Starting Friday, we'll officially have our first social media president.
Sure, Barack Obama's ascendancy aligned with the rise of social networks. He broke onto the national political scene in 2004 with a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, the same year Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in a Harvard dorm room. But while Obama's victory in 2008 was partly due to his campaign's ahead-of-its-time grasp of Facebook and Twitter, those were still just technologies in their infancy and not part of everyday life as they are now.
Today, social media has remade both the way we communicate and the way we get news. So it's no surprise our next president, Donald Trump, devours Twitter. In 140-character bursts, he carved up his election opponents, growled at the media, and tweeted himself to the White House. On Friday, he'll be sworn in, and so begins the era of @realDonaldTrump.
And in case you're wondering whether the demands of being leader of the free world might keep him from tweeting, it won't. Trump said earlier this week he'll keep his personal Twitter handle, instead of moving over to @POTUS, which Obama's team set up to come with the office. (He'll still inherit @POTUS, though that account will likely be for more official announcements and perhaps be run by aides.)
Trump said he's got more followers than that account anyway (nearly twice as many, actually) and despite record low approval ratings and thousands of people planning to protest his inauguration, he believes Twitter's a better way to communicate than by going through the traditional news media.
He's used Twitter to lash out at "over-rated" actress Meryl Streep, "all talk" Democratic congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, and "fake news" purveyor CNN. He's badmouthed US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russia and likened leaks to the media to Nazi Germany. And that's just in the last two weeks.
"The volume and sentiment, whether positive or negative, never seems to let up. He sold himself as someone who wasn't a run-of-the-mill politician, and he's still using social media to reinforce this point," said Kellan Terry, a data analyst for Brandwatch, which has tallied more than 285 million social media-related mentions of Trump since his presidential quest began in June 2015. "There doesn't appear to be any end in sight."
What's interesting is that Trump himself said he doesn't particularly enjoy all this online effort but feels he has to. "The tweeting, I thought I'd do less of it, but I'm covered so dishonestly by the press," he told The Sunday Times this week. With Twitter, he can broadcast his points rapid fire. "I can go bing bing bing... and they put it on [as breaking news]."
As surprising as Trump's rise was, it's not without precedent. There is a long lineage of American presidents who took advantage of changing technological tides to advance their agendas.
On December 6, 1923, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to give an address on the radio. But it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office 10 years later, who became known as the radio president, with his famous fireside chats.
John F. Kennedy, with his youthful and polished demeanor, used television to connect with Americans. But it was Ronald Reagan who rode TV appearances during his presidency in the 1980s to become known as "The Great Communicator." President Obama attempted to take that a step further by hiring a team to help send out his message on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube.
With more than 20 million followers signed up on Twitter to watch his every social media move, Trump has acknowledged the unprecedented role the new medium played in his campaign and his upset victory over the heavily favored Democrat, Hillary Clinton.
But Trump has taken it to another level, calling social media a "tremendous modern form of communication" that allows him to control his message. Social media analysts said Trump embraced the medium and routinely generated more comments than his less combative opponents.
What that will ultimately mean for Trump and all of us is the 20 million follower question.
If he's not careful, it could lead to a crisis, said Geoffrey Nunberg, a UC Berkeley professor who teaches a class on the history of information. "Up until now, his power has only been potential."
Some people hope Trump will be more careful using Twitter after assuming office, especially regarding foreign policy.
"While it may be interesting and fun for some to see him use Twitter to fight his political battles here in the US, other leaders around the world might not be as forgiving," said Joe Tuman, a political expert and communication studies professor at San Francisco State University. His advice: "Either take his damn smartphone away from him or have someone edit his tweets."
How far will Trump's social media fascination go? Syracuse University professor Roy Gutterman, an expert on media laws and free speech, thinks Trump may one day use Twitter instead of having daily media briefings and potentially contentious press conferences. Trump's representatives didn't immediately respond for comment.
Still, heavy policy issues may ultimately need to be hashed out in more than 140 characters.
"I really don't see it as a way to engage in real policy discussions," Gutterman said. "The real nuts and bolts requires more substance."
But Twitter will likely be one of the most defining aspects of Trump's presidency.
"He's either going to live by the tweet or die by the tweet," Gutterman said. "It's got him this far."
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