written for Channel News Asia in October 2020 , with inputs and primary research results provided by Dr. Saifuddin Ahmed
How would you describe President Trump’s use of social media, has it done more harm than good?
Social media is the core communication tool for Trump and the Trump White House. In fact, even since Trump’s campaign days, social media platforms like Twitter gave him the chance to mobilize a support base. If not for Twitter, it might have been more challenging for an outsider, someone with no prior political experience like Donald Trump, to come across as viable for the political post. And as President, he has certainly changed the paradigm for how political heads of state engage with citizens. He’s known for tweeting late into the night, and sometimes dozens of times a day. By being so active on the platform and continuously updating the world about his political life, he has created an intimate democratic mode of political dissemination. So that helps him gather support for himself and the Republican party. So at the surface level, when we look at the model of political engagement that President Trump has been able to achieve, then things are positive. He is one of the most active world leaders on social media.
But, with his great power has come some fallibility. He is also extremely active in posting misleading statements which are not always to do with politics. For example, he suggested that drinking bleach might cure covid-19, after which there was actually a death reported in the US after a teenager ingested bleach. He’s known for attacking his political oppositions, and hurling accusations, which are not necessarily true. This unconventional political style has shaken people’s faith in public institutions such as the government, the judiciary, and the news. It’s harmed the general quality of political discussions between the left and the right in the US. It might have further polarized American society.
President Trump continues to threaten social media companies as he called again for the repeal of Section 230, the part of US law that allows tech platforms moderate their own content, what’s your outlook on the President’s relations with these tech platforms?
Trump’s accusation is that when tech platforms moderate their own content, they benefit the left, and ban or hide posts from the right. So if section 230 is repealed social media platforms would lose control over moderating content on their platforms and would be legally liable for anything that is posted. The recommended directive from the White House is that they should also disclose how they moderate social media posts, which can be challenged in court. But it is ironic that Trump is blaming social media for spreading left agenda and fake news while Trump and his team are one of the most prolific users of social media to spread misinformation, with no shred of accountability. In fact, his threats to repeal Section 230 were repeated when social media companies labelled his tweets about “looting and shooting” and “mail in ballots” with a fact check warning.
I think the fear is that social media platforms can control his mouthpiece to the public. In fact, its his social media posts that also drive the news media agenda. Unfortunately, he does have control over the news cycle.
We’ve seen it before that politicians used the latest technology to craft their images – President Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” on the radio and President John Kennedy’s news conferences on television, with President Trump – it will be Twitter where he sent criticism to political rivals, announce policy measures, and he took it to a whole another level as he also used it for international diplomacy, what’s your take on this?
Trump’s 2am tweets and covfefe have made international news for the wrong reasons. Twitter diplomacy is used because of increased accessibility and outreach, so heads of state can appear more approachable to the citizens, and to project a soft power. So they can use it to make informal announcements, and show cultural and diplomatic communiques which can be lost in translation through press releases. But this also means that a lot more hinges on social media platforms and their security settings. A lost password can mean war. So this also means that foreign relations are a bit more fragile at the moment. World leaders can declare their positions without consulting or merely ignoring their political advisors. We saw this in 2018 when President Trump announced that the US would withdraw troops from Syria, which contradicted the expert view during that time.
Do you have any concerns with social media as a platform for official political communication? Does it affect trust in the free press and damage American democracy?
A number of studies show erosion of political and media trust in most countries, including the US. Some explanations suggest the complexity of political systems and growing economic uncertainty. However, the transmission of political reality via social media has consequences. Social media is a primary source of political information and knowledge for a significant part of the population in the US and elsewhere. This can be problematic, depending on how do you consume your news. Which sources do we subscribe to? And even if we are not subscribed to delegitimate sources, misinformation or disinformation can pop on our feed. In one of my recent studies based on the US population, the likelihood of being exposed to fake news and deepfakes is higher for those who use social media as a primary source of political communication. Consequently, being frequently exposed to fake news is found to be associated with lower levels of political and media trust. Again, my study shows that being exposed to deepfakes on social media and accidentally sharing them are associated with a higher level of social media news skepticism. So yes, while we do have some democratic benefits of social media, we are also witnessing its role in the erosion of democracy.