Donald Trump uses Twitter as a weapon. His tweets continue to shake the political, diplomatic and business worlds almost daily, derailing policies and sending stocks into a spin. His habit of tweeting early in the day even made it to the Oscar stage this year, though not in the most flattering of contexts.
Twitter itself has been a big beneficiary, since it's hard to dismiss a medium that can undermine international alliances as "frivolous.” Not long ago, some political professionals debated the value of investing in Twitter at all. As a messaging environment, it's a scrum: with so many voices competing for attention, political communicators can have a hard time breaking through the static and the clutter. Though Twitter was good for interacting with journalists, many thought it yielded too few practical benefits to be worth the time. But now that we live in Trump's communications world, Twitter is back on the political menu, bigly.
Trump is Redefining Twitter Activism
For Trump, Twitter is a direct channel to the public mind. In 140 characters or less, he can bypass reporters and send his raw thoughts directly to millions of followers, without getting out of bed or, if you believe Jimmy Kimmel, leaving the bathroom. Whether he's indulging a grudge, making a policy declaration or simply sowing confusion, he's shaping the political discussion — and he knows it.
Notably, Trump breaks what is usually described as a fundamental rule of Twitter: he rarely engages or interacts. Except for the occasional retweet or brief Twitter-feud, his feed is mostly self-contained. While his tweets make news, he rarely responds to others on Twitter, and he may not look at other people's feeds much at all. This pattern reflects a larger preference, since Trump doesn’t appear to consult a broad range of perspectives before he makes decisions.
But he does watch cable news — along with his family and a handful of close advisors, TV seems to dominate his information diet. In fact, his tweetstorms often follow segments on Fox News or CNN. Meanwhile, though he may not be scanning Twitter to find new voices, others are — including reporters. Embedded tweets are now common in news stories about the Trump administration, and not just from him: surrogates, observers and opponents often make the cut.
This creates an opening. Trump may not see a tweet from Planned Parenthood or the ACLU on his phone, but it may break through the bubble if it makes the jump to the New York Times, Fox News or CNN. Even if he never sees it, the right tweet at the right time will still reach far more eyes than it might have under a president with different communications habits.
What Should Activists & Advocates Do?
Be active. You’re can’t score if you’re not on the field.
Be noticeable. Your goal isn't to change Trump via Twitter, it's to influence the public discussion on TV news, in online news outlets and on social media itself. Sometimes humor will break through; other times sheer outrage will do the trick. Whenever possible, make policy consequences personal and concrete. Overall, milquetoast won't cut it.
Make sure influencers know what you're doing. It's a lot easier for reporters to see what you're up to if you tell them about it. Long-term connections and a track record of good content will help open the door.
Boost your signal. Getting noticed is easier if other people amplify your tweets. Let your allies know when you have good content, and enlist your grassroots supporters — I'm amazing that so few organizations create a super-volunteer Twitter posse of their own.
Stay true to yourself and your mission. Don't overreach! Trump may thrive on outrage, but crawling into social media's equivalent of the gutter will only undermine most of the rest of us. Unless your own online identity is built around pushing boundaries, keep your punches above the belt.
Following in Trump's footsteps. What about Trump's allure for other politicians? Could a state legislator from the sticks ride Twitter to Congress and beyond?
Possibly, but it won't be common. Trump is not a normal candidate. He comes from celebrity-land, a place where outrageous publicity stunts are a proud tradition. For people like Trump, bad press is better than no press at all — what matters is that they are the story, not their rivals. Trump's background somehow shields him from the full repercussions of his words — for now. But normal politicians won't be protected by a Trumpian aura, and their tweets can and will derail careers.
Reality can catch up with celebrity politicians, too. Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the California governor's office with a deep pool of goodwill. He left it with an approval rating of 23 percent. And his return to entertainment wasn’t pretty either. My suspicion is that the power of Trump's tweets will last exactly as long as his own credibility. Whether those tweets actually undermine that credibility is a question for time to answer.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org