A President who uses the internet to communicate directly with citizens on a daily basis, using an online platform that literally anyone can join and use, without charge, and with no technical skill required.

Twenty years ago, that would have sounded like a dream scenario to me, and to many of my colleagues in the nascent field of e-democracy. In the mid-to-late 1990s, I was part of a community of democracy scholars and practitioners who congregated around the still-new world of the internet, intrigued by its potential for political, democratic, and government transformation. That community developed experimental tools for online political participation, studied the (still rare) instances of political and governmental uses of the internet, and argued about the best prospects for democratic renewal.

None of us doubted the internet’s political consequence (even when our colleagues greeted our excitement with skepticism), even though some warned of the risks as well as opportunities for online engagement. A lot of the conversation turned on the question of whether the internet could function as the kind of deliberative public sphere envisaged by influential political philosopher Jurgen Habermas, so that (as Irene Ward put it ) the internet can become “a forum that private individuals could use to democratically influence the state.”

If we were hopeful that the internet could offer a renewed, exciting, broadly participatory democracy, that hope hinged on a few specific characteristics of the internet as it was then understood. Jerry Berman and Daniel Weitzner reflected on the most crucial of these in their 1997 article, “Technology and Democracy:”:

All Internet users are able to be both speakers and listeners, publishers and readers, content providers and content consumers. The bidirectional, interactive nature of the Internet is another key attribute that makes it such a unique and effective forum for democratic discourse.

Just as important…

A great diversity of users is made possible because a variety of service providers are able to coexist on the Internet. This breadth of users creates the potential for a true diversity of opinion and ideas in on-line forums.

This bi-directional, participatory, and diverse medium was regularly and favorably contrasted with the “old” media of television, radio, and print. A 2009 article by Michael Gurevitch, Stephen Coleman and Jay Blumler neatly sums up the virtues of online communications relative to its predecessors:

As citizens gain access to inexpensive communication technologies through which they can interact with the media, generate their own content, and create alternative networks of information dissemination, the gate-keeping monopoly once enjoyed by editors and broadcasters is waning. While never merely passive recipients of television’s account of political reality, audiences are increasingly becoming active participants in public communication, as senders as well as addressees of mass-circulating messages.

Sadly, however, the first live-tweeting presidency bears more resemblance to the broadcast-era version of democracy than the kind of democracy the internet was supposed to enable. The very limitations I hoped we’d transcend in our shift to internet democracy are instead finding new life in the President’s tweets.

Tackling media elitism

Let’s start with the hope that the internet would allow us to transcend traditional media gate-keeping. At first glance, it seems like this is exactly how Trump is using Twitter.  After all, a lot of his tweets take direct aim at the media, and purport to give his followers the “real” story:

But it requires willful blindness to the historical significance of media gate-keeping for us to regard Trump’s anti-media tweets as a retort to media elitism.  Look at Berman and Weitzner’s 1997 hopes for how the internet could challenge the role of media gate-keeping, and we see that it was grounded in an analysis of the relationship between economic privilege and media access:

The high demand for channels in traditional media has raised their cost far beyond the means of most community organizations and all but the wealthiest individuals. This highly constricted access to the mass media has all but strangled democratic discourse in the United States.

Trump’s use of Twitter isn’t the victory of the poor underdog over the wealthy elite that can access traditional broadcast and print channels: on the contrary, we’ve never seen a politician with the kind of media access and exposure Trump has enjoyed. Twitter hasn’t been Trump’s route to breaking free of media gate-keeping; it’s been his route to breaking free of media accountability and criticism.

A diversity of one

Similarly, Trump’s use of Twitter frustrates those of us who dreamed about a “diversity of ideas” flourishing through online democracy. That expectation was premised not just on a breadth of participants, but on an anticipated breadth of participatory contexts. As Berman and Weitzner put it:

A great diversity of users is made possible because a variety of service providers are able to coexist on the Internet. This breadth of users creates the potential for a true diversity of opinion and ideas in on-line forums.

While this is literally true—there is indeed an extraordinary range of online service providers and forums—it has proven to be functionally irrelevant. For all the diversity of the Internet, the vast majority of conversation occurs on just a handful of platforms: according to a 2016 Experian study, the top ten social networks command 85% of Americans’ social media visits—and Facebook alone accounts for 42% of visits.


