On July 1, 2017, President Trump tweeted “My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” While this is undeniable, Chris Edelson, JD, Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Government says it also raises a host of questions about the dignity of the office and the impact of social media on policy.
“What’s different now is the president is posting things on social media that are embarrassing, dangerous, and potentially incriminating,” said Chris Edelson, JD, assistant professor in American University’s Department of Government. “It’s informal and has lowered the standards for what’s acceptable.”
Sending a loud message
With the continued increase in social media use, it isn’t surprising that presidential communications are leveraging new channels. What is becoming less and less surprising is how President Trump is using Twitter.
Rather than carefully worded, scripted posts, the president frequently shoots out off-the-cuff messages that reflect his personal opinions. Not only are these posts often filled with typos, misspellings, and misinformation, they appear to represent policy.
“I think Donald Trump’s argument would be that it allows him to speak directly to people, that every tweet he sends out gets attention,” said Edelson. While that’s true, Edelson questions, “is it necessarily a good thing?”
Eroding the prestige of the Oval Office
That Mr. Trump chooses not to censor his personal opinions when speaking as the president raises concerns for many.
He repeatedly sends messages that veer from what has been expected from a president – for example, retweeting white supremacists1 or sharing a gif that shows him hitting a golf ball that appears to knock down Hillary Clinton.2
He has retweeted crime statistics that were patently false, lending credibility to misinformation and unreliable sources. He called on NFL franchise owners to fire players for exercising their free speech, and threw in an insulting expletive for good measure.
Even before he took office, his bullying tweets led to death threats on a Carrier plant union representative and his family3.
Beyond the vitriol, his posts may have legal implications.
“I’d be worried if I were a lawyer representing Donald Trump,” said Professor Edelson. “He’s using it so freely to comment on the Russia investigation. His tweets about James Comey could be seen as intimidating a witness.”
Setting an alarming precedent
Not only are President Trump’s tweets often inflammatory and threatening, his use of Twitter to conduct foreign policy also raises concerns.
“There are national security issues here caused by the specific way in which he is using Twitter and the fact that people look to it now to see policy statements,” said Professor Edelson. “Because he is using his account to conduct foreign policy, somebody hacking it and taking control of the account could be very dangerous.”
The president’s comments about foreign leaders, adversarial nations, and terrorist attacks in other countries have stirred anti-American sentiment, even leading to speculation by North Korea whether his tweets equaled a declaration of war on that country.4
Professor Edelson contends that what is happening is not normal, but he concedes that this will be the new normal if people don’t do anything.
“Doing nothing means we’re okay with it,” said Edelson. “The concern is that this lowers the standards for what is acceptable.”
While Mr. Trump has declared his tweets presidential, some politicians, like Republican Congressman Justin Amash, have spoken up. Back on January 14 when President-elect Trump went on a twitter rant against Congressman John Lewis, Amash tweeted “Dude, just stop.”5
“A couple of years ago, no one would have talked to the president that way,” says Professor Edelson. “I think he was right, but the informality of his response isn’t good either.”
The responsibility may fall to Congress, the press, and the public to raise their voices – online and off – to decide the future impact of presidential social media use. The most effective answers are likely to come from the voting booth.