Skip to main content
The Twitter account of Rogue NASA is seen replying to a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump in a photo illustration in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 26, 2017
TechTank

How the president’s Twitter account affects civil society

Nicol Turner-Lee

The statement “Let’s Make America Great Again, Together” is prominent on the home page of WhiteHouse.gov. While the proverbial online language suggests collaboration, the nearest reference to community under the Trump administration directs visitors to a page focused on strengthening the nation’s law enforcement.

Policy platforms do change with any presidential transition as the incoming administration advances its own agenda. Yet in the short time since President Trump has taken office, factions of civil society—the array of non-governmental organizations that have a presence in public life—have engaged in daily protests against a range of enacted and anticipated legislative and regulatory rollbacks. And the digital infrastructure that was designed to bridge civil society and government has been seemingly reduced to a unilateral platform for mass communication. Absent of two-way communication, current acts of civil disobedience will continue among segments of civil society that feel alienated from government.

The Internet as a Bridge to Civil Society

Whatever the era, presidential leadership has recognized the importance of engaging civil society in its entirety. In 1947, Harry S. Truman was the first president to address the NAACP, the nation’s leading civil rights organization. Less than 10 days after taking office, George W. Bush gathered religious leaders to launch his conservative faith-based initiative.

During the Obama presidency, from the campaign trail to the White House, the internet transformed mass communication between government and citizens. As the first “social media president,” Barack Obama sent his inaugural tweet as @POTUS in 2015 that was soon followed by Twitter engagements from the First Lady of the United States, @FLOTUS and other key staff. Obama was also the first leader to go live on Facebook, use a filter on Snapchat, deliver his weekly national address on You Tube, and share photos on Instagram.

The Trump administration inherited all of the White House’s technology assets, including official social media handles, as part of the digital transition. The administration also inherited a revamped WhiteHouse.gov, which now includes a blog feature, RSS feed, and email list. Former White House staffers transferred to the current administration the We the People platform where 12 million verified users have created 470,000 petitions to the government since 2011.

To create a space for the current administration, the digital footprint of the Obama administration was erased from WhiteHouse.gov, with existing content transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration that maintains all presidential communications under the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

Hundreds of pages of online content representing the diverse constituencies, communities, and organizations active under Obama disappeared from WhiteHouse.gov within hours after the inauguration. The Spanish-language translation feature on WhiteHouse.gov was disabled, making the online site only accessible in English (the handle @LaCasaBlanca was recently activated on Twitter). And as expected, swaths of policy issues addressed during the last eight years were removed, most notably those referencing civil rights, environmental justice, community policing, criminal justice reform, wage inequality for women, STEM, and initiatives on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), African American males and LGBTQ issues.

While the We the People platform remains active, the current web site provides little to no description of who constitutes civil society under Trump and demonstrates even less engagement with civil society groups in his official capacity (unless one considers his post-election thank you tour). Moreover, President Trump’s daily online activity has alienated, rather than included citizens – especially those in disagreement with both his policies and opinions.

The Dangers of the Twitter Megaphone

Similar to his predecessor, President Trump is not a novice to social media. In 2009, he joined Twitter as the @realDonaldTrump with a following that has grown from 3 million to nearly 25 million supporters at last count. Trump’s popular Twitter account has generated nearly the same number of tweets as @WhiteHouse under Obama (nearly 34,000).

Trump’s use of technology, however, has baffled other domestic and global leaders, the media, and the public. In the capacity of president, his Twitter communications have berated international allies – most recently Australia and Mexico. He’s taken to Twitter to threaten a city government and public institution. In what could be considered clear abuse of power, Trump’s tweets have endorsed companies such as L.L. Bean and expressed annoyance with Nordstrom over discontinuing his daughter’s clothing line.

The list continues. Federal Judge James Robart was the latest target of the president’s egregious online rants when he was depicted as a “so-called judge” after Robart issued a temporary restraining order for Trump’s travel ban.

These and other exhaustive “twitter moments” have become daily barrages of personal messages on the president’s potentially unsecured mobile device. All of these online engagements have positioned social media as the president’s megaphone to amplify personal grievances against those that dare to deviate from the administration’s priorities.

Even federal agencies have not been immune from this new normal approach to mass communication. Despite the Obama administration removing the block on federal agencies to use social media in an official capacity in 2009, the current White House has reprimanded and in some instances, censored federal agencies that deviate from the policies and personalities of its leadership. The National Park Service was directed to delete debatable tweets that referenced the size of Trump’s inaugural crowds, shortly before the U.S. Department of Interior temporarily disabled the agency’s account. The Environmental Protection Agency was instructed to curb their social media exposure by not posting new information and deleting all climate change references from its current web site.

U.S.–Civil Society relationships: What Trump Can Learn from Past Leaders

The storms of online impulsivity along with the reported actions to censor public agencies not only call into question the administration’s temperament toward opponents, but also its tolerance for the actors and agendas of those who broadly constitute civil society. The president is the leader of everyone, regardless of who voted for him.

Past presidents have had to engage all aspects of civil society, especially during the nation’s most difficult times. Post-Watergate and in response to his perceived poor record on civil rights, Gerald Ford brought his views on domestic policy to African American organizations, such as the National Baptist Convention and at White House sponsored forums. In 1997, Bill Clinton was compelled to convene a new race initiative to discuss and potentially settle grievances around racial discrimination. After 9-11, George Bush sat down with Muslim citizens and in one speech at the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. reminded them that “[w]e are a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth.”

In his final year in office, Barack Obama invited leaders of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to the White House to address criminal justice reform in the wake of police brutality. BLM activist Deray McKesson tweeted about that meeting from inside the executive office.

In the next four years, President Trump should glean from his predecessors that citizens and their organizations are not just spectators to government. In doing so, he might become less of an online demagogue and more of a peacemaker (or at best, a negotiator) that is willing to confront civil society concerns. He might also retreat from censoring federal agencies from keeping the public informed about their programs and services. Instead of restricting communication, the administration should establish a principled and responsible framework for an agency’s use of social media, especially with the emergence of rogue and parodied Twitter accounts posing as government entities.

More importantly, the president’s should be reminded that his online legacy will not be erased. All of his online communications—even those from his personal account are auto-archived and curated under the Presidential Records Act (even those manually deleted tweets).

In the end, modern era technologies can strengthen connections within democracy and given the president’s expertise with new media, the administration may want to leverage the medium to build more bridges than walls to civil society.

The author would like to acknowledge the research and editing help that Jack Karsten and Cathy Howell provided for this post.

Get daily updates from Brookings