Importance of social media in the globalized internet age

Trump, social media and the first Twitter-based Presidency

13 minutes to read
Jordan Hollinger

The most unique feature of the first Twitter-based presidency in the United States is the intense and unprecedented use of the internet as a political tool. This article will discuss how the Trump presidency and its supporters utilize social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to assert influence.

Just as with all other aspects of modern life, the internet is quickly becoming interwoven into political campaigns, creating a new form of “smart” politics. However, this rapid adoption of the internet is not seamless; rules and norms for campaigns’ online presence have not yet been widely standardized, as some campaigns express a significantly stronger online presence than others. We see specifically from the Trump campaign the possibility of what can be achieved from utilizing social media and the internet for partisan gain. Therefore, in analyzing the characteristics of Trump’s online presence, we can more fully understand the nature of politics in the internet era.

The Twitter-based presidency and globalized social media 

In this article, I will analyze how the abstract, anonymous nature of the internet allows for propaganda and politicized information to be more individualized and to be spread wider than previously possible. An important underlying theme of this article is the impact of globalization in modern culture. Perhaps the single most influential aspect in bringing about this impact is the internet – a tool which connects individuals and ideas to a degree never before possible. The globalization of ideas is a necessary step for the success of Trump’s campaign, as its ability to rapidly and constantly connect with the American public is the single most important reason for his popularity and ultimate success; in fact, it is by the political nature of social media sites that Trumps' popularity and public influence could grow so rapidly, through the nascent Internet Democracy. 

From Trump's hyper-active social media presence, we see a novel political relationship between Trump and his followers. By the very nature of social media, the visibility of a post is inherently related to popularity, to the amount of likes, retweets, and views. Due to this intimate connection between public popularity and the influence and presence of Trump's medium of choice, we can see the beginning of a new, arguably more "democratic" mode of political dissemination. This emergent phenomenon of political communication thereby creates a political system in which political discourse is now effectively produced by citizens at large, for the people determine for themselves what political figures and ideologies are deemed worthy of popularity through the largely democratic process of voting through likes and retweets. Trump's campaign is truly innovative for this reason, then; the factual nature of his policies aside, Trump's 2016 campaign has paved the way for a more interconnected form of democracy - one all politicians must account for in the modern era.  

In addition to the general theme of globalization, the modern political sphere is largely influenced by the structure of social media sites. The concept of “shareability” is easily manipulated by pro-Trump pages and advertisements, resulting in extremely fine-tuned patterns designed to target voters in particular regions with the most potential impact.. Trump also highlighted the importance of constantly remaining online. By posting multiple times daily, Trump and his opinions are constantly “trending,” continuously reinforcing his strong online influence. This shows that not only is it highly beneficial for candidates to have an active online presence, but also that, by tailoring the campaign specifically to best utilize social media, the benefits are ready for the taking.

By posting multiple times daily, Trump and his opinions are constantly “trending,” continuously reinforcing his strong online influence.

Before we begin to analyze the impact of globalized social media in American domestic politics, we first should recognize the influence of foreign governments and actors. Following the results of the 2016 election, American authorities have concluded “with high confidence” that Russian agents worked to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. These actions included the hacking of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees as well as the purchase of advertisements and other online postings on social media throughout the election cycle. Russian influence was not limited to America, however; both French and German officials have reported similar attempts by Russia to exert influence during the most recent election. In the words of Constanze Stelzenmüller

“By striking at Europe and the United States at the same time, [Russian-based] interference appears to be geared towards undermining the effectiveness and cohesion of the Western alliance as such—and at the legitimacy of the West as a normative force upholding a global order based on universal rules rather than might alone” 

As this evidence implies, Russian influence is widespread and focused: the efforts by Kremlin officials to engender disunity and establish pro-Russian regimes are felt worldwide. However, this paper will not focus on clarifying Russian efforts at manipulation, as that topic alone could fill books.   Instead, we will merely pinpoint the medium through which this influence is spread and the manner in which President Trump has adopted these tactics. In that light, we first will briefly discuss the history of the internet as a medium for political discourse and advertisement. We will then turn to the Trump campaign specifically to see how the campaign adopted these tactics in order to better understand the reasons why Trump’s social media presence was vital in his victory. Lastly, we will briefly touch on the question of Trump’s continued social media presence, attempting to answer the questions implicated by the world’s first Twitter-based presidency – the epitome of the globalized internet era.

