Last Week in Tech Policy #42: @realDonaldTrump: How Twitter is Changing Communications from the White House

(By Connor Boe, Colorado Law 2L)

After it was first announced that President Trump would continue to use his personal Twitter account after taking office, it has become clear that social media is going to become a dominant source of information from the White House. How might social media impact the consistency and clarity of messaging that the American public has come to expect from the executive branch?

Trump first created the @realDonaldTrump account in 2009 and has tweeted roughly 34,000 tweets and accrued over 22 million followers since. Since the election Trump has used Twitter along with other social media platforms to release policy statements, personal opinions, and a surprising number of politically polarizing statements.  This new form of communication from the President creates some interesting dynamics, some possible opportunities, and a multitude of challenges that need to be considered as we enter a new era of American politics.

The Changing Dynamics of Communication

Twitter is unique among presidential communications mediums because it allows for nearly constant updates and communication—something that the American public hasn’t experienced before. Trump is unfiltered and can communicate as much as he want with the public. For example, on Inauguration Day, he posted a dozen times. The frequency of communications is staggering and has been criticized by some as detracting from the power and legitimacy of the office, but also continuing the trend of populist rhetoric that has been used in recent elections.

The immediacy of the communication with the President himself gives the American public insights into his thoughts and feelings like no other time in our history—unedited in some cases. This change to a rapid, constant, and more informal communication style with the President can be seen as advantageous on one hand and unpredictable on the other.

Possible Opportunities

What  is the advantage of using Twitter as President? Some observers believe that President Trump is using the platform to circumvent the media and communicate his message directly to the American people, with some comparing his use to FDR’s Fireside Chats and JFK’s use of broadcast television.

Some studies have shown that social media encourages civic engagement and activism, and some argue that social media can serve as a communication platform that could help spark a new wave of civic engagement. The ability to reach millions of users instantaneously with a single message unframed by pundits is undoubtedly a powerful tool.

Pitfalls and Challenges

Despite the benefits of instantaneous communication, presidential use of Twitter can pose problems. For example, after many House and Senate Democrats chose not to attend Trump’s inauguration ceremony, Trump tweeted deeply polarizing comments, including criticism of Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis of Georgia. Trump’s off-the-cuff comments caused a great deal of political backlash that could be indicative of future issues. Trump has also started “Twitter wars” with foreign nations, most recently with Mexican President Nieto over Trump’s notorious “wall” and threats to repeal the NAFTA agreement. And though social media sites are constantly working to improve cybersecurity and develop stronger protection for high profile accounts, there is always a risk of a high-profile hack of Trump’s account.  Trump even initially registered the official @POTUS account under a personal Gmail account.

Questions and Uncertainty

Social media is becoming a dominant mode of communication for political figures beyond the election cycle.  We have yet to see just how much President Trump will rely on social media but this new from of communication raises some serious questions:

  • What stake do Twitter and other social media companies have in this debate?
  • How will the executive branch lead the national discourse with an unpredictable Twitter account?
  • What impact is Trump’s use of Twitter going to have on an already deeply divided political system?