By Jessica Suriano
President Donald Trump is rewriting the book on how presidents engage with the American people. Twitter, has replaced the White House Press Corps, and experts can’t agree if Trump’s social media obsession advances or impedes the creation of important conversations.
Jane Calderwood, director of congressional programs at the National Institute for Civil Discourse, said Trump’s personal Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, has sparked intense debate for sometimes being inflammatory.
“There seems to be a weird fascination with what he’ll say next,” Calderwood said.
Calderwood said she believes Trump’s personal Twitter account has not helped him expand the conversation of his policy, in part because Twitter’s allotment of 140 characters per tweet makes it near impossible to explain complicated policy positions.
She said while most elected officials often use Twitter to update the public on what they have been up to in the political sphere or to congratulate other officials or members of society, Trump “attacks people with Twitter” and his Twitter is “pretty in your face.”
Executive Director of the NICD Carolyn Lukensmeyer said for democracies to work, there needs to be discussions about key policy issues and budget allocations. When candidates are trying to win the public’s vote, Lukensmeyer said, they often adopt a pattern of speech that is coined their “political rhetoric.”
“It’s widely understood that Donald Trump’s background is in the world of real estate development,” Lukensmeyer said. “So his earlier positions of leadership did not expose him or give him experience into the world of communication between a political elected official and the constituents which he or she is serving.”
She said because of this, Trump uses rhetoric that the American public are not accustomed to in regards to political speech. Lukensmeyer also said Twitter’s character limit and Trump’s choice to communicate ideas about complex policies with the nation via social media has changed the nature of political speech dramatically.
From his perspective, this method of communication gives Trump the benefit of engaging directly with his followers who are already committed to similar beliefs and ideas as him, and allows him to motivate and energize them, according to Lukensmeyer.
Bin Zhang, assistant professor in management information services, researches interests in social network analysis. He said in his opinion, Twitter can be a convenient way to communicate with the public because of its timeliness, but can become controversial if the delegation between the official President of the United States account, @POTUS, and Trump’s personal Twitter is not clear-cut.
“In general, because of his rhetoric, many of his comments create a kind of debate or controversy, but at the same time create more opportunities as well, because it does attract people who share similar standpoint or political views,” Zhang said.
He said it’s possible that Trump’s rhetoric may trigger other people to use similar rhetoric. Zhang said this trend is called “peer influence” in sociology and social networking. It means a group of friends will quite often share similar behaviors, decisions or attitudes. The trend can also be called “conformity in behavior,” according to Zhang.
In the case of Twitter, Zhang said, although Trump’s followers who share similar opinions may not actually be friends, they are still neighbors in the social network context. Zhang has conducted “sentiment analysis” of content creators on Twitter, and found that people in the same “friend” networks tend to have the same sentiment toward messages being communicated online.
“The sentiment of Trump with regard to an international event, for example, can influence his followers, and consequently his followers will have the same sentiment,” Zhang said.
Sudha Ram is a professor of management information systems and is also the director for INSITE: Center for Business Intelligence and Analytics. She said she doesn’t see the influence of social media on public conversation decreasing any time soon.
“Social media is here to stay,” Ram said. “It’s a huge marketing tool; it’s a huge communication tool. Pretty much every celebrity uses it. Pretty much every company uses it. There are lots of opportunities for open communication through Twitter.”
Lukensmeyer said the NICD receives hundreds of emails and messages from members of the public who are distressed about the divide and polarization that has grown among the electorate in regards to political conversation. For example, she said there are concerns in some messages about voters of one candidate or the other who still demonize and vilify each other.
While obstacles in public engagement are still present, Lukensmeyer said the country seems to be growing an attitude of wanting to improve discourse and to conduct productive conversations rather than shallow ones.
“There’s a hunger in the country for people to have the ability – in a community, in a neighborhood, in a congregation – to actually be able to carry a different position on an issue like climate change or like immigration,” Lukensmeyer said, “but have a capacity to talk about those differences while still being fully respectful with each other as human beings.”
She said the NICD is doing a lot of constructive work around the country to help people understand why others might hold views different from their own. Teaching a person to listen to another long enough to grasp the entire picture of his or her viewpoint, rather than immediately try to change his or her mind, is an important facet of this work.
Calderwood said the best ways to have worthwhile conversations with public officials are to be clear and up front about concerns and to follow up with letters and one-on-one meetings.
“It’s OK to not agree with them, but they owe you an answer,” Calderwood said.
She also said the way people conduct themselves to encourage change on behalf of the public’s concerns plays an important role in how seriously officials might consider them.
“Yelling, screaming and throwing things isn’t going to give you an answer,” Calderwood said.