RA Posts Summer 2019

Trump’s twitter sleight of hand, something other leaders should take note of?

By Conor Scanlon
July 23rd, 2019

In the spirit of reading through blog posts and op-eds as my primary assignment this summer, I thought I would write a blog post this week in a similar style to those that I read throughout the day.

As social media encapsulates a larger portion of people’s lives today, politicians have found ways to enhance the strength of their agenda using this platform. President Trump is perhaps the most prominent of these figures; not just because he is the president of the United States, but also because his use of twitter to promote his agenda and respond to critics is unmatched by those in similar positions of power.

Social media has power to place people directly in the spotlight and engage directly with criticism. Traditionally when a scandal has a hit a politician, a consolidated effort from their press team will often try to minimize the noise surrounding it. President Trump has embraced the polar opposite, often responding to specific media criticism and sharing his feelings on current events as they happen.

Another power social media has is the power to distract. Given the immediacy that technology brings to communication and news, what wins our attention will often be the most outrageous, shocking or noteworthy thing that we come across. In some cases, this will involve overlooking the more important policy changes in favor of responding to rhetoric.

A good example of this was seen with President Trump and his tweets regarding “The Squad” (congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib), specifically regarding the phrase “go back to where you came from”. This tweet attracted a large amount of attention not only on social media platforms, but news outlets also wrote articles and dedicated airtime to the topic, and congress held a vote to condemn the tweet. 

However, while all of this was happening, President Trump placed considerable restrictions on those seeking asylum in the United States. While this is certainly a huge development from a policy perspective regarding the crisis at the southern border, this story took a back seat to President Trump’s tweets towards “The Squad”.

My take on independent political analyst and commentator Tim Pool’s video suggests that President Trump has a general strategy via Twitter in which he can distract and influence the public to focus on specific issues while perhaps more controversial policy decisions are made with much less public and media scrutiny.

This isn’t the first time President Trump has been accused of doing this sort of thing. Mashable has put together an article that highlights the many controversial policy changes President Trump has made during the first year of his presidency, and also listed the social media frenzy that was surrounding an unrelated action or tweet. The continued use of twitter to create a reaction could certainly be attributed to Trump’s business personality; always looking to stay relevant and have a hand in things. It could also be said that Trump has a strong grasp of the power of social media, and has successfully used it to control narratives in the media during his presidency. It should also be noted that majority of scholars do not think that President Trump’s unpredictable rhetoric and behavior have been an effective negotiation tactic with over 81% of scholars disagreeing that the strategy has been effective.

Going forward, social media will only continue to impact our lives. As politicians born into a world with technology (think millennials and generation z) start to take office in the future, their comfort with social media will result in greater usage. However, with increased usage comes the desire to stay relevant in times in which headlines will come at a million miles a second. It will be important to recognize that while the rhetoric will likely get more and more extreme (as many have suggested since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign over three years ago now), but that shouldn’t take away our focus on the policy changes and the actions that truly matter.

Conor Scanlon is a recent graduate of the St. Andrews/William & Mary Joint Degree Program, majoring in International Relations with a specialization in Security and Sub-Saharan Africa. In his free time, Conor enjoys playing the violin and soccer, which were two integral parts of his university experience both at William & Mary and St. Andrews.