Tweets, Tuits and تغريدات : Social Media and the Most Multilingual US Election Ever

Amongst Democratic candidates, both Clinton and Sanders are using multilingual digital strategies to reach their constituencies. But whose are more effective?


With Mira Nabulsi

“Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”

Photo: Twitter/@realDonaldTrump

So tweeted Donald Trump less than two days after becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), wrote in the New York Times, “We’re going back to the day when politicians thought all they had to do was eat a taco or wear a sombrero to win our vote. Really? This is 2016 and those days are long gone.”

80,000 retweets and an avalanche of responses later, it was clear that Donald Trump’s lunch had left a bad taste in many people’s mouths:

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Hillary Clinton wasted no time pointing out the oddness of Trump’s tweet:

Clinton, however, has also had her share of social media slip-ups, including her sometimes-clumsy outreach to Latinos and Spanish speakers. “She isn’t afraid to talk about the importance of el respeto (especially when it comes to women)” is one of seven things Hillary Clinton professes to have in common with your abuela, or grandmother, according to this December post on her campaign website. Though Clinton had been campaigning as a “grandmother,” the sentiment and cultural specificity of the particular Spanish word abuela didn’t ring true with many people on social media.

People online responded with the hashtag #NotMyAbuela, which, as Katie Rogers of the New York Times noted, emerged as a “critique of what some saw as a tone-deaf move to pander to a powerful but marginalized bloc of voters. Her critics pointed out that Mrs. Clinton did not grow up poor like their relatives, and was not separated from loved ones by country borders.”

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The Sanders team’s language has also been poked at online. After he tweeted a series of multilingual campaign posters online, declaring that the United States is a better country without racism, some people took the opportunity to correct his grammar:

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The nation is significantly more diverse than even eight years ago, when the U.S. elected a president with multicultural family ties, and this election season we have seen an unprecedented amount of outreach to communities of color and immigrants. Multilingual, cross-cultural outreach is not easy, and as candidates try to reach a more diverse constituency, their efforts sometimes falter, like above, and sometimes they are more effective, as we’ll see below.

How much are online attempts from Clinton and Sanders really appealing to large sectors of American voters, including people of color, immigrants, and non-native English speakers? In our work at Meedan, a social technology company building digital tools for journalists, the authors of this article have been exploring multilingual conversations online about major world events. Given the prominence of conversations around language and immigration in the elections, the conversations arising during U.S. presidential elections have been particularly interesting to follow.

Indeed, language has played a role in both parties’ primaries. On the Republican side, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have conducted interviews in Spanish, and Ted Cruz, while not fluent in the language, has launched ads in Spanish. It was on the Republican stage where this election’s first live exchange in Spanish occurred on a televised primary debate stage.

But with social media essential to contemporary campaigns, this may be the first presidential campaign to see a candidate post on social media not just in Spanish but Arabic, Hindi, and Vietnamese. That activity has been happening largely on the Democratic Party side. The Trump taco aside, this article focuses on Democratic candidates’ multilingual digital strategies, as they regularly post in Spanish and sometimes other languages. That is groundbreaking in itself, but, we argue, more work needs to be done to demonstrate true linguistic (and, by extension, cultural) inclusivity.

How language unites online

Both Clinton and Sanders regularly tweet in Spanish, and both are apt to retweet someone else’s Spanish words and articles. Clinton and Sanders both maintain Spanish-language versions of their websites. While neither speak Spanish fluently, they have hired diverse staff—both teams are made up of about 33 percent people of color—and they have appointed prominent advocates like Lorella Praeli and Arturo Carmona to lead their Latino outreach.

The strategy makes sense: with 41 million native Spanish speakers (11.6 million of whom are bilingual), the United States is now the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, bested only by Mexico. More broadly, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that American families speak more than 350 languages in the home. And while many people who speak a non-English language at home are also fluent in English, we clearly live in a linguistically diverse country.