If we were counting on a broad range of online service providers to drive a diversification of participation and ideas, then it’s no wonder online political debate has moved in the opposite direction. The increasing concentration of social platforms both enables and legitimates a communications strategy that privileges a muscular assertion of a single perspective over respectful engagement with diverse viewpoints. That’s certainly Trump’s approach:

Trump’s Twitter-first communications strategy works because Twitter is part of the dominant handful of social platforms, because Twitter (unlike Facebook) makes posts visible to anyone who’s online (not just logged-in users), and because journalists have come to use Twitter as an easy source of story-fodder and quotes. At the same time, the specific characteristics of Twitter make it a lot easier to sideline or ignore alternative viewpoints: on Facebook, blogs, or Instagram, it’s somewhat awkward to ignore undesired feedback, because unless you lock down your profile completely, other people can leave comments. On Twitter, feedback comes only in the form of free-standing tweets or retweets, so there’s no particular pressure to reply to, engage with, or even view dissent.

It’s not Trump’s fault that the social media ecosystem has gradually concentrated users on a small number of platforms: that’s the result of a long series of business and technology choices that have privileged the interests of advertisers over citizens. But the President could choose to spread his attention across a wider number of platforms, rather than focusing on one that gives him so much discretion to ignore the full breadth of public opinion. Of course, it’s no accident that he would gravitate to the social platform that creates the least pressure for engaging with dissent, as we can see from the way Trump does—or rather, doesn’t—make use of the potential for engagement that Twitter can offer.

Twitter is 10 times as conversational as @realDonaldTrump

The most notable disappointment for e-democracy enthusiasts is the way Trump’s approach to Twitter ignores the Internet’s potential for conversational democracy. Virtually every e-democracy proponent has seen the value of online politics and governance largely in terms of its capacity to support meaningful two-way dialogue between citizens and government—or just as important, multi-way dialogue among citizens.

Yet it is clear both from Trump’s individual tweets and from his overall pattern of Twitter usage that our new President has little interest in using Twitter as a platform for public engagement. On the contrary: he’s embraced it as his personal broadcast medium, using it to post the kind of utterances that would otherwise be halted by political advisors or challenged by interviewers. For example:

Trump’s use of Twitter as a broadcast channel, rather than a platform for engagement, isn’t just a disappointment for democracy nerds. Trump has had to go out of his way to use Twitter as a one-way communications channel, because a great deal of Twitter activity is extremely conversational, mixing replies, mentions, and retweets in order to reference and engage with other users.

Compare Trump’s use of Twitter in the 34 days leading up to inauguration with a random sample of tweets, and his peculiarity becomes clear.  Just 5.5% of Trump’s posts are retweets (i.e. tweets that share something somebody else has previously posted), and only 1% are replies (direct responses to someone else’s tweets). That’s very different from the overall pattern on Twitter, in which more than 50% of tweets are retweets, and more than 11% are replies. In other words, most Twitter users are ten times more likely than Trump to engage with their fellow tweeters.


Comparing Trump's tweets with Twitter as a whole

If it seems unreasonable to compare a President-elect with the average Twitter user, we can look instead at how candidate Trump stacked up against a selection of other Twitter-wielding candidates in the last weeks of the 2016 election race.  This time, we’re looking not just at retweets and replies, but also at mentions—tweets that refer to another Twitter user, even if they’re not directly addressed at the beginning of the tweet. And once again, Trump is far less conversational than the average candidate.

Bar chart of candidate mentions, replies and reetweets

Even among political candidates, Twitter is embraced as a channel for engaging with members of the public, not just messaging to them. Is it so much to ask that once elected, our representatives use social media to hear from us instead of just tweeting at us?

The Presidency in 140 characters

If our first experience with an obsessively tweeting President is shaping up to frustrate aspirations to e-democracy, that need not condemn all such experiments. We now have two decades of e-democracy experience under our belt, and there have been plenty of encouraging examples of candidates and elected officials who actually do tap the power of the Internet in order to have ongoing, direct, and humanizing encounters with their constituents.

If Donald Trump has failed to learn from these examples, then his use of Twitter is barely different from the numerous other fronts on which he’s failing to heed the lessons of experience. We can only hope that other politicians do not choose to learn from him, retreating to the use of the Internet as a direct-access broadcast medium instead of a platform for meaningful democratic engagement.

But for Trump’s model of online politics to get rejected by politicians, it must first be rejected by citizens who would rather see the Internet harnessed for the kind of engagement it can support. And there’s one clear way to vote for participatory media, political diversity, and online conversation rather than an unchecked stream of 140-character broadcasts. It’s called the Unfollow button.



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