Franklin D. Roosevelt was famous for his “fireside chats” — evening radio addresses that helped sell the policies of the New Deal and, later, the events of World War II. His successor, Harry S Truman, became the first president to address the nation through a television broadcast, announcing the end of America’s occupation of Japan.
Today, President-elect Donald J. Trump fires off 3 a.m. tweets that drive the day’s news, draw comments from world leaders and echo among his 20 million followers. During the campaign, Trump used Twitter as his mouthpiece, inciting his opponents and amplifying the narrative he wanted his base to hear.
Trump won’t be the first social media president. Barack Obama was an early adopter, joining Twitter in 2007, just a year after the company was founded. In the 2008 election, he dominated his opponent on social media, with 112,000 Twitter followers to Sen. John McCain’s 4,600. The Obama campaign even had its own social network, My.BarackObama.com, unfortunately nicknamed “MyBO.”
By the 2012 election, his campaign had a presence on nearly every social network, including Pinterest and Foursquare. As president, he went live on Facebook from the Oval Office, answered questions on YouTube and Reddit, and debuted a custom Snapchat filter for the State of the Union.
But like Ronald Reagan — who perfected what Roosevelt and Truman started, having become a master of radio and television thanks to his years in Hollywood — Trump appears eager to show his predecessor how it’s done. He intends to leverage Twitter not just as another broadcast channel but as a key part of his administration’s strategy.
This raises the question of whether President Trump will actually want to take on
@POTUS, the official Twitter account of the president. Early in his second term, Obama created @POTUS as a separate entity from his personal account, which currently is run by Organizing for Action. Since it was launched in 2013, @POTUS has sent 345 tweets and accumulated nearly 14 million followers — quite a few less than @RealDonaldTrump’s 20 million followers and 34,000 tweets.
— President Obama (@POTUS) May 18, 2015
Back in October, the White House released its digital transition plan, outlining how the changeover will unfold. On January 20, all of the content on the president’s official social media accounts will be archived by the National Archives and Records Administration. For Twitter, usernames will be appended with “44” and archived (e.g., @POTUS44 and @VP44). For Instagram and Facebook, archived information will be accessible through instagram.com/obamawhitehouse and facebook.com/obamawhitehouse. A similar approach will be used on other platforms like Tumblr, YouTube and Medium. Like presidential records from the analog era, the preserved information will be available to the public.
But Obama won’t have to start from scratch in his digital life after the White House. @BarackObama, the unofficial account from his campaign, has more than 80 million followers. This massive following shouldn’t be a surprise. Obama has been through two very expensive presidential campaigns, and has eight years under his belt as leader of the Free World (of course, he’s still 15 million short of Katy Perry).
Officially, the president-elect has said he won’t be using @POTUS — presumably since he has more followers and it would be a bad deal. But, President Obama also had more followers when he took office. Surely, he had some good reasons to separate the two?
At first glance, this separation parallels the legislative branch’s approach to social media use, but with fewer restrictions in practice. In the House of Representatives, for instance, members are subject to a number of restrictions on official account usage and often have a separate personal account. These include a prohibition on grassroots lobbying, and bans on campaign fundraising or endorsements of particular firms or products (sorry, L.L. Bean). In short, there’s a wall between campaign or business activity and the official duties of their office.
While the president is exempt from many constraints normally applied to the political activities of executive branch employees (such as under the Hatch Act), members of his official staff are not. As long as Trump does all of his own tweets, this may be OK (aside from the security issues). But if he wanted to use any official resources to run his account, it could create problems. Complications could ensue if he blended White House resources with those of his re-election campaign or business activities.
Even if he uses a personal account, all his Twitter activity (including deleted tweets, favorites, mentions and DMs) would likely be considered “presidential records” under the Presidential Records Act, subject to archiving and publication after his term in office. Additionally, his DMs may get caught up in the Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014’s restrictions on non-official electronic messaging accounts. Of course, we’re dealing with new territory, and the president has considerable discretion in the enforcement and interpretation of these rules. Nonetheless, one can see why Obama wanted to avoid the unnecessary headaches.
Whatever account name he uses, Trump’s use of Twitter will continue to be at the center of his administration. Rather than being an anomaly, Trump is paving the way for other public officials to embrace the social media age and use platforms to better engage with their constituents. Trump uses social media as it was meant to be used, to engage in a conversation and interact with his base directly. In this brave new world, it may take some experimentation to get the balance right and figure out what restrictions to impose across different levels of government.
Meanwhile, it should not take Trump long to surpass Obama’s spot as the biggest public official on social media. Like him or not, there’s no denying that he’s making Twitter great again.