Political Advertisement and the Internet

Since the start of the 21st cenury, the internet has rapidly evolved as a battleground for political advertisement. Leading up to the presidential election in 2000, Dick Morris, the chief strategists for then-President Clinton’s election in 1996, cited the intertwining of politics and the internet as inevitable, saying that “the Internet will be the Congress. The Internet will be the Parliament. The Internet will be the election” . Then in 2008, Obama’s use of e-mail and social media to mobilize support is often cited as a key aspect in his victory. “Were it not for the internet,” Arianna Huffington contends, “Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee" . In previous campaigns, where information was unable to spread instantaneously as is the case in recent elections, raising grassroots support among large groups of people nationwide required intense ground work by massive organizations of people. 

"The Internet will be the Congress. The Internet will be the Parliament. The Internet will be the election.” (Dick Morris)

In the Internet era, however, that information is spread exponentially faster – and significantly cheaper. By the end of the 2008 election, it has been estimated that official campaign videos posted by the Obama campaign on YouTube were watched for over 14 million hours, which would have cost an estimated $47 million to broadcast as advertisements on television. The Internet is increasingly becoming a medium through which political discourse and campaigning is not only acceptable but expected, resulting in what experts have labelled a “Kennedy moment.”  “Just like Kennedy brought in the Television presidency,” political advisor Joe Trippi said following the 2008 election, “I think we’re about to see the first wired, connected, networked presidency”. In the Obama presidency, the United States and indeed the world saw for the first time the impact of internet-infused government.

Yet in 2016, America has met with the natural result of an ever increasing dependency on the internet and social media. Hailing himself as “modern day presidential,” Trump’s success and popularity is largely due to his internet presence. In the months leading up to the presidential election, it was reported that “as much as 45% of Trump’s campaign budget in a given month [was] devoted to digital outreach and research. This funding was primarily spent on surveys and voter identification, used towards developing one of the most robust assortments of political Big Data in America. Bloomberg has cited the value of Trump’s voter information database at as much as $100 million, leading Trump’s campaign digital director to surmise that the information allowed the Trump administration to “own the future of the Republican Party. This collection of information does not include the more provocative – and therefore more “shareable” aspect of Trump’s online candidacy however: his use of social media to spread influence in the form of attack ads and fake news.

Trump's ability to seize control of the public attention is shown here. He rapidly overtook Clinton in social media presence, solidifying his presence and validating his political identity.

Trump’s social media presence is perhaps the single most important aspect of his candidacy. On Facebook alone, Pro-Trump advocates purchased at least $100,000 worth of advertisements prior to the November election. A former Facebook official estimates that this was enough to reach at least 126 million Americans. Facebook itself willingly offers to political campaigns its own sales staff, who are trained to “assist campaigns in spreading their messages, increasing engagement and getting immediate feedback on how they are performing”. Trump utilized this highly effective service to maximize his Facebook presence, while the Clinton campaign did not seek the assistance of Facebook officials, instead opting to rely upon her own social media experts. Not only is Trump more engaged online then, but he is more tactical, using every opportunity to gain an edge that other, more traditional candidates eschew.

Trump’s social media presence is perhaps the single most important aspect of his candidacy.

In addition to encouraging action among his supporters, Trump also actively worked to limit his opposition through social media. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” a Trump official boasted, aiming the Trump social media behemoth at lowering the voter turnout of key Clinton factions: white liberals, young women, and African Americans. Posting advertisements that played off Sanders supporters’ disinterest in Clinton and that emphasized Bill Clinton’s history of sexual misconduct, the Trump campaign focused its efforts on lessening support for Clinton just as much as raising his own influence. By utilizing Facebook as a means to spread his influence and assert his political presence, Trump managed to reach far more voters than possible under traditional methods of political advertising.

A Twitter-based Presidency

If Obama’s use of the internet was a Kennedy moment in that it validated a new medium through which presidential hopefuls can acceptably engage, then Trump’s use of Twitter is itself an equally significant breakthrough for social media in politics. A completely novel medium in the political sphere, Twitter as a social medium allows the president to connect personally with supporters, decry opponents, and express policy options, all in one space. This all-inclusive discursive medium provides Trump with constant access to individuals as well as institutions, allowing him to avoid directly addressing the more traditional forms of media, such as newspapers, radio, and television with which he is often at odds. This hyper-connectivity has had a tremendous impact on how the presidency as a public office is able to assert influence and command attention, creating a news sphere that is completely fixated on every tweet the president writes.

