President Donald Trump may be lagging in the polls, but his nickname for his opponent is finding traction on social media sites. “Sleepy Joe” even garnered more posts than the Super Bowl and the musical “Hamilton” so far this year, according to new research from Clemson University.
The researchers found that “Sleepy Joe” has been spread by Trump supporters on Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc.’s Instagram, the same platforms that were influential in the 2016 contest. But this time around, ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok is playing a key role, particularly among a younger audience.
The researchers analyzed the spread of “Sleepy Joe,” and the hashtag #SleepyJoe across social media platforms during the first seven months of the year. They found that it has appeared in about 4.32 million posts on social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and YouTube. By contrast, #Superbowl appeared in 4.06 million posts on the same platforms during that period, while there were 1.16 million posts about the Hamilton musical, the researchers found. (This measure doesn’t include the photo and video apps Instagram and TikTok.)
“At the moment, the term ‘Sleepy Joe’ has been used on every platform and continues to increase,” said Will Henderson, the associate director of Clemson’s Social Media Listening Center.
“Sleepy Joe” gained traction online in April 2019 when the name was tweeted by Trump, according to the researchers. Since then, the president has used it as part of a broader campaign to highlight Biden’s occasional gaffes – and to suggest that he may be slipping mentally – that has included speeches, TV advertisements, a website called barelytherebiden.com and social media.
In response to the Trump campaign’s efforts, the campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden has opted for a strategy of focusing its messaging on policy issues where Trump is vulnerable – such as his handling of the pandemic and its economic fallout – and ignoring the Trump campaign’s suggestions of Biden’s cognitive decline rather than engaging with it.
“None of these conspiracy theories or lies are resonating because that’s exactly what they are, baseless smears,” said Biden campaign spokesman TJ Ducklo. “And they’re the same baseless smears the Trump campaign has been pushing since we got into the race.”
The Clemson research didn’t try to address whether the “Sleepy Joe” insult has been successful, but rather to track if – and how – it spread on several social media platforms.
On Twitter, for instance, the researchers found that the use of “Sleepy Joe” and #SleepyJoe spiked during key political and national events. For example, its popularity surged during the Jan. 24 impeachment hearing and during the July 4 holiday. The nickname and hashtag were mentioned more than 55,000 times in the first eight days of July alone.
On Reddit, right-leaning users in politically-focused groups are using the nickname “to put down and display Biden in a negative light,” the Clemson researchers found. And, on Instagram, #SleepyJoe gained momentum through the Fourth of July holiday, frequently appearing in posts with other hashtags associated with the Trump base such as #trump, #maga, #qanon #trumptrain, #obamagate, #draintheswamp and #fakenews.
On TikTok, users have liked videos with the #SleepyJoe hashtag nearly 3 million times from February, when the hashtag first appeared on the platform, through July, according to Henderson.
The traffic on TikTok was driven by white men, most of them young. Among the TikTok users responsible for the top 80 #SleepyJoe posts, 85% were white and 63% were men, the researchers found. The majority of these top 80 posts originated with users that researchers estimated to be under the age of 30, while a quarter of them were younger than 20.
“There is a continual increase in the volume of posts on TikTok,” according to the researchers, who found that #Sleepyjoe was used by accounts that also posted hashtags including #Trump2020 and #TrumpTrain.
TikTok has come under national security investigation by the U.S. due to its ownership by China’s ByteDance, with Trump planning to order the parent company to divest ownership of the app. For the first time, this music-video app also appears to be a significant source of political conversation among young people ahead of a U.S. presidential election.
The Trump team’s “Sleepy Joe” strategy comes with its own risks, particularly when the incumbent – who, at 74 is only three years younger than his opponent – has his own history of gaffes and stumbles, including a June speech at West Point in which Trump appeared to struggle drinking a glass of water and descend a ramp. Trump later tweeted the ramp was “very slippery,” and at a subsequent rally, made a point of drinking water proficiently.
In a July Fox News poll, 43% of voters said that Trump had the “mental soundness” to serve as president, compared to 47% for Biden.
(Updates with additional detail about TikTok in 13th paragraph. A previous version of this story included an incorrect title in the fourth paragraph.)