When President Donald Trump won the 2016 election, I, like many Americans, had hoped he would curb his impulsive and reckless Twitter usage.
As I struggled to absorb my shock about his victory, I awoke two days after Election Day to news of him complaining about protesters and attacking news outlets for unfair coverage — all via 140-character blurbs on Twitter.
Trump isn’t the only politician to recklessly take to the platform. Recently, Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted his disagreement with a policy put forth by his own administration: a ban on wall-sitting in Rittenhouse Square. His tweets left some Philadelphians confused about the status of the policy.
Political leaders should use discretion on Twitter to avoid passing judgment on their constituents or promoting unclear policy. It’s hard for citizens to stay correctly informed when politicians are tweeting opinions rather than making public statements.
“You can do things in the moment,” said David Brown, a visiting strategic communication professor. “That’s both the blessing and the curse, because the curse side is that you do things in the moment [and] sometimes you don’t give yourself some opportunity to think about it before you tweet.”
In Kenney’s case, his tweets were amiable, with a dash of self-deprecation. The ban in Rittenhouse Square was designed to keep people from sitting on the walls surrounding the fountain, due to an increase in vandalism in recent months. The mayor thought the policy was an overreach. He tweeted, “At times things just get by you. Sit where you want.”
But tweeting his disagreement with the policy is where Kenney went wrong.
Instead, the mayor should have expressed sympathy for citizens’ negative feelings toward the policy. Better yet, the city could have released an official statement revoking the wall-sitting ban. But this isn’t the strategy Kenney used. At the time of his tweet, the ban was still in effect, which became confusing for both the public and the police who enforce city laws.
Mitchell Sellers, an assistant political science professor, said because the policy came from Kenney’s administration, his contradictory tweet caused confusion.
“Especially in this case when people weren’t particularly happy about the rule to begin with, whenever the mayor comes out and says, ‘Well I don’t actually support this policy,’ then that shows that there’s some sort of conflict between people inside the government,” Sellers said. “So it’s not the best face to put on your administration.”
Similar dangers of contradiction and confusion are present when the president uses Twitter. On Jan. 22, Trump took to social media to express his displeasure about the Women’s March protests, which took place across the country the day after Trump’s inauguration. In response, he tweeted, “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?” Later that day, he tweeted his acceptance of peaceful protests as a “hallmark of our democracy.”
His feelings, often expressed through Twitter, are contradictory. All presidents have had an elevated platform on which they can speak about issues. But it seems to me that there has never been a chief executive who has abused it in such a flippant way, and so often.
Todd Brewster, a visiting journalism professor, said Trump uses Twitter to shape the messages delivered to the public.
“I think that he is able to respond, and one of the rules of politics is that you don’t let a negative image or a negative story sit out there for too long, that you counter it right away,” Brewster said. “And Trump is fearless about countering any story that is contrary to what he sees of himself.”
With politicians looking to craft specific messages for the public via Twitter, citizens need to be more diligent about the information they gather online. Unfortunately, you may not be able to take what public figures say on social media at face value.
But ultimately, it is also politicians’ responsibility to be clear and accurate with their constituencies, especially on social media. And to be safe, public officials should consider allowing communications specialists to manage their social media profiles. This would allow for a good balance between being authentic and accurate on social media.
“It’s not the technology, it’s how you use it,” Brewster said.
Public officials must recognize the power of Twitter in helping to shape their messages, but they should tweet with discretion and the guidance of public relations experts. Until public officials overcome this social media learning curve, the people need to do their part, too.
Zach Kocis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.