Images May Disappear But Snapchat's Presence In Politics Is Growing

Nov 2, 2016

When Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 and 2012, some credited his success, at least in part, to his use of Twitter.

This election, the short-length video platform Snapchat, first released in 2011, could help tip the scales for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump. 


“One of the things Snapchat is great at is citizen journalism,” said Meredith Guthrie, lecturer and academic advisor in the University of Pittsburgh's communications department. “You get more of, ‘This is what it’s like being a part of the crowd. Here’s the energy of the event.’”

Guthrie, who uses Snapchat as a teaching tool, tells students that snapping during campaign events is a way to contribute to the election narrative. Snapchat users can watch candidates’ speeches via accounts they follow or send their own stories from political rallies.

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Sometimes that engagement epitomizes what a recent CBS News article called the “juxtaposition of formality and whimsy.” Snapchat offers filters and effects that can alter the appearance of the person being recorded. 

That's how Donald Trump can talk about hacking in an Alvin and the Chipmunks-like voice. Hillary Clinton might be outlining plans for education reform, but she's doing it with floppy, puppy ears and a big, brown nose. (Even more terrifying, the candidates’ faces can be swapped.)

This type of interaction isn’t exactly what Guthrie discusses with her students, but it speaks to the type of engagement Snapchat users are having with political campaigns.

In addition to filming the candidates, Snapchat users can also pan the crowds. It’s another type of citizen journalism, offering raw, unedited glimpses into the experience of an attendee, Guthrie said.   

On the left, a Snapchat from Hillary Clinton's account during a trip to Cleveland. The caption "Love Trumps Hate" is typed and the user has hand drawn a rainbow pattern underneath. On the right, a nationwide filter paid for by Donald Trump's campaign during the first presidential debate.
Credit Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump via Snapchat

Both presidential candidates have Snapchat accounts (hillaryclinton, realdonaldtrump). Guthrie said Clinton is typically more active on her account, snapping videos at campaign events and photos of supporters.

“Trump doesn’t seem to use it as much,” Guthrie said. “That makes sense to me because the demographic he’s going for are not going to be on Snapchat as much.”

Trump was the first, however, to purchase a nationwide filter ahead of the first presidential debate.

On the night of the Pennsylvania primary, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey paid for a Snapchat filter geo-tagged near his Democratic opponent Katie McGinty's campaign event. The "Corporate Katie McGinty" filter was one piece in a broader strategy to align McGinty with big business.

Another recent filter featured sunglasses and the text "Shady Katie McGinty: Revolving Door Politics for Personal Profit.

Credit Anna Orso via Twitter

Since then, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has pushed candidates to sign up for an account and use geofilters against their opponents. 

Guthrie said fewer down-ticket candidates use Snapchat, which she finds surprising.

“It seems like the top-of-the-ticket candidates have to make it legit before the down-ticket candidates will do it,” she said. “You’d think it would be the other way around because it’s cheaper.”

In the primary, Bernie Sanders was well-known for using Snapchat geofilters at Clinton events. Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Rand Paul also reached out to young people via Snapchat.

Citizen journalism in this sense can have unintended consequences though, according to Guthrie.

“They can’t always control the message the way that they want to because everyone at their event is a potential broadcaster,” Guthrie said.