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Melania Trump and Michelle Obama dominated social media engagement during the 2020 conventions

Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The most viral stories about the Republican convention were largely about non-political speakers, while the Democratic convention stories focused on the political leaders who were the official stars of the convention, according to exclusive data from NewsWhip.

Why it matters: The GOP convention in particular highlighted how speakers from outside of the political arena who haven't been bloodied and bruised by political fights were most effective at setting social media on fire.


  • Both conventions got roughly the same amount of online attention — roughly 50 million social media interactions (likes, comments, shares) on related stories. But the most viral stories about the two conventions showed a big difference in the interests of their online audiences.

By the numbers: The current and previous First Ladies generated the most viral stories at both conventions. Melania Trump was the favorite among right-leaning social media audiences during the Republican convention, just as Michelle Obama dominated social media during the Democratic convention.

But while Obama won attention for her indictment of President Trump, Melania Trump's online audience saw criticism of her as an example of hypocrisy from the left:

  • Five of the 100 most-viral stories from the RNC were about Bette Midler tweeting that the First Lady is an "illegal alien" who "still can't speak English." (Midler later tweeted: "I was wrong to make fun of her accent.")
  • Other headlines from conservative media applauded her: "Gracious Melania Offers Unifying RNC Speech In Contrast With Michelle Obama’s Dark DNC Speech" (Daily Wire) and "First lady lends grace to Trump’s reelection bid" (Washington Times).

Between the lines: While politicians and other figures in the Trump administration may get the most media coverage, it was the Republican convention speakers from outside of politics who generated the most social media interactions at the grassroots level.

  • Herschel Walker's remarks that "I have seen racism up close. I know what it is. And it isn’t Donald Trump," caught fire on right-wing media.
  • So did the speech from Maximo Alvarez — an immigrant who fled from Cuba — who delivered an indictment of communism.

The other side: Even for left-leaning audiences, figures from outside of the regular drumbeat of political news caught readers' attention.

  • The biggest RNC story circulating on liberal media was that speaker Abby Johnson, a prominent anti-abortion activist, earlier this year called for one vote per household where "in a Godly household, the husband would get the final say."
  • Other big storylines on the left included the endorsement of Joe Biden by GOP figures including Jeff Flake and former John McCain staffers.
  • This analysis focuses on the top 100 stories from both conventions. For the most recent stories, it uses predicted interactions to estimate where the engagement will end up, based on whether the stories were gaining or losing traction.

The bottom line: There was a significant disconnect between the stories that animated the political class and the ones that lit up millions of social media users.

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's violation of norms by addressing the convention from Jerusalem and Nikki Haley as a possible future GOP presidential candidate got very little traction.

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