“There are obviously many Latinos who are bilingual,” said Erika Andiola, Latino Press Secretary for the Sanders campaign, in an interview about their online language strategy. “But it’s also a message to make sure our community knows we care about the community.” The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for an interview, but her campaign site does provide a variety of information in Spanish. That said, the Sanders site features a button for en español much more prominently (the Clinton site’s is hidden within a menu), and the Sanders Spanish language site offers more parallel content with the English site, though neither offer perfect 1 to 1 coverage.

Andiola also pointed out the Spanish version of FeelTheBern.org is run by volunteers—not officially part of the campaign. This site is, perhaps, reflective of the larger differences between the two campaigns: where Clinton is known for running a tight ship with committed volunteers, Sanders has innovated in empowering volunteers to act on their behalf. As Charles Lenchner, co-founder of People for Bernie and former activist with the Occupy Movement, puts it “the agent of change is not Sanders, but those in the streets demanding his platform.”

Another key difference in the candidates’ digital strategies is even more pronounced: the Sanders campaign has made significant efforts to do outreach in languages other than Spanish and English. The Sanders team’s #AmericaTogether hashtag accompanied a series of tweets featuring multilingual messages in an extraordinary number of languages: Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

The hashtag was meant to be a call to action. Providing multilingual tweets for supporters to copy and paste, the campaign team said they wanted “to show as many on-the-fence voters that taking part in the democratic process is a powerful way to break through the hate-filled barriers that often divide so many of us.” Responses varied; some replied with edits, while others thanked Sanders and pledged support:

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817 With social media such a new component of campaigns today, it is probably safe to assert that Sanders is the first leading candidate to post in so many languages. But the multilingual tweets were arguably more of a symbolic gesture than a push for true inclusion.

“It’s obvious that the audience here it not people who speak the languages on the list as primary languages,” noted Cayden Mak, Chief Technology Officer at 18 Million Rising, an Asian American advocacy group. Mak has written previously for Civicist about the importance of going beyond translation in promoting electoral access.

More than a hashtag: #AmericaTogether and Sanders’ Arab American outreach

Sanders’s multilingual efforts on Twitter came shortly before his sweeping victory in Dearborn, MI, a city with one of the largest Arab-American populations in the country. A hashtag may be a symbolic gesture, but in a diverse country, diverse outreach sends an important signal: you are part of this country, too. His Arabic language outreach seemed especially significant, given that the language is a particular target for xenophobia in the United States (as exemplified by a recent incident of an Arabic speaker on an airplane being abruptly kicked off).

Sanders’s outreach to Arab American communities in Michigan seemed to help, but it required much more than social media—as with any aspect of a campaign, outreach in other languages requires a mosaic of efforts. Khaled Beydoun, a journalist and law professor from Detroit, wrote about the significance of this outreach:

Sanders simply had to deliver and spread that message, and make it accessible to segments of the community limited by language and confined by poverty. The Arab American News, headed by Osama Siblani, extended Sanders’ message into these and other segments of the community, with a vital endorsement of the candidate four days before the primary.

Beydoun connected the online with the offline, discussing the efforts of Bernie Sanders prior to the Michigan primary, where he won 67 percent of the vote. As Beydoun noted, the Sanders campaign “issued Arabic print and radio ads leading up to the Michigan primary. He then met with community leaders and youth, and addressed the Arab American community in the heart of the community. Through several mediums, and finally on the ground, Sanders tailored his message to Arab and Muslim Americans. Intimately, genuinely, and directly.”

“Following Michigan,” Beydoun told Civicist, “Sanders has realized the importance of Arab and Muslim American support. For instance, he brought on Linda Sarsour [Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York] as an official campaign surrogate, who addressed the audience and opened for Bernie in Wisconsin. He also recruited Amer Zahr, a prominent Arab American activist [and comedian], to assist with the campaign. This highlights that Sanders is keen on mobilizing Arab American support, and delivering his message in our communities.”

