There are numerous ways in which President-elect Trump is unique and represents a drastic departure from political norms. Many in politics or the media might point to specific policies or comments, but Trump’s use of Twitter is especially noteworthy. What is unique is not what he’s specifically said on Twitter but rather his diverse use of the medium to express his views.
To be sure, the president-elect is far from the first politician to embrace social media at any level of government. However, presuming that Trump maintains his tweeting habits once inaugurated, he will be the first president to personally use Twitter to such a great extent in the office.
President Obama is often referred to as the first social media president, primarily because his campaigns extensively used social media as a marketing platform in 2008 and 2012. More so than his rivals, Obama’s staff used Facebook and Twitter to post short speech excerpts, policy highlights, and quotes from rivals to illustrate Obama’s positions on the issues. In the White House, Obama and his staff have largely used social media to present the president as “hip” or in tune with popular culture, by taking selfies with celebrities, posting short videos, and highlighting important policy points.
However, Obama has not adapted to social media to the same extent as Trump. Obama employs a team of 14 digital strategy experts, who carefully craft his social media posts to achieve maximum impact and visibility. While Obama and his staff deserve credit for embracing new technology, his social media posts seem inauthentic due to the extensive planning behind them. They seem targeted to serve a political end or show a side of the president which the experts feel is advantageous.
Irrespective of your opinion of Trump’s tweets, you cannot call them “inauthentic” or “fake”. He certainly speaks his mind about individuals, issues, actions, opinions, and anything else remotely relevant to politics or the election. He tweets veraciously, often sending out several in one sitting, let alone in a day. As far as it is known, most if not all of the tweets come from Trump himself, and he is certainly not shy about “telling it as he sees it.” And when the president tweets, especially in a provocative manner as Trump typically has, we all respond one way or another.
If Trump continues tweeting as he has during the election, there are several potential ways in which he will change the way the White House operates.
Bully Pulpit and Agenda Setting
An often documented but unofficial power of the president’s office is its function as a bully pulpit. In simple terms, this means that the president has the ability to speak out and be heard on any issue at any time. By virtue of his position as the singular leader of the country, the president can draw attention to certain issues or advocate certain policies, and his comments will serve as a starting point for both parties, individual citizens, and the media in the debate. Technically, Congress has agenda-setting power since it writes and passes bills, but the president can and traditionally has used his stage to focus the debate and gather support for his position.
To his credit, President Obama has used his position extremely effectively to convey his message on a variety of issues. For example, consider the debate on immigration reform in 2013, which largely came about as the result of Obama’s State of the Union speech after winning reelection.
By using Twitter, Trump heightens the bully pulpit of the presidency because he is not constrained by time, location, questions from the media, or any other factor. Trump’s predecessors have all exercised their agenda-setting power through official speeches, interviews, and press conferences. Invariably, these settings limit the president. For example, if he is asked about immigration, he has to speak about immigration. Moreover, the opportunities to communicate through these settings are naturally limited, since the president is not in front of a camera all day.
But Trump is not constrained by these factors. Day or night (literally), he can log on to Twitter and give his unabashed, unscripted thoughts on any issue, person, or event. And when Trump tweets, people listen. Many of Trump’s tweets are discussed extensively by media outlets, even more than an interview or a speech would be. The tweets also become a hot conversation topic on social media and around water coolers in offices and gyms across the world. In this way, Trump will be able to use twitter to focus the conversation more than any president before him ever has.
Often, the president lacks a means to induce other politicians to go along with his policies, especially members of the president’s party. By using Twitter, however, Trump can succinctly identify who his agitator and why he is not complying. While many have complained about the tone that Trump has used in these tweets, they are undeniably effective because they move the needle.
The most interesting part of this development is the fact that Trump will be able to apply greater pressure to members of his own party. Attacks between parties are common, and not many Democrat voters are likely to have voted for Trump anyways. However, when Trump tweets something negative about a member of the Republican Party, his supporters have typically followed Trump’s lead and added their complaints about the Republican in question. Given the importance of popularity in politics, Republicans now have a direct incentive to follow Trump’s direction.
The best example is Trump’s feud with House Speaker Paul Ryan. When Ryan refused to endorse Trump following his primary victory, Trump attacked Ryan on Twitter, and many of his supporters vowed to avoid voting for Ryan. Ryan knew that he and other Republicans could not afford to lose their support, and eventually caved.
Though Republicans may not support Trump’s policies, they may find themselves in a worse situation for refusing to cooperate with the president-elect.
Weakening the media
It goes without saying that Trump has had an adversarial relationship with the mainstream media outlets, and few expect this to change in the White House. But unlike previous presidents, Trump is not reliant on the media to deliver his message. By using Twitter, Trump can circumvent the media altogether and speak directly to the American people.
The media traditionally has been extremely influential in determining the discourse surrounding certain issues and events through the amount of coverage they dedicate to various issues, as well as the tone with which they report these issues. The media was instrumental in Obama’s push to legalize same-sex marriage and his attempts to pass gun control reform by largely providing extensive, positive coverage for his positions.
Trump’s media end-around complements Americans’ current attitudes toward the media. According to a recent poll, only 5% of the public have a “great deal” of confidence in news media, while 61% have “no confidence” or “not much confidence.” Likewise, a Gallup poll showed that the populations’ confidence in the media’s ability “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” had dropped to the lowest levels in history.
Regardless of party, Americans do not want to hear or trust the news as it is presented by the media. Trump provides an outlet for these individuals to avoid the perceived slant from the media and hear his comments “from the horse’s mouth.” The more the media howls about Trump’s comments and policies, the more people will pay attention to Trump’s tweets.
Spreading False Information
Due to Trump’s end around of the media, there is the potential that he may spread false news with his tweets, either intentionally or unwittingly. Trump has played fast and loose with the facts, according to independent analysis from Fact Check. On his Twitter account, he has retweeted exaggerated or wholly inaccurate news pieces on the social media platform.
Since Trump’s tweets gather so much attention, there is a possibility that people may end up believing false news stories, and the media may be focused on exaggerated or inaccurate claims. This issue is especially prevalent since the election, in which Facebook revealed the extent to which false news stories were found on the site. Either intentionally or unintentionally, Trump may contribute to this trend if he does not fact check his tweets in the future.
Perhaps the most lasting impact of Trump’s spillover may be his impact on political figures’ interactions with their constituents on social media. For better or worse, Trump has set a precedent for direct, unfiltered communication from the candidate himself. Trump has shown himself to be a person with whom his supporters can relate, and someone who is willing to say what others will not. His tweets appear to come directly from Trump himself, and not from a staff of social media experts.
In the future, candidates of both political parties will be forced to invest directly into social media themselves. No candidate can afford to seem inauthentic or unconnected to the issues that Americans are facing. Candidates may not be as bold with their posts as is Trump, but Trump has laid forth a playbook to continuously generate attention and direct the news through social media posts. This power cannot be ignored, and both parties will have to reinvent their social media approach to match the boldness and perceived authenticity.
Presidents have always relied upon the media to speak with the American people, from newspaper editorials to fireside chats, to posts made by others, to tweets directly from the candidate. Trump has dominated and directed the news like no one else in politics, due in large part to his use of Twitter. The implications of this transformation in political communication will be seen over the next four years.