Since Twitter began in 2006, it has been used by politicians to issue statements, opinions and aim low blows at opponents. Much has been written about the fact that the platform creates a direct line of communication between elected politicians and the people they represent so it really is a no-brainer for national leaders to be active on the network. Yet the pitfalls they face in putting themselves out there on such a public platform are abound so is the risk worth the while?
Right now arguably no one else in politics exercises the Twittersphere as much as President-elect Donald Trump. This week his tweets have stirred up controversy for at least two different reasons (that I have time to go into in this blog). Firstly, news agencies in China have criticised Trump for his “obsession with ‘Twitter diplomacy'” following a slew of more or less overtly hostile online outbursts about the world’s second largest national economy both before and since the election in November.
The second Trump tweet that caused a stir was paraded in the Senate from a politician on the other side of the American political spectrum, Bernie Sanders. As senators began to debate whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Sanders made a point of reminding them of a tweet from Trump which seemed to support no cuts to the ‘Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid’.
Obviously opinions change over time but Twitter can act as a historic timeline of a politician’s thoughts or policies at a certain time; one that could come back to haunt them at their trickiest of times in the future.
Of course Trump takes a different approach from most other politicians when it comes to message control on Twitter. Perhaps not surprisingly given their unpredictable content, his incoming press secretary has revealed that his staff aren’t warned or consulted before each tweet goes out.
Perhaps this will change when he takes office – even if only to protect the dignity of the presidency from common grammar errors and ‘wee hour’ tweeting sprees. That said, Trump has vowed to continue tweeting in a personal capacity throughout his presidency, so perhaps we should try to get used to the phenomenon for a while longer.
There aren’t many leaders who exercise such freedom from the mediating influence of professional aides on social media. Some, like our own First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, have managed to cultivate an authentic personal voice on Twitter that, in truth is almost certainly a useful amalgamation of what she has to say on the spur of the moment and what her closest aides advise her to say for policy reasons.
Even if she did feel like sitting up in the small hours trolling political opponents, she’d get short shrift from followers who have rightly come to expect an altogether cannier, more measured and humane social media offering.
Sadly, for some reason, the same can’t be said of Mr Trump’s presence on Twitter which, during the election at least, certainly didn’t seem to do his reputation among would-be voters any lasting harm. However, things may change.
Twitter doesn’t have an edit button and when you send a tweet out to your 18.7 million followers there’s always a chance someone will screenshot it before you have a chance to delete a mistake or a misguided comment, or spelling mistake. Trump isn’t alone in posting out tweets that he may later regret, however when he takes to office and finds that online mistakes translate into genuine political problems that work against the agenda that voters elected him on, he might find those same voters less forgiving next time they reach the ballot box.
Euan Stirling is a Social Media Executive at Indigo