The Clinton campaign’s efforts, by contrast, were not as holistic. “Bill Clinton was in Dearborn days before the Michigan primary,” noted NYU law Danya Reda, an assistant professor at Peking University School of Transnational law, where she covers the legal process and Islamic law. However, “he did not go into a single Arab-owned business or campaign in the Arab parts of town.”

“Sanders’s campaign seems to have taken an interest in the Arab (and Muslim) communities and that interest has been noticed!” Reda reflected. “I’ve heard from a lot of people who heard the Arabic-language [radio] spots in Michigan. Almost everyone I know has posted or shared the Arabic-language print messages from the campaign. And I know organizers who feel this has been influential.”

The robustness of the Sanders campaign’s outreach to Dearborn after its multilingual push online is an important reminder that digital outreach is only one part of the larger picture: candidates build trust in diverse communities through careful cultivation of community leaders and demonstrated commitment to communities’ priorities. Any hearty social media campaign in a language must be met with a hearty campaign on other media and a stronger ground game.

Despite the widespread negative attention with #NotMyAbuela and other hashtags like #Hispandering, Clinton’s team continues to tweet regularly in Spanish, garnering high engagement numbers (though not all of that engagement is positive). She received 63 percent of Latino votes in the recent New York primaries, and Latino voters overall seem to be leaning toward Clinton. As Priscilla Alvarez noted recently in the Atlantic:

There’s not a lot of light between their current positions, but beyond their stock responses lies a fundamental difference in how the two presidential candidates approach the Latino electorate: Clinton appears to prioritize immigration narratives, whereas Sanders pitches his plan for economic equality.

That said, a growing generation gap also reflects different modes of media and information access. As the Los Angeles Times’s Kate Linthicum noted, “younger Latinos who back Sanders say they are drawn to him because he dreams big,” and they’re often learning about and advocating for him via online activism and universities.

Multilingual outreach online: We’re just getting started

Two trends are increasingly intersecting: the United States electorate is becoming vastly more diverse, and social media and digital outreach are becoming critical to campaign success and innovation as more citizens turn to social media for election news. Language has emerged as a key part of Democratic candidates’ social media strategies and has played an increasing role in Republicans’ communication strategies. Regardless of the outcome of the primaries and the general elections, one legacy of the 2016 elections will likely be candidates’ open embrace of multilingual outreach online, from Spanish to Arabic to numerous other languages.

Language, of course, is not a new issue in electoral politics. As the Department of Justice explains of Section 203 of the Voting Act, which aims to protect the voting rights of minority language citizens, Congress has mandated minority language ballots and election support in some jurisdictions since 1975. The Voting Information Project by Google and the Pew Charitable Trusts has aimed to bolster those efforts with mobile-optimized tools in web, native app and SMS forms. (Full disclosure: Meedan is a member of the First Draft Coalition, which is part of Google News Lab.) But while access to election materials is critical, so is access to candidates themselves. Ethnic media—television, radio, newspapers—can help significantly in getting the word out from candidates, and so can social media.

Best practices for multilingual political outreach on social media are just emerging, and all candidates’ efforts in these elections leave a lot to be desired. Social media is hailed as a direct line to candidates and their viewpoints, but that access is limited largely to English speakers. Even when a candidate does post frequently in Spanish and other languages, they include only a select number of posts. Further, those posts appear largely on Twitter and Facebook, which are not necessarily popular online platforms for minority language voters, who might prefer WhatsApp, WeChat, and other spaces.

Looking forward, we have a few thoughts for campaigns thinking seriously about multiple languages in their social media strategy:

1. Remember that language is both culture and words.

Speaking to #NotMyAbuela, Melisa Garcia, a graduate researcher at the University of New Mexico (and one of Meedan’s volunteer translators), noted, “Interestingly, the use of Spanish here is a cultural one. Its portrayal and access via Twitter and other social media platforms honestly did not work for Clinton and ended up pushing away her Hispanic/Latino vote.” In other words, while the word abuela made literal sense by meaning “grandmother,” the cultural and emotional context of the word caused a disconnect amongst Spanish speakers. Clinton may be a grandmother, but she’s not a grandmother of Latina heritage.

