By Alex Hentschel
How has the use of Twitter by the presidency affected our political landscape? I know, I know, history and politics is not as interesting as the other fun topics I’ve submitted this semester. But, having done a ton of research on this for my capstone, I found it super interesting – and a lot of people I talked to at least pretended to be interested when I mentioned it to them. Since this is my column, you just have to listen to what I have to say. Heh.
Twitter has an estimated 330 million users. Most of those users just post about their morning coffee and their existential dread (80% of Twitter is this kind of meaningless content, according to a content analysis study by Naaman, Boase, & Lai, 2010). However, Twitter is increasingly becoming an avenue for Americans to receive their daily political news. The Pew Research Center found that 55% of adults use social media to find their news either “often” or “sometimes” (Shearer & Grieco, 2019), and coupled with the decline of print media – I bet you’re reading this on your phone and not in the physical copy, aren’t you? (of course that became the only option after I wrote this when we left school and didn’t print a physical issue) – social media and online journalism are our future. Twitter is a communication tool, and like all communication advances (radio, television, internet), it was only a short time before presidential candidates used it to disseminate their message to the people.
Not only that, but our representatives are contacting us directly online, cutting out the media middle man. A 2018 report by Quorum found that 95% of members of the 115th Congress had social media accounts on which they posted an aggregate of 500,000 times, with Twitter dominating most of that communication. Congress members on both sides of the aisle have also used the hashtag feature to raise awareness and grow aggregate movements, like #taxreform. Yawn.
However, we all know the most impactful political Twitter account around: the @realDonaldTrump account may have won him the presidency. Direct, highly unfiltered content streaming from @realDonaldTrump lets constituents know that what Trump says is what he truly thinks. Trump’s use of Twitter does not differ significantly from his normal rhetoric, which adds to his authenticity. Its 280-character limit allows the President to fire off some legendary zingers (who can forget 2017’s “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me “old,” when I would NEVER call him “short and fat?” Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”) and quotable sound bites. Trump uses Twitter to directly “@” opponents and supporters to congratulate or them as any ordinary citizen would. In this way, Trump’s use of Twitter to communicate his frequent frustrations or victories with Washington, trying to portray himself as a “man of the people.” As the Trump campaign’s use of Twitter was so successful, researcher Brian Ott argues that “Trump’s election marks the beginning, not the end, of the Age of Twitter” (Ott, 2017), changing the presidential communication model in the same vein of fireside chats and televised debates.
Trump was not the first to use Twitter, and not the first to maybe win an election with it. In 2012, Barack Obama trusted his campaign with relative autonomy with his Twitter account, which paid massive dividends as staffers were able to respond to events in real time. Now, post-Trump, we can see this power astronomically multiplied in the single-man machine that is @realDonaldTrump who always Tweets in real time. A particularly inflammatory Trump tweet can dominate the nightly news, and the media’s free, non-stop coverage of Trump’s Twitter feed was a factor which may have propelled him to victory in 2016. The more the media attacked him, the more Trump’s narrative of “fake news” prevailed, inspiring constituent trust in him that was “incommensurate with the front-page coverage that … the US reference press gave him” (Pérez-Curiel & Limón-Naharro, 2019). Wonder if he would tag us “the successful Cedars?”
However, is this all good news? Researcher Brian Ott proposes that Twitter’s communication is characterized by three key features: “simplicity, impulsivity, and incivility” (Ott, 2016). Firing off a Tweet is ridiculously easy and can sometimes be … well … rude (no matter how funny the nickname for Bloomberg is, “Mini Mike” is kinda mean). A survey by Weber-Shandwick found that 75% of Americans surveyed in 2017 believed that incivility had risen to “crisis levels” in the last election, and researcher Joseph Zompetti found that both Hillary Clinton and Trump attacked their opponent via Twitter with consistent incivility. These impacts are multiplied because Twitter has a significant impact outside the Twittersphere. One study found that the traditional news media disproportionately reports on what Trump’s Twitter feed mentioned that day (Pérez-Curiel & Limón-Naharro, 2019).
Regardless of whether you believe Twitter has affected politics for the better, we can’t deny that the way the president communicates with the people has been forever changed by 2012 and 2016. If you want to hear more about this … come to my capstone presentation next month during the History and Government presentations … #shamelessplug, #taxreform.
Alex Hentschel is a senior International Studies and Spanish double major and the off-campus news editor for Cedars. She enjoys sociology, black coffee, and honest debate, preferably all at once.