PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —A new analysis of web use among Republican voters in the 2016 presidential election shows that Donald Trump performed especially well among those least likely to get their political information online. This finding challenges widespread claims that the web and social media impacted the outcome of the presidential election in favor of Trump.
“There have been a lot of voices attributing the election result to the influence of online campaign efforts, social media, and other elements of the digital ecosystem,” said Jesse M. Shapiro, a Brown University professor of economics who coauthored the study, which is out today in the journal PLOS ONE. “We think it is worthwhile to have a look at whether those factors stand out in the big picture.”
Shapiro, with Levi Boxell and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University, used data from the American National Election Studies survey, a nationally representative study that asks a range of demographic and political questions. The economists looked at data collected in face-to-face interviews in presidential election years from 1996 to 2016, focusing on respondents’ answers about whom they voted for and whether they were active online.
Survey respondents were asked whether or not they had access to or used the internet, and whether they observed campaign news online. The researchers also considered “predicted internet access,” a measure that looks at age, gender, race, education and area of residence to determine how likely it is that the respondent has access to or uses the web.
“For two of the three measures, the 2016 election marked the first time since 1996 that the Republican candidate performed equally well or better among the group of voters that is less active online” than among the group of voters who use the web regularly, the authors wrote in the study.
This also means that among those least active online, Trump outperformed other Republican candidates in previous election years.
“These findings don’t prove that online campaign efforts and other aspects of digital media had no impact on the election,” Shapiro said. “But they do pose a challenge for some conventional narratives that put those factors front and center.”