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Media fell victim to spiral of silence

Monday November 14 2016

Marta Lunez, supporter of US Democratic

Marta Lunez, supporter of US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, reacts to election results at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York on November 8, 2016. A majority of white women voted for Donald Trump, CNN exit polls show. PHOTO | DON EMMERT | AFP. 

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As the dust settles in the aftermath of the US election, two questions remain in the minds of most people. One, were the opinion polls flawed or deliberately misleading?

Two, was the media driving a Clinton-must-win agenda so that they ended up creating a false impression of the true status of the race?

Analysts, scholars, and popular commentators made a strong case for a Clinton win. Their arguments were mostly premised on the fact that she was starting from a position of strength with a considerable advantage of an expected 247 Electoral College votes against Trump’s 191 out of the 270 needed to win the US presidency.

This argument was based on a careful analysis of previous trends in the past four elections and current polling data. They gave us different permutations, all showing Clinton’s many paths to the presidency and almost dismissing any possibility of a Donald Trump win.

Almost all polls, including those from conservative firms, indicated a tight race but still predicted a Clinton win. Even when the polls tightened after the FBI revelations, pollsters remained bullish that Clinton would emerge victorious, especially in several key battleground states.

It, therefore, came as a huge shock when initial results revealed a strong performance by Trump. As the results trickled in and Trump took a commanding lead, many television news anchors, analysts, and commentators appeared shocked, almost sad and confused.


On several occasions, they verbalised their bewilderment: “This is not the race we thought we would have.” “This election is tighter than expected.” “Hillary’s options are gradually narrowing.” “Does she even have a path to 270?”

It was fascinating watching the analysts and commentators in the newsrooms move from the overconfidence of the projected Clinton win to moments of doubt, then to the possibility of a Trump win and finally to the reality that Donald Trump actually won.

Clinton’s supporters started the night enthusiastically but as the results unfolded, their joy was quickly extinguished. In contrast, Trump’s supporters started the election night believing only a miracle could secure a Trump win and in the end, they witnessed one.

So, why did the media and the pollsters get it so wrong? What explains this double opinion climate where there was a discrepancy between media and public opinion that left so many people shocked and confused, believing the media misled them? Can we really trust the media and pollsters to help us understand and anticipate election results in the future?

There is a theory in mass communication known as the spiral of silence. It describes the tendency of people to remain silent when they feel that their views are in opposition to the majority or dominant view on a subject, especially as portrayed in the mass media.

They do this for fear of isolation. Since society rewards conformity and punishes deviance, the fear of isolation constrains people to conform to a shared judgment or opinion.

It is conceivable that for reasons of political correctness, many Trump supporters did not come out to publicly declare their stand, either in the opinion polls or in the media conversations, for fear of isolation and/or reprisal.

They were held captive in pluralistic ignorance, wrongly believing they were in the minority because of the constant media reports. In the end, we had a domination of minority opinion over majority opinion as the vocal minority of Clinton’s supporters dominated the polls and media analysis, continually overstating the likelihood of her win and underplaying Trump’s chances.

Unsurprisingly, the final results revealed that all along, Trump’s supporters were actually a silent majority attracted to Trump’s brand of politics, which appealed to their deep fears, frustrations, and anger.

They were willing to ignore his weaknesses, highly publicised scandals, and character flaws because he was their champion against a “broken and a rigged system”.

By relying on a logical analysis of previous election trends and the traditional drivers of voter participation, the mass media deliberately or unknowingly missed the most important dynamic in this election — the widespread frustrations and grievances against the “system”.

In the end, nice speeches, political correctness, rational arguments, endorsements, and the promise of the first female US president could not withstand the hunger for change, even if the agent of that change was Donald Trump.

Dr Kamau is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Media and Communications, Aga Khan University. [email protected] @thesamkamau