Barack Obama might claim he was the first president to win an election where social media played a major role. Yes, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were established parts of American society back in 2004, but there is a fundamental difference between social media commentary and social media as a vehicle for political gains.
Today, it’s clear we’ve lived through the transformation of a once-innocent Internet institution into politicians using social media as a campaign device.
Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is a popular credo in journalistic circles, but the differences in Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and Trump’s in 2016 challenge McLuhan’s claim because the two presidential candidates used social media in completely different ways, and so do their voters.
A difference in policy
Much has been written about Obama’s dynamic social media team and the way they excited a generation. This is to some extent true, although it should be tempered against the reality of Obama’s sizeable team on the ground. What stands out about the Obama campaign’s use of Facebook and Twitter is that they told people what to think about rather than what to think.
Clearly, there’s never been a political figure more willing to post their thoughts on Twitter than President Trump. When Trump posts, he engages directly with his audience, many of them happy to partake in the dialogue. Obama never did that, choosing rather to make the occasional statement and maintain his presence as America’s perpetual role model.
While Obama’s administration didn’t seek media attention outright, preferring to operate within the confines of the White House walls unless questioned by the media, Trump has declared war on the institution of media itself.
These are drastically different approaches, and they offer insight into the difference in the way the two leaders communicate. Trump’s victimization of himself seems to validate his constant stream of highly polarized tweets.
Conservatives have long postulated that positive opinions of Obama held by much of the country were largely shaped by his courtship of the media. Even if he didn’t invite them in, they were always treated with respect and given the chance to cover important emerging events.
A question of values
How do you like your world leaders? Accessible and humanized or regal and slightly detached? Either paradigm brings with it its pros and cons, but this is really the question at the core of our social media use in these two campaigns. Trump can be seen as ringleader extraordinaire, Obama as self-aggrandizing — it’s up to you to decide whether the shoe fits and whether you’ll post about it.