How Joe Biden conveyed empathy

Joe Biden ran – in part – on empathy. CNN anchor Jake Tapper called it the trait Biden kept emphasizing and the one Donald Trump struggled to communicate. A great example from the first presidential debate in September: after Trump bragged about all the jobs he had created, Biden faced the camera and said: “You folks living in Scranton and Claymont and all the small towns and working-class towns in America … how well are you doing?” While Trump later mocked that move as a gimmick, Biden used TV moments like that to demonstrate empathy. But one interesting aspect of his digital campaign was how well he (and his social media team) communicated that trait online.

Take his approach to Twitter. Biden’s campaign made explicit references to the candidate’s empathy. In January, Joe Biden tweeted: “Empathy matters. I think it’s important — not only for leaders — but for everybody to treat people with respect.” And in October, Jill Biden tweeted: “Empathy is on the ballot.” Biden did not just talk about empathy though; he used his Twitter account to perform it. And he did that through the language of his tweets. In addition to “empathy words” like treatpeople, and respect, Biden used second-person pronouns to strike a conversational tone and signal his understanding of the problems afflicting voters. Take this tweet about Trump’s decision to stop negotiating a second coronavirus relief package: “If you are out of work, if your business is closed, if your child’s school is shut down, if you are seeing layoffs in your community, Donald Trump decided today that none of that matters to him.” Or this one from National Coming Out Day: “I want every member of the LGBTQ+ community to know you are loved and accepted just as you are – whether you’ve come out or not. I’ll fight every day in the White House to create a country where you can live open, proud, and free – without fear.” Trump, on the other hand, used most of his “you’s” to thank people for showing up to his rallies.

And that distinction, between Biden’s personal touch and Trump’s fan cult, was evident on Instagram too. There, Biden often posted the kinds of images that read as compassionate. Of the 249 photos and videos his campaign shared in October 2020, 11 featured kids, 12 featured Biden interacting one-on-one with people, and 40 featured individual supporters instead of the candidate. These kinds of content reinforced the narrative that Biden knows voters. He also used a lot of “you’s” in his captions. On October 5, for example, he posted a photo of himself talking to a voter with this caption under it: “I’ve been traveling to different communities across the country to talk to folks like you. I want you to know that I’m listening and I hear you. Thank you for sharing your pain and loss, and your hopes and dreams. You inspire me every single day.” Now compare that to Trump’s Instagram account: 55 of 143 photos and videos the campaign shared in October showed the massive crowds at Trump’s rallies, but none showed Trump interacting one-on-one with voters. Just one featured kids, and only two featured individual supporters instead of the candidate. Trump’s captions were also short and impersonal. And some posts had no caption at all. While Trump’s account depicted him as a “rock star” candidate, it also evoked a sense of detachment. Biden’s, on the other hand, emphasized his personal connection with voters.

Well, so what? Trump was not running on empathy anyway. He had different goals – like bolstering his populist image – to achieve on social media. And he used different tactics to get there. But comparing his approach to Biden’s is useful because Trump’s amateurism on social media, and the perceived success of that approach in 2016, highlighted one of the potential drawbacks of professionalized accounts in political campaigning: the perception of inauthenticity. For example, Hillary Clinton’s campaign took some heat in December 2015 for a social media post some people read as pandering to Hispanic voters. Biden’s effective use of professionalized accounts to communicate and enhance one of his character traits shows that candidates’ social media can be professional and authentic. It also highlights a potential drawback of amateur accounts: missed opportunities to promote qualities that appeal to a lot of voters.

We do not have a sense yet if or how the digital campaigns affected public opinion; exit polls will not be weighted to reflect the general electorate for a while, so we will have to wait to find out who voters thought cared more about them, and – even then – we will have to take those results with a grain of salt. But we do know that Biden used the affordances of social media far better than Trump did to communicate empathy. And that could be instructive for other campaigns.