Responding to a lack of trust in mainstream media, voters are turning to politicians’ personal profiles for the truth. But is it always a good idea to give politicians free reign online?

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As the public becomes increasingly attracted to the personal lives of public figures, social media has swiftly become a staple in modern day politics. Many politicians are now using Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about their campaigns. Online political debates, fuelled by anger and passion, are quick to follow.

Should politicians even be on social media?

This is much more obvious in American politics, especially considering the influence of social media on the recent presidential election. Last year, social media became an unlikely battleground for presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton, with stories going viral in the run up to polling day. Social media was instrumental in adding virility to the 2005 Trump recording and to Clinton’s scores of private e-mails which helped sway the vote considerably. With politicians engaging in such personal attacks and in some cases, receiving online abuse, should politicians even be on social media?

The social media audience is ever-growing and even more receptive to internet punditry and news. Many people seem to have shunned traditional news outlets for social media which, in turn, contributed to the plummeting newspaper sales and live television viewership. Many credit social media for changing their views on political matters and 17% went as far as saying that their perceptions of politicians were reversed through social media, according to Pew Research 2016. Due to this new power that social media holds over modern day politics, many politicians have resorted to reaching out to their electorate through more novel, contemporary means.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr. Newman, a research associate in the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, highlighted that politicians have always preferred to cut out the middleman which is the mainstream media. Access to social media is particularly important for the UK, as online political campaigning is exempt from the ban on advertising on television. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that many politicians are setting up Twitter accounts to regain control and avoid their message being filtered by the mainstream media. The Trump administration’s press secretary, Sean Spicer even made a public announcement stating that the President might replace official press conferences with live chats on Twitter.

This deep-seated mistrust of mass media is partly to blame for the increasing political presence on social media. This was especially true in the American presidential election as many ‘reputable’ news stations gave Clinton an over 90% chance of winning when this was far from the truth. This was instrumental in branding mainstream media as somewhat untrustworthy and biased. Ipsos MORI statistics from January 2016 state that only 25% of the British public trust mass media to tell the truth. The appeal of social media is not simply limited to having direct contact with politicians, it is also the ability to corroborate news stories for yourself. Being spoon fed by mass media and taking news stories at face value is long gone. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer findings is testament to this – Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman blamed the lack of trust in mass media on the fact that the public view mass media as elitist. He stated that this has also given rise to the “fake news phenomenon and politicians speaking directly to the masses.”

President Trump’s love affair with his Twitter account now poses a very real threat to foreign policy and diplomacy.

Given the widespread appeal of social media, politicians are not merely using Twitter and Facebook for official business. They are increasingly engaging in highly personal quarrels in addition to making public announcements and engaging with the electorate. President Trump particularly favours Twitter to air out his grievances, most recently with NBC’s Saturday Night Live skits and the cast of the Broadway show, Hamilton. During campaigning, President Trump was not afraid to mix politics with personal attacks – he branded Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin “the wife of perv sleazebag, Anthony Weiner”. With 28 million followers on Twitter, Trump almost used his Twitter account for theatrical purposes by purposefully posting controversial tweets for the media to run with. It is safe to say that he mastered the art of provocation and the publicity that came alongside it, whereas Clinton focused on unity and became an echo chamber of what her supporters wanted to hear which garnered less media attention.

However, President Trump’s love affair with his Twitter account now poses a very real threat to foreign policy and diplomacy. Provoking and challenging foreign nations could be a very harmful move for the United States, particularly since the Trump presidency is still in its infancy. Recently, he taunted the North Korean government on Twitter by saying that they “were looking for trouble”, adding that he was ready to resolve the North Korean crisis alone if China failed to help. This has led to a grand show of strength – North Korea resorted to a public parade to show off their military might and even conducted a missile test. Trump took to Twitter to warn that the US was sending a “very powerful” armada of navy ships to Korean waters, yet the ships were soon photographed heading south and nearly 3,500 miles away from North Korea. Are these seemingly empty threats undermining the United States’ credibility and political strength in a time where strategy, control and reasoned leadership is necessary?

Despite charming China with his granddaughter’s recital of a Mandarin poem, Trump’s budding relationship with China is also on the rocks due to his Twitter outbursts. Recently, Trump tweeted that he was willing to overlook China’s unfair trade practices and currency devaluations, provided China used its influence to restrain North Korea, effectively trying to force China’s hand in this foreign policy crisis. China appears willing to overlook Trump’s Twitter outbursts, calling their Presidents’ meeting a “new starting point,” but China’s ties to North Korea might not be cut so easily. The solution is not clear cut, but social media will likely only serve to exacerbate the problems.

Being overtly personal on social media could reduce credibility.

Even in the absence of impending foreign policy crises, social media can still be extremely damaging for politicians, as it can open to the door to internet trolling and verbal abuse. For example, Tory MP and high profile Brexiteer, Peter Borne received an influx of death threats and was sent a picture of his son being ‘executed’ by ISIS. Similarly, Labour MPs who voted in favour of airstrikes in Syria in 2015 were also subjected to online bullying. However, the real danger is when these baseless online threats become reality – Peter Borne had air pellets shot through his office windows. An even more high profile case was of Labour MP, Jo Cox who was brutally murdered by a far right nationalist. In the court case against her killer, the judge highlighted how online abuse does not always stay online. With perpetrators, in most cases, facing only up to two years’ imprisonment and due to the anonymity afforded by social media sites, there is hardly an incentive for them to stop.

In the end, social media presence can do wonders for politicians by improving direct communication with the electorate. However, being overtly personal on social media could reduce credibility of the office that they hold, and social media also comes with the added risk of online abuse and threats which may translate into reality. A balanced approach could be key in receiving the benefits of social media while minimising its darker side, more dangerous aspects.

Image credit: torbakhopper (Flickr).