Since announcing his run for president in 2015, Donald Trump has used social media, and Twitter in particular, to connect with voters and promote himself like no former American politician. Devin J. Christensen analyzed media coverage of over 2,500 Donald Trump’s tweets and found that those whose language was the most inflammatory were more likely to be highlighted. He warns that social media’s lack of editorial standards means that their current use as a primary medium of political communication threatens the future of American democracy.
As Election Day approaches, Republican and Democratic politicians are taking to social media to engage with voters they can’t meet in person. It seems like the obvious: Most Americans already have social media accounts, and they have come to expect politicians to maintain an active social media presence thanks to a precedent set by Donald Trump.
However, my fellow political scientists, John A. Curiel and John Lovett, and I are concerned about social media as a platform for official political communication. For example, on Twitter, @RealDonaldTrump regularly taunts, calls out names, postures, complains, makes fictitious announcements, and questions the validity of traditional reporting. This behavior has eroded confidence in the free press and threatens to undermine American democracy.
When we think of democracy, we don’t just think of elections. Democracy is a complex web of conflicting institutions that divide and balance power to ensure that no one person or group gains too much power. One such institution is the free press, which reports on the behavior of ruling leaders and enables citizens to hold elected officials accountable for that behavior at the ballot box.
Unfortunately, the role of the press in protecting democratic standards is complicated by market competition. Ratings are determined by the number of viewers, and the number of viewers is in turn determined by the ability of media producers to deliver information that Americans want to watch. And Americans want to watch fights. Combative or polarizing content, like Trumps tweets, is particularly appealing information: Right-wing broadcasters distribute these outrageous tweets to a Republican audience eager to agree with them, while left-wing broadcasters present the same messages to their Democratic viewers as proof of Trump. inability to work. This partisan dissemination of news content in turn leads to less political knowledge, increased polarization and decreased political engagement.
As a result, most of Trumps’ inflammatory posts receive the most media attention. We confirmed this result by downloading all 2,546 tweets from Trump during his first year in office and inspecting them for polarizing, disrespectful and misleading content. We then collected 46,066 full-text transcripts of all the major news released in the US during the same time period, as well as news-type infotainment programs like Favorite Trumps, Fox & Friends. Finally, we used statistical tools to compare the content of the broadcast transcripts to the Trumps tweets. We found that tweets with the most inflammatory language appeared in transcripts more often, in fuller form, and faster than less inflammatory posts.
Over the past four years, this hasty proliferation of Trump’s most damaging tweets has caused many to lose faith in mainstream media reporting. In 2017, George W. Bush pointed out that the media are essential to democracy. Now, just three years later, the Republican National Convention has rallied to Trump’s rhetoric and even passed a platform resolution questioning the validity of American reporting.
“President Trump delivers remarks” by The White House is in the public domain.
This loss of confidence in the free press has sparked a shift in Twitter, where citizens increasingly rely on social media as their primary source of information. However, these platforms lack the editorial standards that form the basis of the role of traditional news media in protecting democracy. Twitter and Facebook have patently inconsistent censorship practices. Elected officials are blocking followers in order to remove critical comments, a violation of First Amendment rights. And social media platforms are more vulnerable to disinformation and foreign interference. For these reasons, the adoption of social media as the primary medium of political communication threatens the future of American democracy.
What can we do with the Twitter shift? We could insist that the media stop delivering harmful messages on social media, but unless consumer tastes change, for-profit media companies have no incentive to change their ways. Another option would be to educate citizens about the risks of relying on social media as a source of political information. Unfortunately, Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the mainstream media have been so successful that many citizens will only see these claims as fake news.
Social media is here to stay, so our best bet is to think about ways to make social media a more reliable source of information. We can start by correcting what we already know is wrong with platforms like Twitter and Facebook by spreading awareness of community standards, applying them consistently across all accounts, and publishing crackdowns on fake accounts and foreign influence. If we were to hear politicians on Twitter, we can at least demand that their statements meet a minimum standard of civility and sincerity. The future health of the American democratic experience may depend on it.
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This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.
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About the Author
Devin J. Christensen – University of North CarolinaDevin J. Christensen has a PhD. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of North Carolina.
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