Trump, Twitter and transformed political communication

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication, change management and project communication. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

Nasrun Mir looked at the use of social media by UK politicians for his CIPR PR Diploma project so not surprisingly he has been following the US elections, and in particular Trump’s use of Twitter, with interest.  Here are his thoughts….

Donald J Trump’s legacy in politics, amongst other things, will be that he changed political communication forever. He is in every sense, Twitter’s first presidential candidate.   

His tweets have dominated this presidential debate to such an extent that the New York Times recently published a two-page long spread of all the insulting tweets Trump has made against people, races, religious communities and institutions.

The rise of Trump as a Republican candidate and its long-term political consequences will be much debated in the future. But even his ardent critics will agree that he has changed the traditional political campaigning kit for good.      

Many politicians before Trump have been active on Twitter, but no major candidate has used it so radically to air his views. In August and September alone, he was mentioned in 6.3 million conversations on Twitter. In the words of Zac Moffat, who ran the digital media campaign for Mitt Romney in 2012, “Trump is living on this medium.”  

As part of my CIPR Diploma in 2015, I conducted research, titled: “Political Communications and Personality Politics via Twitter: A case study of Ed Miliband and David Cameron in the 2015 General Election campaign,” to understand how UK politicians used Twitter to build and cultivate personalities.

The research found that both candidates used Twitter to debate the issues that were in their comfort zone. Cameron, from the onset of his campaign, focused on highlighting the stronger and more inclusive aspects of his personality to dislodge his previous resonant image as financially privileged. Cameron’s use of populist discourse to introduce the idea of ‘big society’ in political communication since 2005 within his rhetoric of empowerment, had made him a reasonably popular leader. 

Miliband, on the other hand, was trying to build a different side of his personality on social media. After his controversial bid for the Labour leadership, he was portrayed by the party as the leader who was going to champion the  working-class in politics. In the run-up to the general elections of 2015, his Twitter feed highlighted that Miliband was trying to tackle issues like the NHS head on, and put his party at the forefront, a clear distinction from the Tony Blair style of politics. A large portion of Miliband’s tweets during the election campaign were more about Labour ideology than his personality. 

Both candidates were purposeful in their approach to highlight strong traits of their personalities but avoided debating with their followers on Twitter. None of the candidates utilised reply tweets, revealing that political candidates are not using Twitter effectively to create meaningful dialogue with their constituents. None of the candidates answered questions or addressed concerns. Research also found that candidates did not even engage with each other.

In comes Trump and everything about politics through Twitter changed. Trump took the idea of building personality politics through 140 characters to a new level. 

Unlike any other medium, Twitter gave Trump time and space to launch his political ideology. He has sent more than 28000 tweets – roughly 12 tweets per day since 2009 when he joined the microblogging site. For the first three years of his life on Twitter, Trump was rather sheepish. It was in 2012 when he first realised its full potential and started cultivating the following of a dedicated group of people – as he started broadcasting his views on sensitive issues.

Many communications experts had predicted social media overtaking the sphere of political communication, but until Trump, it was a vision slow to materialise.

Trump has used the power of Twitter like no other political leader, and in the process, has redefined communications and how social media can be used as a tool for not just sending information, but also be used as a medium of disruption, attack and to cultivate a strong following.

His political communication is the reverse of a traditional, careful and more expensive style relying more on free, urgent and instinctive modes of communication. Trump’s approach is controversial, to say the least, but his medium of communication is futuristic.