“As far as the Sanders campaign,” Garcia added, “I did notice that his approach to Hispanic/Latino voters has not had the same complexities. I think his use of Spanish on Twitter has been a lot more subtle, and he has used Spanish to simply communicate and reach out to Hispanic/Latino voters.”

2. Make translators more visible.

On a related note, none of the current leading candidates—Trump, Clinton, and Sanders—speak Spanish, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect them to speak the hundreds of other languages the U.S. electorate speaks. Everyone knows this year’s leading candidates are monolingual, and yet it’s not clear who’s tweeting on their behalf on social media in other languages. This often matters because dialect and word choice reflect a positionality that the candidates just don’t have. Knowing who’s speaking on behalf of their candidate online can go a long way in building trust and credibility.

3. Consider multiple social media accounts.

We live in a world where both the Pope and the Kremlin tweet with dedicated Twitter accounts for each language (and, yes, the Pope tweets in Latin). Presidential candidates who are eager to reach across languages on social media should do the same. For monolingual speakers, seeing feeds in two languages can be distracting. Certainly, it’s a powerful gesture to show constituents that you are engaging across languages, but we’d argue that the benefits of a long term, dedicated commitment to a language community can be even more powerful.

4. Empower your electorate online to engage across languages.

Sanders and Clinton have both taken to retweeting their supporters, including in other languages. This small gesture gets to a larger point: candidates can and should do more to empower their supporters to represent them in other languages. The Sanders campaign’s efforts with the Arab American community is perhaps an exemplar in this regard: successful movements are built on people’s enthusiasm, sense of welcome into the campaign, and community of supporters.

5. Start earlier and build the networks.

“Mainstream media,” Melisa Garcia noted, “has not fully allowed for the Sanders campaign to completely flourish, but the smaller groups of people that are looking to represent him have.” Perhaps the broader Sanders campaign strategy of empowering volunteers points at a larger issue: that empowerment needs to start earlier. The passion behind his campaign can and should be matched by a stronger relationship with diverse, multilingual volunteers, especially tech-savvy youth.

Towards a Polyglot Democracy

California, the primary with the largest number of delegates, is little over a month away, and with it, the country’s largest number of Latino voters will be going to the ballots. With Trump’s nomination all but locked in, all eyes will be on Democratic voters’ decision in the primaries. The state is also the country’s most diverse, and polls suggest that Clinton and Sanders are evenly split in terms of Latino support in California.

California outpaces the larger national trend: our increasingly diverse country needs increasingly diverse campaigns. Twitter’s multilingual “I voted” hashtags will no doubt be used liberally, especially by digitally-savvy youth amongst whom Sanders has greater resonance. Clinton and Sanders in 2016 and any future Presidential candidates in 2020 and beyond would do well to think more robustly about a multilingual outreach strategy in a state where ballots come in seven languages and in a country where ballots come in any more.

“True language access requires a commitment to organizing by design,” wrote Cayden Mak in a previous Civicist piece on our increasingly polyglot democracy. Mak was speaking about citizen organizing, but his words could just as well apply to campaign organizing design: in future campaigns, we can expect even broader multilingual and multicultural outreach online—and, no doubt, the mocking hashtags and corrections that go with them.

An Xiao Mina is a technologist, writer and artist. She leads the product team at Meedan, where they are building digital tools for journalists, and she co-founded The Civic Beat, a global research collective looking at the creative side of civic technology. A recent 2016 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow, she has been researching the impact of language barriers in digital journalism.

Mira Nabulsi is a Palestinian researcher and communications professional based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is interested in social movements, news, rhetoric, ICT and language and has contributed to Global Voices and Syria Deeply and to Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East, edited by Dr. Linda Herrera. Previously at the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, she currently supports Meedan’s Bridge community and projects and tweets at @miragabi.