The 2020 US Presidential Election: A Networked Age Guide

Nick Barron and James Gurling

As the final votes are counted in the US Presidential Election, MHP considers how MHP’s Networked Age communications model has fared.

Originally conceived in response to the seismic political events of 2016 (Brexit and Trump), MHP and UCL’s Affective Brain Lab developed the Networked Age model to understand how traditional models of communications were failing.

The model shows that audiences are becoming resistant to factual rebuttal and suspicious of traditional sources of authority.  Tribal identity and passionate delivery are becoming the decisive factors in campaign communication.

Our analysis of how those factors played out during the 2020 US Presidential Election reveals that little has changed, and identifies seven key learnings:


1. The reality gap is getting wider

During 2020, Democrats and Republicans argued about fundamentally different versions of reality:

Are masks an effective way to the combat the spread of Covid? Did Trump ever build a wall? Does Antifa exist anymore than QAnon? Democrats and Republicans would give very different answers to these seemingly provable or disprovable questions.

In a polarised world, the problem is not just a difference of opinion, it’s a reality gap – and that makes it harder for candidates from either side to bridge the gap and pick up swing voters.  In the UK it perhaps also explains why centre ground parties got squeezed in recent General Elections rather than expand to fill a void.


2. What & Who you’re against signalled values

If ever there was an election based on character rather than policy, it was this one. And the image of both candidates was shaped primarily by who they stood against, rather than what they stood for.

Trump used the media’s antipathy towards him as an asset, helping to reinforce his anti-establishment, ‘Drain the Swamp’ credentials.

Biden meanwhile was simply the ‘Not Trump’ candidate – a man who would return a sense of decency and honour to the White House. His biggest viral hit was a video which pointed out that, unlike Trump, he was a dog lover.

As Biden draws together his ‘Build Back Better’ transition team he knows he cannot focus only on addressing the COVID-19 crisis.  He will have to confront some of the issues he avoided on the campaign trail – will he reverse the impact of Trumps three appointments to the Supreme Court’, remove the Trump tax cuts and phase out fracking or not?

In opposition, the Republicans will have to consider whether Trumpism has a future without Trump or if he can become only the second President in US history to serve two non-consecutive terms. They will also have to decide if the confines of polarisation will permit them to repair relations with the media or continue to treat them as an extension of the Democratic party.


3. Everyone is their own PR person – making the pollsters’ jobs harder

There are lots of lessons for the polling companies to learn from this election, but the firms that got closest to the truth were those that worked hardest to identify the ‘Shy Trump’ vote.

Trafalgar Group and the Democracy Institute both employed questioning methods which attempted to reduce the public’s social biases towards telling pollsters what they thought would put them in the best light – not what their actual thoughts were.  It’s a point that Birkbeck Professor of Politics, Eric Kaufmann, writes is particularly prevalent amongst highly educated Republican voters compared to their Democrat counterparts.

The more polarised the environment, the higher is the perceived community cost of deviation from the social norm, resulting in an increased likelihood to lie about their true intentions.


4. Social justice was a big factor in this election

Pollsters discovered that responses to unprompted questioning found that the economy, Covid and immigration dominated the top three issues for US voters, but also that social justice played a major role in shaping voting preferences.

The death of George Floyd, and the protests that resulted, were a major factor for American voters, polarising opinion sharply. The New York Times reported that ‘among those who cited the protests as a factor, 53 percent voted for Mr. Biden, and 46 percent for Mr. Trump’.

The moderate and progressive wings of the Democrats are already debating whether social justice causes were a net positive for the party, with James Clyburn and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on opposite sides of the argument. The future Vice-Presidency of Kamala Harris will be an important factor in the resolution of these tensions.  But social justice is an aspect of US political debate that is not going away.


5. Identity politics – it’s complicated

The assumption made by many journalists and analysts before the election seems to be that Trump’s conduct in office would alienate a coalition of Black, Latino, Muslim and LGBT voters sufficient to gift the White House to the Democrats.  But in fact the Republicans enjoyed significant swings from each of these constituencies.

The Walk Away campaign is reputed to have unsettled some voters and to peel them away for Trump by making effective use of people’s biases towards social norms and familiar messengers. Watching the testimonies of ‘people like me’ crossing the Rubicon will have given permission to others to follow suit.

The social media storm following Biden’s interview with Charlemagne tha God in which he told the black interviewer ‘If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black” will have cost him votes too. Social reinforcement only works when it comes from the “in-group” and a Septuagenarian white man lecturing black voters on what to think cannot have been anything but counterproductive.

The exit polls revealed that communicators need to challenge their assumptions about how the identity politics of race, gender, faith, ethnicity and sexuality influence people’s voting choices.


6. This is not the end of the Culture War

Biden ran a ‘safety first’ campaign, emphasising that he would start to heal America’s political divide. It was a popular message. But Trump was not the cause of America’s polarisation, he is a symptom.

Networked communication is inherently polarising – and as our upcoming collaboration with the Depolarization Project will show, factors such as inequality, uncertainty and generational change are behind the increasingly tribal and activist political landscape in the US and around the world. These factors are not going away any time soon, either side of the Atlantic.

The energy built up this year will not easily dissipate. #StoptheSteal fancies itself as a ‘Tea Party’ movement for the social media age, while Antifa rioters crashed the Biden celebrations, with centrist liberals as their new targets.

Indeed, the circumstances of Biden’s projected win will likely exacerbate the problem. In the same way that many Clinton supporters still believe the 2016 election was stolen from them, so too will many Trump supporters have already decided that unusual voting patterns in key battleground States were the result of fraud – media attempts to debunk these claims prompting people to double-down in their beliefs and share stories more widely, just as with the Hunter Biden laptop story, where MIT found that Twitter censorship doubled the level of attention it earned.

Biden borrowed a line from Obama when he promised to be “a President who seeks not to divide but unify,” but Trump supporters are looking over his shoulder at prominent Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez who have struck an uncompromising tone. Fraught political battles lie ahead.


7. The election has permanently changed the political media landscape

While it was the traditional TV platforms of CNN and Sky News that first ‘called’ the election for Biden, and the traditional print media that provided the ‘deep dives’, this US election cycle has seen an accelerated trend towards the decentralisation of social media.

In 2020, platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube attempted to protect their reputation by rushing to new measures of control on the accuracy or incendiary nature of opinions posted by users. As a result, the political conversation has fractured, with many on the right moving to platforms like Parler (which has grown by 4m users since the start of the year adding 1m in the last six weeks of the election campaign alone), Discord and TikTok, which has produced new influencers like Sarah Cooper.

Fox News’ pivot away from Trump and towards the centre right has left room in the digital space for challengers like The Daily Wire (which regularly produces the most-viewed political content on Facebook) and Newsmax (which nearly quadrupled its household reach in 2020), while a more censorious mood within American newsrooms has produced an exodus of commentators like Andrew Sullivan, Yascha Mounk and Glenn Greenwald to Substack. In the UK, controversial populist right-wing creators like Paul Joseph Watson and Carl Benjamin are already building creator-owned platforms.  Future political battles will be less about Party machines commanding the ‘airwaves’ than opinionated influencers directing the gigabytes.

The Networked Age runs on passions which do not readily lend themselves to editorial control and they can equally easily be monetized.

Those breathing a sigh of relief that a Biden election may auger a return to normalcy are likely to be disappointed.


The shift in political media landscape is permanent, and Social media strategies for political campaigns are about to get a lot more complex.