CNN Exit Poll Data, 2016
CNN Exit Poll Data, 2016


Were the demographics significantly different from 2008, the election most closely comparable?

CNN Exit Polls
CNN Exit Poll Data, 2008

There’s a difference, primarily in the 50-64 age group, but I wouldn’t dub it “significant.” Granted, in an election this close, small differences can be profound.

But where do most of these older, Trump voters get their news? TELEVISION. So the indictment of Facebook for this group, which accounted for 64% of those in the exit polls, seems misplaced.

Where we get news, Pew Research, 2016
Where we get news, Pew Research, 2016

But those younger voters?

There was a huge jump in “other/no answer” for the 18-39 age group. Huge. I’m guessing that they wrote in Sanders or voted for Stein. And half of those voters, the age 30-39 group, get their news from television, and about half get news online.


And that brings us to Facebook demographics.

Pew Research, 2015


For online news from friends (contrasted with reading the New York Times or Wall Street Journal), it is likely that a majority all ages have a browser tab open to Facebook or the app installed on their phones.

But with these numbers from Pew, I’m more inclined to indict television for the older group which actively voted for Trump. Facebook memes and closed groups certainly had potential to reinforce feelings of having been “wronged” during the run-up to the national Democratic convention — a phenomena more likely to affect the 18-29 group than the 65+ one.

Unlike Mark Zuckerberg, I think there was a toxic group-think environment on Facebook that is aided by fake news stories and fake memes.

Neither left nor right is immune.

Yes, false Facebook memes probably influenced some voters. Perhaps it pushed voters away from Clinton and to third party candidates (who got a big boost in this election).

My gut says crippling the Voting Rights Act was a bigger factor in this election. Twitter bots (a story for another day) may have (probably) manipulated emotions around the edges. Repetition (Trump’s forte) was key.

However, Pew data do not support the argument that Facebook was the causal agent.

But for 2020, it could well be.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

2 replies on “Trump won because of Facebook? Wait just a minute …”

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