Live-tweets, viral videos, hashtags, and memes: Internet practices and sensations that were once mostly used by middle school students goofing around with their friends and moms reconnecting with their high school classmates are now ubiquitous both online and in the physical world beyond computers. Perhaps even more shockingly, such concepts as retweets and likes are being increasingly used in the world of politics and policymaking. Social media has revolutionized political rhetoric and the way in which political analysis is conducted by journalists and constituents alike. Through the exploration of such posts as live-tweet threads on Twitter and articles and videos on Facebook, one may consider the ways in which social media is altering how political analysis is conducted. Particularly this presidential election cycle, political rhetoric is being shaped by these social networking websites and the content users are creating on them.
It seems that an increasingly more popular and prominent means of analyzing political news and policymaking has been through the creation and publishing of online posts, such as tweets on Twitter. For example, in addition to, or rather than, cultivating meticulously thought-out articles and reactionary op-eds on such political events as the presidential debates, people online are instead opting to live-tweet the debates as they air. This type of rhetoric allows for little to no planning or consideration beforehand; as a quip or critique is ideated, it is almost immediately launched into the Internet in 140 characters or less. Is this rhetoric inherently less polished, or even less intellectually probing, because it is written speedily and imparted to an audience of friends and followers in seconds?
I experienced such a predicament when I live-tweeted the first presidential debate between Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on September 26th, 2016. While I did attempt to inject some analysis into my tweet and tried to consider what the candidates were saying and compose logical reactions and rebuttals to their remarks, I sometimes spouted such emotional reactions as:
At 9:09pm, within the span of a minute, I tweeted:
In fits of emotion and exhilaration, my comments lacked proper sentence structure, much less nuanced analysis of policy.
However, there were also moments when I was able to collect myself enough to form coherent observations of the debate proceedings. At 9:46pm, as Clinton and Trump were asked questions about race relations and police brutality, I wondered “But will she use the phrase “institutionalized racism” or say in her next minute whether or not she believes these issues are systemic”. Then, at 9:55pm, I pointed out that Hillary postulated that every person has implicit biases, and wondered whether that was “a soft response to a divisive question”. With two tweets, in the span of nine minutes, I listened intently as a prominent politician navigated the sticky and polarizing question of whether police officers are biased against people of color, particularly black men, and attempted to analyze the rhetoric of said politician’s response.
Is this viable policy analysis? Beneath my all-capitalized, grammatically nightmarish cheers for Clinton and denouncement of Trump, I did raise what I would like to think are some legitimate questions about the candidates’ rhetorical strategies. While filling some tweets with humor and silliness, I also published others that considered how Clinton and Trump presented themselves as presidential candidates and analyzed how they answered the policy questions they were given over the course of the 90-minute debate.
I must also confess, however, that there were moments during which my mind was occupied by other matters. What could at times be more pressing than constant attentiveness during a presidential debate? Checking how many likes and retweets my live-tweets garnered.
The tweet I wrote criticizing Trump for pretending as if New York hadn’t ruled Stop and Frisk unconstitutional accumulated 2 retweets and 6 likes. I have to be honest…it felt pretty good.
This is another way in which social media is altering political analysis. Much of what is published online, from articles to anecdotes, has the potential to be retweeted or shared by readers. This is a way in which authors and creators gauge how popular their work is, how much their work resonates with the public, be it positively or negatively. Does this place unnecessary, detrimental, or inappropriate emphasis on political analysis being likable or agreeable? Does this contradict the potential for the analysis to be divisive or nuanced?
On July 11th, 2016, Ezra Klein published a piece on Hillary Clinton for the online platform Vox.com, a website that features articles and op-eds on politics, current events, and pop culture. Klein’s piece explored what he describes as “the Gap”, the disconnect between the stilted, calculated Clinton in the public eye and the warm, attentive Clinton known by her family, friends, and colleagues. At the bottom of the page, readers of Klein’s article have the option of sharing the work on Facebook or Twitter for their friends or followers to see. Klein also created and shared a video, which he posted on his official Facebook page in September, discussing “the Gap”. The approximately 15-minute long video has accumulated 7.2 million views, 60,055 shares, and 44,000 likes.
Ezra’s findings on “the Gap”, that Hillary Clinton is cherished by her friends and respected by both her colleagues and political opponents because of her ability to listen intently to the stories and research of those around her, is not relevant in dissecting his online political rhetoric. It is also not crucial that one knows how many of the shares his video or article got were appreciative and how many were critical. What, for the purposes of this exploration of the creation and dissemination of political analysis, is truly remarkable, is the vast reach of his work through social media. 7.2 million people watched his video! Only on such a global yet intimate platform as a social networking site is it possible for a columnist’s work to be exposed to such a wide audience.
Again, however, I am confronted by the question of the instantaneous accessibility afforded such political writing and analysis by social media. How is the rhetoric of political analysis changed by the knowledge that these articles and videos may—or perhaps are intended to—reach readerships of such magnitudes? Is the rhetoric softened so that it may be palatable for a wider audience? Is it made less divisive for the sake of social media shares?
In exploring the juxtaposition of short, biting tweets and formally written articles, it is interesting to consider how these diverging rhetorical avenues are reflected in the two major party candidates for president. Donald Trump is notorious for his outlandish tweets on subjects ranging from China to the presidential election being rigged to his opponent’s husband’s infidelities. At debates, Trump speaks in sound bites that he has often repeated in the past, reiterating quick and memorable statements such as “My father gave me a small loan [of a million dollars]” and “[the United States is] twenty trillion dollars in debt”. Hillary Clinton, however, is more adept at presenting debate answers that cite research and often refer back to her stump policy speeches. She is prone to beginning answers with variations of the sentiment “I’ve heard from so many of you”, a nod to her reputation of listening to and absorbing information from multiple sources as discussed in Klein’s article and video. Hillary does not often speak in brief quips, especially when she is giving an answer to a policy question in a debate. She prefers to discuss a longer, more intricate policy plan in her answers, more similar to an academic article than to a quotable tweet.
Is it possible that this is a contributing factor to Trump’s appeal to his supporters? Perhaps the average American citizen is more comfortable with or captivated by sound bites characteristic of Trump’s rhetoric than they are with the lawyerly logical arguments laid out by Clinton. Is this an indication that constituents have grown more receptive to rhetoric that reminds them of social media, or that politicians must shift towards rhetorical strategies reminiscent of social media phrasing to hold constituents’ attention?
Whatever one’s opinion of such social media platforms as Twitter and Facebook, they are deeply entrenched in politics in a way that cannot be reversed any time in the near future. Politicians and their staff members are active on social media, engaging with constituents and commenting on current events. Journalists use Twitter as a means of dispersing breaking news within seconds of hearing it at a press conference. However social media changes the development and publishing of political analysis will impact the way people receive and understand information, the way they form their opinions about such weighty and relevant issues as who will become the next president of the United States.