Every modern presidential election is at least in part defined by the cool new media breakthrough of its moment. In 2000, there was email, and by golly was that a big change from the fax. The campaigns could get their messages in front of print and cable news reporters — who could still dominate the campaign narrative — at will, reducing what had been a 24-hour news cycle to an hourly one. The 2004 campaign was the year of the “Web log,” or blog, when mainstream reporters and campaigns officially began losing any control they may have had over political news. Anyone with a computer could weigh in with commentary, news and, often, searing criticism of mainstream reporters and politicians — “Media Gatekeepers be damned!” Then 2008: Facebook made it that much easier for campaigns to reach millions of people directly, further reducing the influence of newspaper, magazine and television journalists. In 2012, Twitter shrank the political news cycle to minutes if not seconds, exponentially adding to the churn of campaign news.
The question this year has been whether 2016 will be the “Snapchat election,” a reference to the popular and new(ish) photo- and video-sharing service that already has some 100 million daily users and has a campaign news team of seasoned pros.
There is some debate about Snapchat’s role this year. Its presence in the media ecosystem is undeniable: Snapchat says nearly twice as many 18-to-24-year-olds watched the first Republican debate on its app than saw it on television. But it’s probably still too early in the campaign year to say how defining it will be.
It’s not too early, however, to say that Snapchat is a fitting symbol for 2016, and a powerful one. Its very existence represents a shift in the way news and information course through our overserved body politic. And that could have an effect on the outcome of the campaign, if it isn’t having one already.