Twitter Presidency: How social media became Donald Trump’s most formidable weapon

By Cameron McIntosh

For 11 short minutes, the world of social media was bereft of one of its most prolific and effective Twitter accounts, as a rogue employee of the web giant disabled the President’s most valuable weapon – @realDonaldTrump.

For many high-profile public figures, the world of social media has become a political minefield strewn with potential banana skins. From the good-natured ridicule that accompanied Ed Balls’ innocuous failure to get to grips with Twitter’s search function, to the more perturbing case of congressman Anthony Weiner, which resulted in an abrupt end to a promising political career, social media can be a dangerous place for politicians.

Whereas his predecessors had to rely on television broadcasts and radio addresses to reach out to the ordinary citizen, at the push of a button, Trump can bypass conventional media sources to communicate directly with millions of Americans
For a man not known for his modesty, Trump’s willingness to credit social media for his success is deeply revealing.

However, for a 71-year-old businessman and television personality, it became a most valuable asset in the populist surge that propelled him to the Oval Office. Speaking candidly, the 45th President of the United States acknowledged, in his familiar rhetorical style, “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here. I have over 100m [followers]. I don’t have to go to fake media.” For a man not known for his modesty, Trump’s willingness to credit social media for his success is deeply revealing.

Trump’s barrage of churlish insults squeezed into 140 characters can oftentimes demean the esteemed office which he holds. From the peddling of the ‘birther myth’ that questioned Barack Obama’s citizenship of the United States, to the more recent tweets about North Korea ending with the cryptic foreign policy message “only one thing will work,” the President appears to actively invite controversy. Most significantly, his account has relentlessly attacked the scourge of “Fake News,” which he claims is endemic because of the mainstream media’s rabid hostility towards him.

Love him or loathe him, Trump is a canny political operator. His social media usage is one of the ways in which he effectively galvanised the masses of disenchanted voters to turn-out for him and cause one of the biggest political earthquakes of recent decades. Whether this is a carefully calculated plan owing to his, much embellished and apparently enormous, IQ, or the result of good fortune and good timing, the salient fact is that Twitter is key to Trump’s success.

The key to Trump’s Twitter is simplicity. He writes what he thinks and he is prone to streams of consciousness that flood newsfeeds and regularly provoke outrage.

Whereas his predecessors had to rely on television broadcasts and radio addresses to reach out to the ordinary citizen, at the push of a button, Trump can bypass conventional media sources to communicate directly with millions of Americans. His penchant for discrediting the likes of CNN and the New York Times is no wonder, given that his own Twitter account is their direct, and most formidable, rival.

The key to Trump’s Twitter is simplicity. He writes what he thinks and he is prone to streams of consciousness that flood newsfeeds and regularly provoke outrage. During the campaign, his personal attacks against Hillary Clinton, while unsavoury to liberal sensibilities, were crucial to the outcome of the election. Not only did they discredit his opponent, they rallied his support base and allowed Trump to set the political agenda. Above all else, Trump’s bullish tweets rely on the appearance of authenticity, something which Clinton so desperately failed to convince the electorate of herself. As President, bad news for the administration has often been accompanied by tweets that deflect attention away from the matter in hand and have people again discussing his Twitter activity.

People needn’t have a Twitter account to know what their president has been tweeting.

While it is true that the majority of Americans do not have Twitter – recent figures account for 68 million independent users in the US – the power of social networking sites is much more compelling than the numbers suggest. This is because tweets from the President are not confined to the echo chambers of Twitter. They are discussed on major TV networks, shared on Facebook newsfeeds, talked about on the radio, in online chatrooms and, perhaps most significantly, on the street. People needn’t have a Twitter account to know what their president has been tweeting. A scroll through their phone will quickly reveal the newest controversy sparked by Trump’s latest 140-character outburst. Critical to understanding the success of Trump’s Twitter is to look beyond the number of favourites and retweets, and to look more closely at the response of the mainstream news agenda.

At times his account appears to be a parody of himself, falling short of the standards of the elected Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful nation on the planet. However, Trump’s Twitter usage is pioneering in its ability to connect with voters and galvanise the disenchanted. The ubiquity of social media in modern life will undoubtedly translate into future presidential contests, but it was Donald Trump who first struck on the effectiveness of it as a political tool and expertly manipulated it for electoral gain.

Image: SS&SS via Flickr

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