Do we want a Twitter President?

Photo credit: By Office of the President of the United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Trump loves tweeting. Everyone gets that. He has a unique tweeting style – in less than 140 characters, his tweets are always flooded with capital letters, exclamation marks, and controversial comments. Additionally, Trump seems to indulge in late-night tweeting after moments of stress or triumph.

People love reading his tweets, in the same way they love peeping at celebrities’ lives.  Barack Obama, the first president of the social media age, has an incredible 84.6 million followers on Twitter. Donald Trump currently has 24.9 million followers.

Personally, I love this form of modern communication. For the President, tweeting creates a direct pipeline to engage with his target audience. He can reach more people, receive immediate feedback, and personally chat back and forth. For citizens, they can receive and digest the given information without a third-party spin. More importantly, it supports one of the essential elements of governance – transparency. Social media facilitates building mutual trust between politicians and voters. The power of social media has been vividly demonstrated with Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who won election in 2014 via a social media campaign. Keenly aware that social media enables him to engage constituents without traditional information barriers, he successfully brought more votes through “likes” on Facebook. Linking the politician and people via social media is convenient, powerful, and democratic.

Also, I am attracted to Trump’s twitter due to its authenticity. His tweets are very colloquial, casual and without the usual political jargon. It bears no resemblance to wording found in typical government documents. You can easily feel his joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness by just reading his tweets. His tweets are a window into his state of mind. It’s interesting and in some sense fortuitous to have a president without a poker face. He doesn’t pretend to be somebody else, he is himself.

However, embracing Twitter offers demerits as well as merits.

One of the challenges is how the media chooses to cover the President’s twitter. We often see that hot issue tweets are used to frame the news, but Twitter is not always the perfect source for news since it’s emotional by nature. For Trump, Twitter is more an emotional catharsis or a snippet of a more complicated series of thoughts on policy issues. It is not uncommon that people use the “thread” to discuss complexity and complicated thoughts. Unfortunately, Trump isn’t as sophisticated in his use of Twitter, so followers don’t get complex thoughts or “threads” but short, pointed 140 character stand-alones.

Another issue is the word choice. Derogatory terms penetrate Trump’s tweets, which exerts negative influence on his personal image. Using the twitter data collected by trumptwitterarchive.com, high-frequency words in Trump’s tweets include “loser” (234 tweets), “dumb” or “dummy” (222 tweets), “terrible”(204 tweets), “stupid” (183 tweets), “dishonest” (115 tweets), “dope” or “dopey” (117 tweets). It is not entirely alien for the President to have moments of anger or sadness, however, careless rhetoric remains a problem.

Furthermore, information security is also a major problem. Due to Twitter hacks, there is potential for disaster if a hacker takes control of the President’s account and disseminates unfounded rumors. Worse than the hackers, it would cause irreversible damage if the politician himself disseminates unfounded rumors. In the case of President Trump, he stated that there were 3-5 million illegal votes cast in the general election in California, with no evidence to support his claim. This misinformation from the politician himself can be a death-blow.

In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016

Despite the risks and uncertainties, it cannot be denied that social media booms in the field of politics. It is reported that 793 heads of the government in 173 countries have Twitter accounts. Only 20 countries do not have a presence on Twitter. Among them is China. Although social media is rampantly used in Chinese society, it is not common for government officials have personal social media accounts. While there are an increasing number of government departments stepping into the era of “E-Government,” resulting in more direct communication with the public via social networking tools; the interactions are poor and the resulting content is seldom concerned with important political information.

Most importantly, there are invisible restrictions for microbloggers who wish to speak freely about the government. If certain comments are sensitive and unacceptable to the government, they are removed immediately. For example, there was a photo of President Obama and President Xi Jinping walking side by side, and their stride and shape mirrored the image of Tigger and Winnie the Pooh. When a Chinese editor posted that image on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, the pictures were quickly removed. The action was benign, but it hit a nerve. The government censorship on information is still tight in China. Although reinforcing, monitoring, and managing social media serves to maintain social stability, it curbs the legitimacy of the public’s voice.

Following political leaders on their personal social media accounts is still not a reality for Chinese people. The personal lives of government officials is a forbidden topic in China. The communist party wants to retain positive images of their leaders, trying to edify them as divine, not human. The things the Chinese public know about their party leaders are confined to their educational background and professional experience. We have no insight into their hobbies, interests, marriages, children or any other personal information. They often lead mysterious lives. If a party leader had a Twitter account, he might be typically circumspect in his remarks, being aware that his words carry gravity and significant consequence. Most likely, his tweets will be something mirroring generic press releases.

According to a NBC-WSJ poll, 69% of Americans call Trump’s Twitter habit a “bad thing,” citing “because in an instant, messages can have unintended major implications without careful review.” It is true. However, what if Trump stopped tweeting? How would the American people know what he is thinking?

As a Chinese citizen, I rather envy that the American people have a Twitter President. We have to admit that it takes a decent amount of courage to open a personal account to let people examine you with more scrutiny and to connect with you more directly. Twitter was, is, and will be a strong tool in Trump’s political career. But it remains a medium to be used in a sensible way. Twitter can be a weapon to defend the truth and a catalyst for civic engagement. On the other hand, it has the power to persecute the innocent and protect the guilty. For Trump, his new role and responsibilities may call for modified usage of Twitter.

Though “people-oriented” is one of the main concepts governing China. Sadly, two-way dialogues are rarely achieved, especially on social media. We do not have direct communication with high government officials. We do not have that luxury now and we’re still waiting to see if the Chinese government will give us that luxury in the future.

So perhaps, having a Twitter President is not such a bad thing.

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Jue Song is a Master of Public Policy candidate at USC Price. She is interested in civic engagement, education, and public policy advocacy. She enjoys playing the piano in her free time.