President Donald J. Trump’s use of social media, namely Twitter, has set a surprising new precedence for administrative communications in the United States. Trump himself has referred to his frequent Twitter usage as “modern-day presidential,” and tweets several times per day (sometimes several times per hour) to his 50 million followers. While he is not the first American president to communicate with the public through social media platforms –with Barack Obama having a notable Facebook and Twitter presence — Trump’s tweets are unique both in volume and in content, serving as a conceivably unfiltered display of President Trump’s thoughts and opinions. Donald’s online activity has attracted significant international attention, and has stirred up controversy for his dissemination of contentious opinions, questionable news, falsified statistics and claims, and personal attacks on critics.
In recent years, the role of social media in media and politics has been explored by many scholars. Due to Twitter’s widespread popularity, with over 300 million users across the globe, the platform has become highly influential upon public perception of events; the website is used as a tool for journalists and politicians alike to share breaking news and gauge public reaction to these happenings. Furthermore, social media as a political arena has, according to some researchers, contributed to partisan polarization in an online setting. Sounman Hong and Sun Hyoung Kim concluded in their 2016 report that social media platforms like Twitter create “echo chambers” of like-minded individuals who become more politically polarized as they bounce more and more divisive ideas off each other, sharing targeted messages from extremist politicians and misinformation designed to appeal to each echo chamber’s niche.
This effect has resulted in a form of digital tribalism, compounded by the simplistic, incivil, and impulsive nature of Twitter. The structure of Twitter posts encourages the simplification of ideas and discussions, thanks to its reliance on 140-character messages and hyperlinks to articles, videos, and the like. Tweets are often impulsive and passionate, emphasized by Twitter greeting the user with “What’s happening?” in the new post text box and the informal nature of social-media conversations. The result: the degradation of our ability as a society to have informed, well-intentioned discussions about politics. In many ways, Twitter has reduced our capacity for civil discourse and encouraged affective, polarizing dialogue.
Donald Trump is the master of this antagonistic form of social media-driven political discussion. On the surface, his never-ending parade of Tweets often appear highly opinionated, belligerent, and downright juvenile. One of the most egregious examples is his January 2nd tweet challenging Kim Jong Un that Trump’s “Nuclear Button” is “much bigger and more powerful,” a veritable pissing contest of nuclear arms. In addition to the countless assaults on the media which spawned the common term “fake news,” President Trump has a habit of using insulting nicknames, including everything from “Crooked Hillary” and “Cheatin’ Obama” to “Lyin’ Ted” and “Slippery James Comey,” reflecting an impulsive and pugnacious character. His Twitter posts — which the former White House press secretary Sean Spicer has said to be equivalent to presidential statements — often simplify complex issues, not only rhetorically speaking but also literally, through a notoriously simple vocabulary. They are also stylistically appealing to emotional responses, with capitalization of words and use of exclamation points commonplace in Trump’s tweets. Overall, these vitriolic characteristics reflect the influence of Twitter on political discussion and polarization in America as identified by critical scholar Bill L. Ott.
Despite appearances, this Twitter-based revolution of presidential communication is no accident. President Trump’s persistence in tweeting divisive and misleading messages, combative ad-hominem attacks, and self-promoting statements demonstrates a strategic endeavour both to sway public opinion and to deflect attention from real problems. As University of California, Berkeley Professor George Lakoff declared, Donald Trump “uses social media as a weapon to control the news cycle.” With his barrage of impetuous tweets, President Trump reinforces the attitudes of many of his supporters while simultaneously alienating his opponents, or as Trump himself calls them, “losers and haters.” All the while, attention is diverted from Trump’s actions as many members of the media report on these tweets.
President Trump’s Twitter tactics represent a ringing alarm bell for American politics. His use of Twitter has contributed greatly to our troubling situation of political polarization. The corrosion of democratic norms that Trump has accomplished may prove to be a catalyst for future democratic erosion in our nation, but Trump himself did not create the problem. As experts Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written, Donald Trump’s exacerbation of democratic erosion is indicative of a process that has taken place over decades, worsening in recent years.
While Donald Trump himself is unlikely to prove a dictatorial figure, his administration is emblematic of the growing political divide in the United States. Furthermore, Trump’s calculated implementation of social media as a weapon of mass distraction has manifested increased polarization and may be instrumental in strengthening support in his voter base. Trump himself said it best in a tweet after the April 14th missile strike on chemical weapons sites in Syria, “Mission Accomplished!” Mission accomplished indeed, Mister Trump.
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