Donald Trump’s use of Twitter epitomises the pros and cons of social media

IT HAS become obvious very quickly that the new President of the United States has no intention of ceasing his Twitter activity or indeed of restricting himself to the official @POTUS Twitter account.

Not only has Mr Trump continued to tweet using his @realDonaldTrump account but he has continued to use it as controversially as before his inauguration. Statements of his plans for his term of office as President and the various policy decisions he is implementing are mingled with more trivial discussion on subjects such as the quality of Meryl Streep’s acting and the controversy over the size of the crowds at his inauguration.

In 2008 Barack Obama’s use of Facebook broke new ground in political campaigning and helped him engage with younger voters. Donald Trump has similarly used Twitter to good effect in 2016, enabling him both to get his message directly across to voters and to dominate and disrupt the media agenda.

Mr Trump’s use of Twitter epitomises the pros and cons of this social media, particularly for those with a high profile. On one hand Twitter is a great tool for creating the impression of closeness and sincerity. Tweets from celebrities and politicians are currently treated as direct statements ‘from the horse’s mouth’, with no intermediaries such as spokespeople or PR agents softening or altering their words. Tweets from celebrities are often referred to in the news media as having the same validity as press statements. ‘Rihanna tweeted last night…’, ‘In a Tweet, the band confirmed that…’

Tweets are written in a very personal and direct style, suggesting that the celebrity is talking directly to you and allowing you insider access to their thoughts and lifestyle.

Tweeting thus offers the illusion of direct access to the celebrity – or President. Even better, it offers the possibility of associating yourself with this person by ‘following’ them on Twitter, and even the possibility that they might deign to notice you and retweet one of your tweets. Look at the Twitter feed of any member of a boy band and one of the first things you will notice is the number of tweets from fans just begging to be retweeted. To be retweeted means that they have noticed you, have interacted with you, even if just for a second.

Retweeting, of course, can cause problems, as Mr Trump discovered when he retweeted a tweet confusing his daughter Ivanka with the Brighton-based council worker Ivanka Majic. Majic used her 15 minutes of fame to tweet back, urging the President to reconsider his position on global warming. Here Twitter demonstrates another attraction – the possibility of direct access to the powerful. Anyone with a Twitter account can send a tweet directly to a famous user of Twitter using the @ symbol and their Twitter name. Thus you can send your opinions on their latest film, album or government decision directly to a film star, musician or president.

However, there is no guarantee that they will read your tweet, let alone respond to it, and there is also the probability that you will be blocked by them if you are offensive or irritating.

Twitter tends to be used by celebrities as a promotional tool. They tweet about their latest project, urge their followers to buy their new album or go and see their new film, and share news about up-coming events.

In the same way, Donald Trump used Twitter to outline his political agenda directly to American voters without having to engage with the mainstream media. Tweets also have the benefit of brevity and the possibility of ignoring questions. Whilst social media has been praised for its potential for engagement and many-way discussion, the majority of celebrity users use it as an old-fashioned one-way broadcast tool. Donald Trump certainly uses Twitter to broadcast rather than debate.

The best celebrity users of Twitter understand that it can be used as a very powerful tool to engage and direct the attention of their followers and even the wider media. Celebrities can use Twitter to offer alternative narratives to the mainstream media, promising their followers ‘the real story’. Donald Trump used Twitter in this way throughout his campaign for the presidency.

Twitter can also be used to distract attention away from other stories. Again, Trump used his tweets to disrupt the media agenda, making the news focus on his latest outrageous tweet rather than other aspects of his campaign or the campaigns of his opponents.

Is this the new politics? Should all aspiring politicians use and abuse Twitter in a similar manner? Perhaps not. There are plenty of stories of politicians having to apologise or even resign because of a Tweet.

Notoriously, the American politician Anthony Weiner resigned from the House of Representatives after he sent a link of a sexually explicit photograph of himself via his public Twitter account. In the UK in 2014 Emily Thornberry was forced to resign as a member of Labour’s front bench after angry public reaction to a tweet that appeared to sneer at the owners of a terraced house displaying England flags with a white van parked outside.

Nonetheless, careful use of Twitter can help to distinguish a politician and raise their public profile. Witty and elegant tweets can catch the eye of the media, caring tweets can demonstrate a compassionate side, and mentions of local events and persons can re-assure a constituency of a politician’s priorities. Even controversial tweets can lead to a higher public profile and political reward if the politician has the ability to tough it out.

Twitter can be a very useful political tool, and can also tell us a lot about a politician’s temperament and willingness to engage with other opinions. However, the best use of Twitter or any other social media is as a useful ‘extra’ rather than as a replacement for wider engagement with the news media.