Did Trump really win the first debate? No, but he had a strategy to make you think he did

In the wake of the first U.S. presidential debate, amid a flurry of poll results pointing to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as victor, Republican candidate Donald J. Trump claimed that he won. ‘How?’ You ask? With an effective social media strategy.

Can a candidate lose a debate according to public opinion polls and still convincingly claim to have won? Thanks to the Trump campaign’s social media maneuver, the answer is ‘Yes.’

Despite several polls showing respondents thought Hillary Clinton won the debate, The Trump campaign sought to undermine these results by spreading a simple message: polls are rigged, we won the debate. By accusing polls of being rigged, the Trump campaign mobilized its online community to cast doubt on the validity of poll results and generate the belief that Trump had won the debate. The message aligned well with the Trump campaign’s overall attack on the mainstream media and elites as biased, and was effective thanks to the social media strategy combining two techniques: the bandwagon effect and astroturfing.


The bandwagon effect is a political technique to target undecided voters, who are likely to base their decision on what the majority of other voters think. So, in order to sway the undecided electorate after the debate, Trump needed to trigger the bandwagon effect by showing he won the debate in polls.

The discussion map by Visibrain shows Twitter accounts and keyword activity around the hashtags #debates2016 #debates and #debatenight

First, who are these undecided voters and how can they be identified? Only accounts with at least three interactions (replies, retweets, or likes) with at least one of the three hashtag #debatenight are included, from 09/26 10AM to 09/26 9:30PM. Each account is represented by a colored dot or white account name. The more active the accounts are around the hashtag, the closer and bigger they are. This density in activity is apparent in purple and blue communities around each candidate. Dots in the periphery of these communities are less oriented or not connected to either the candidates or their communities. These accounts appear to be undecided between candidates.

So, how did the Trump campaign actually use the bandwagon effect to convince followers that he had won the debate and sway the undecided electorate of his success? They started by disregarding the polls which showed Hillary Clinton as debate winner. Then, they pushed voting in every other online poll on their Twitter followers to change the results with the message: “Who do you think won?”.

Some polls were even pushed as “real” polls, implying that other polls are simply false or rigged. Finally, after aggressively campaigning to overturn the polls, the Trump campaign tweeted screenshots of the new poll results with hashtag #TrumpWon to show how Donald Trump actually won the debate in polls.

This flash mobilization around online polls reveals another one of the Trump campaign’s favorite social media techniques: astroturfing.


Astroturfing (from “astroturf,” which is artificial grass) is a communication technique used first by U.S. Senator Lloyd Bernstein to influence the media by imitating grassroots movements. Nowadays, astroturfing involves mobilizing a very dense online community to give the impression that a grassroots movement is growing, forcing the media to talk about it.

For Trump, this noise-making astroturfing technique is triggered in communities easily identifiable with the “deplorable” keyword (a direct reference to how Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters).

This “deplorable” community uses negative political hashtags and shared expressions, like #CrookedHillary, Killary, or #HillaryForPrison to network themselves, and hub accounts to spread messages quickly and effectively throughout their network. As the timeline below shows, some hashtags or keywords can be tweeted up to 30,000 times a day.

To be able to push these hashtags so effectively using the astroturf technique, one must rely on a very active, dense Twitter community. The Trump campaign assured this by building it into their social media strategy. For instance, just before and during the debate, all but three of the top 15 most active Twitter accounts were relays for the Trump campaign.

Here are more figures to demonstrate how densely active the Trump campaign was on Twitter:

Mass movement

By coupling the use of both techniques on Twitter, the Trump campaign left it to their online network to finish the job: all active accounts (voters, commentators, etc.) retweeted each other, spreading hashtags quickly to communities that spread them further, and a flash mobilization around a simple message turned into a mass movement to overturn poll results. In effect, the online polls hijacked by the Trump campaign ended up feeding the belief that Trump actually won. With this strategy, the hashtag #TrumpWon appeared in Twitter’s Trending Topics list and forced mainstream media to talk about it.

After astroturfing did the trick, Trump only needed to tweet a screenshot of all polls in his favor with the hashtag #TrumpWon to seal the bandwagon effect, and the #debatenight game was over.

Questions for the next debate: How will Clinton’s campaign retaliate online, and will Trump’s campaign (need to) use the same tricks?
Created By
Mégane Fastrez


Created with images by cornstalker - "Donald Trump" • aronbaker2 - "trump"

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