Sophia Zhu ’18
Communication is essential to political activities. Mediums of communication are important because they are the carriers of vital political messages for voters to make their informed decisions. The emergence of radio and then television as new mediums of political messaging have shown that changes in the forms of communication can have far-reaching impacts.
In the 1920s, radio humanized candidates and talking styles came to matter more than ever. It brought the U.S. presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, with his mastery of this new medium. Television further shortened the distance between voters and candidates who were now presented as real people with all details of their demeanors being exposed to the audience. It largely contributed to Kennedy’s election and the later victories of Reagan and Clinton in the 1960s. Today, the Internet era, marks a new wave of innovations in information illustrated by the undoubtedly important role played by social media in the 2016 campaign season.
The potential influence of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, has been well-documented. The most prominent one is the theory of echo chamber. Based on how social media is designed, we are informed only by our friends or people and pages we have liked. This means we are mostly exposed to similar opinions and can barely encounter any disagreement — and even if we do, we could simply “unfriend” them immediately. This is a feature that allows people to avoid collisions of different viewpoints and having to experience a broad spectrum of political opinions. The implications can be far-reaching as people become entrenched in their mindsets, refusing to step out of their comfort zone and forget there is still something beyond their own opinions.
Another problem by design in social media is the 140-character limit on Twitter, a platform that played a big role in the 2016 election. With as few as 140 characters, it is impossible to start a meaningful political Twitter conversation. Unfortunately, this social media platform, originally designed to be a messaging tool, is now frequently used by candidates like Donald Trump as a way to express personal opinions and give sensational remarks.
What’s even worse, this strategy has worked pretty impressively. Obama may have been the first U.S. president to recognize the potential of Twitter, while in office. As a candidate, he also tweeted to appeal directly to his voters. However, most of his tweets are intended to inform the voters instead of provoke them. This is exactly the opposite of what Trump has been doing.
Sadly, reckless expressions from the U.S.’s highest leader on social media are seen not as a threat to the entire nation’s credibility, but to the rejoicing of populists as the democratizing of political discourses. Social media lifted the last barrier between the president and the public both domestically and internationally, but this excessive degree of intimacy can rouse a feeling of discomfort. During the campaign, Trump had outgunned all other candidates with his use of the social media as a tool to speak directly to his voters, to portray his own personality in extreme detail and to wage Twitter wars against his competitors.
If it is still tolerable for a presidential candidate to use any strategy that will win votes, what will happen after Trump’s election seems to be even more gloomy. He continues to maintains his active presence on Twitter, continuously sending out idiosyncratic comments. Especially in areas like diplomacy, where every word of the president reverberates, it is hard to imagine how a new Twitter-storm style of governing will function once he formally assumes office in January 2017. Trump’s recent Tweets about his call with the President of Taiwan makes it hard for people to believe what his senior advisor and spokewoman have asserted — that Trump was fully aware that what he was doing departed from the long-standing U.S. diplomatic policy regarding relations with Taiwan and China.
In an era of social media, journalists and reporters are no longer the gatekeepers of information. While presidents constantly seek to evade the media and talk directly to people, the public is also increasingly indulged by the power of social media to make anyone a news producer without being held accountable for misinformation or sensationalization. In 2016, we witnessed a campaign that was not issue-driven but scandal-driven. We are about to witness a presidency that is not based in reason and deliberation, but on emotion and frivolity. With the mainstream media losing credibility and social media sites gaining popularity, more serious consequences are still yet to come.