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Politics & Government

President Trump's Social Media Style Paves the Way for Other Elected Officials

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Tweet from the Donald J. Trump account
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President Donald Trump and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke are among politicians these days who use social media to send messages directly to the public. Neither elected official has shied away from using tough talk to criticize opponents.

UW-Madison professor Robert Howard says Trump's use of Twitter, in particular, may be opening the door for elected leaders to engage with the public in a manner similar to what celebrities have done for years. Howard is a professor of Communication Arts and director of Digital Studies and DesignLab at UW-Madison. He says politicians are adjusting to the new communication medium and so are the people who read the messages and try to interpret their meaning.

Howard says elected officials can reach a giant audience through Twitter and Facebook, giving what appears to be an intimate view of the person and what he or she thinks about on a day-to-day basis. He says it's a big change for the politicians and the public.

"Normally we're used to a public official offering us their insights, their policies, whatever, through formal mechanisms like a press conference or the State of the Union address. But you know there's speech writers and there's policy people and everyone sits down and as we say it's a 'high-resourced' communication," he says. "And so then when the audience gets that, journalists and others can sit down and really think about what it says and they know that a lot of thought has gone into this, and so they take it very seriously. This thing about social media is that it's not meant to be that. It's meant to be exactly the opposite."

Howard says social media posts are immediate and informal, yet can carry a lot of weight and have significant repercussions. Such as when Milwaukee County Sheriff Clarke recently posted messages with ominous tones, related to his dispute with a fellow airplane passenger.

As a result, Howard says the social media era "presents a new set of challenges" and "some ethical questions." He says it can be tough for the public to figure out what the elected official had in mind when sharing thoughts on Twitter or Facebook. He says readers must determine how much weight to give a post, realizing it may be a knee-jerk reaction or off-the-cuff remark.

"The question is just as an audience, do we need to adjust and say, 'Oh well, if he tweeted that, he was just angry that day.' Or is it the case that public officials need to say, 'Well, I need to think about what I'm tweeting here, because a lot of people are going to see this immediately, and they could react to it in ways that are different than I intended, or maybe I shouldn't show people that I was agitated last night, I should just let it go,'" Howard says. "You know, I think it is quite different and it requires everybody kind of thinking through -- hopefully public officials thinking through what they're doing, and also we as audience members thinking about what their expectations are and trying to figure out how we should take some of these communications. But we're in a time of transition in so many ways, so those things are getting worked out."

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