An avid user of Twitter long before his most recent bid for the presidency, Trump has developed a highly individualized voice through his Twitter feed, one that is strengthened by the sheer output of tweets and the greatly repetitive and self-referential nature of his tweets. Since winning the election on November 9, 2016, Trump has tweeted on his personal account, "@realDonaldTrump", over 2550 times, averaging approximately 6.7 tweets per day. He frequently repeats similar phrases and keywords in large amounts, solidifying the communal understanding of his supporters and enemies alike. 

One of his favorite phrases, “fake news,” has been repeated over 150 times in his first year as president alone. He mentioned Obamacare and the push to “repeal and replace” his predecessor’s signature policy achievement at least 98 times in the span from his inauguration on January 20, 2017 to July 7; he has likewise tweeted concerning the Russia scandal 99 times in the same timespan. Interestingly enough, approximately 41% of his tweets since inauguration have been between 5 and 9 in the morning, implying the president often starts his day with Twitter – and in big doses. 

In fact, only two days passed in the first six months of his presidency without a single tweet, while his maximum output peaked at as many as 16 in one day. What these statistics show us is that Trump relies heavily upon his Twitter account to connect with the nation and that he is in his natural element within the website’s community. No other president has so thoroughly dominated the press as Trump manages to do, largely because of his extremely active posting habits and his bombastic writing traits.

No other president has so thoroughly dominated the press as Trump manages to do, largely because of his extremely active posting habits and his bombastic writing traits.

Looking beyond these statistics to the actual substance of Trump’s tweets, we can see he regularly uses his Twitter account as a tether for trial balloons and other policy-related issues. On October 7, 2017, Trump wrote:

"Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid ... hasn't worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!"

This blatant attempt at saber-rattling – combined with a purposefully enigmatic remark at the end – is a prime example of Trump playing the media to his advantage. When asked what he meant by this cryptic yet overtly aggressive message, Trump merely replied that “you’ll figure that out pretty soon.”  The press, including both the internet and more traditional media, was left to sort out the meaning of the president’s statement on Twitter, raising the question as to whether the president was willing to go so far as to instigate war through his personal Twitter page. Regardless of his words’ effect, Trump’s only concern is ensuring his shareability. So long as he’s being talked about, he’s winning.

Another example of how Trump emphasizes popularity is through hyperbolic claims of his own successes and overly-dramatic accusations against his enemies. On November 26, 2017, Trump wrote:

Repeating similar messages frequently serves to reinforce Trump's messages: here, his distaste for political rivals and an emphasis on his own successfulness

Trump’s use of dramatic phrases like “phony” and “losing” to describe his opponents while simultaneously claiming to “have possible done more than any 10 month President” shows how Trump strives to maintain media dominance, never conceding weakness nor granting points. His tweets are also oftentimes accompanied with self-aggrandizing pictures and videos from his supporters, such as this scandalous tweet of him body-slamming someone with CNN’s logo superimposed on the person’s face. This tweet perfectly showcases Trump’s relationship with traditional and social media. His expression of disdain for traditional media is coupled with his bombastic, influential capabilities through social media, driving the discussion both on- and off-line for days following the incident before ignoring the tweet, its goal of media domination achieved.

Perhaps the most iconic of his tweets that highlight Trump’s ability to drive the media-sphere from his fingertips, the infamous “Covfefe” tweet was deleted within hours, yet in that short timespan became Trump’s third-most retweeted post of 2017 (15). The 6 words, not even a complete sentence, were posted by the President on May 31, 2017:

Trump's emphasis on constant, repetitive postings supersedes any level fact-checking, or even spelling.

Obviously another attack at his opponents in traditional media, the comical misspelling only further served Trump’s desire to spread his message, as evidenced by the massive levels of retweets the post received. Even when Trump makes a mistake, he succeeds in remaining highly shareable. This is why this tweet highlights Trump’s ability to succeed in the internet era: he is everywhere, even without trying.

Trump, the first Twitter-based President

Trump’s presence as the first Twitter-based Presidency is no fluke. His social media presence is intentional and strategic, his posts – while individually senseless – are collectively incredibly shareable. This is what matters in politics in the internet era, a candidate’s ability to enter the household through televisions, computers, cell phones, and more. While it is difficult to view Trump as successful in the political realms that traditionally have shaped the presidency, his continued success is owed largely to his ability to navigate the modern globalized world. However the rest of his presidency develops, at least one aspect will remain constant: Trump’s active online presence is not only definitive of his presidency but no doubt will shape and inspire all subsequent national elections for as long as social media can reign supreme.


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