President Trump’s social media strategy may be about to change. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, President Trump’s campaign staff is looking at alternatives to Facebook and Twitter for delivering the president’s message to voters. The campaign is considering relying more heavily on Parler, a relatively new social media app with about one million users, but with a policy of minimal content moderation. Founded as an alternative to the “ideological suppression” of the major tech platforms, Parler is attracting a growing number of conservative political figures; though its user base pales in comparison to Facebook’s 175 million or Twitter’s 53 million U.S. users. The Trump campaign is also investing in its own mobile app, which enables both direct campaign communication and user data gathering, and has almost 800,000 downloads since launching in April.
These moves come in response to recent slaps from mainstream social media. Facebook removed Trump campaign ads and posts featuring an inverted red triangle used by the Nazi party. Twitter fact-checked Trump’s posts about mail-in voting and hid his violence-inciting posts behind warning labels. Snap has stopped promoting Trump’s Snapchat account on its Discover home page. Most recently, Twitch has taken the unprecedented step of temporarily suspending the president’s account over violations of the platform’s “hateful conduct” policy.
The Trump campaign’s efforts to bypass an increasingly vigilant social media infrastructure are the latest development in a long history of politicians circumventing media gatekeepers, a history that highlights the important role new technologies can play in tilting the balance of power, as well as the ways in which media gatekeeping behaviors have changed over time.
This kind of political detouring goes at least as far back as FDR’s famous fireside chats, which were delivered to millions of radio listeners in the 1930s and 1940s. Revolutionary at the time, these intimate addresses allowed the president to communicate directly and unfiltered to unprecedentedly large audiences. FDR’s innovative use of a then-burgeoning technology was driven in large part by his desire to counteract negative press coverage, a motivation that has obvious parallels with the Trump campaign’s current tactics.
When television came along, TV advertising offered an even greater opportunity for politicians to directly reach the public. It’s hard to imagine a time when engaging in this type of communication with voters was considered unseemly, but TV advertising pioneer Dwight D. Eisenhower was famously reticent to air televised political ads during his presidential campaign. “To think that an old soldier has come to this,” he mourned when filming his first ad. Adlai Stevenson’s opposing campaign was convinced that the strategy would backfire; that voters would reject candidates being sold like dish soap. And major broadcast networks such as NBC and CBS initially refused to air Eisenhower’s ads, considering them to be beneath the dignity of the office.
Of course, all parties involved quickly overcame their reluctance when the effectiveness of the ads and the piles of revenue they generated for broadcasters became clear. Congress became so enamored with TV advertising that in 1972 it passed a bill that obligated broadcasters to carry political ads, limited what broadcasters could charge candidates for airtime, and even prohibited broadcasters from refusing ads on the basis of their content (for instance, if they contained outright falsities).
The 1992 presidential campaign proved to be another watershed moment. That year, billionaire third party candidate H. Ross Perot spent nearly $35 million of his own money to purchase large blocks of network TV time to deliver 30- and 60-minute campaign infomercials to American voters, including one that ran on all three of the major broadcast networks on the eve of the election (this was at a time when these networks still commanded fairly large national audiences). The Perot campaign saw this approach as a necessary response to an increasingly consolidated mainstream news media’s tendency to ignore third-party candidates.
What many remember most from the 1992 campaign is Bill Clinton’s sax. While politicians’ appearances outside of news programs are commonplace today (we do have a reality TV president), Clinton’s guest spots on programs like the Arsenio Hall Show and MTV’s Choose or Lose represented a dramatic shift in presidential campaign strategy, intended, once again, to circumvent established media gatekeepers. In a more fragmented television environment (thanks to cable TV), candidates now had more options available to them for reaching voters while skirting traditional news outlets.
This was a strategy that Clinton embraced throughout his presidency, motivated in part by Thomas Patterson’s landmark 1993 book, Out of Order, which documented overwhelming negativity in traditional news outlets’ political coverage, along with findings such as a steady decline in the amount of newscast time in which politicians spoke relative to journalists. Such findings suggested that the news media were essentially becoming more restrictive in their gatekeeping role, reducing politicians’ opportunities to speak to voters.
The appeal of such appearances, again, was the opportunity to speak directly to the public, while avoiding the kind of critical questions and efforts to steer the conversation in specific (and perhaps unwanted) directions that characterized traditional news and public affairs programs.
As with TV ads, this new strategy was perceived by some as risky; it could diminish the candidate’s stature. Clinton’s Republican opponent, incumbent George Bush, saw such appearances as “undignified,” though he eventually found his way to MTV as well.
Then we flash forward to 2004, and Democratic candidate Howard Dean’s revolutionary use of email to communicate directly with voters on a mass scale and to raise campaign funds. This strategy was motivated in part by a lack of news media attention amidst a crowded field of primary candidates, not unlike the situation the Perot campaign faced.
While the Dean campaign ended in failure, many of those involved would go on to work for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, where they pioneered the use of social media platforms such as MySpace and YouTube to reach voters online.
Today, President Trump has taken the use of social media as a tool of direct engagement with the citizenry in new and unexpected directions. His Twitter account is not only a way to communicate to the public directly (particularly important when, for example, news outlets choose not to air his press briefings due to their preponderance of misinformation). It’s also become a way for him to exert greater influence over the news media’s agenda, via the constant torrent of tweets the media feel compelled to report on.
Trump’s use and abuse of social media–along with the use of social media by foreign actors such as Russia’s Internet Research Agency–are some of the primary reasons why we are seeing these platforms adopt the more stringent gatekeeping criteria for news and political communication that now have the Trump campaigning exploring alternatives. Many of these platforms are no longer the more passive, unfiltered conduits to voters they were during the Obama campaign.
But social media platforms are becoming, to some extent, fragmented in the way that television channels did in the 90s. As a result, politicians unhappy with the major platforms’ evolving approach to gatekeeping can migrate to newer, or less stringent, outlets. In this way, the Trump campaign using Parler as a way to counteract the increasingly stringent gatekeeping of the mainstream social media platforms is similar to how Clinton used MTV and the Arsenio Hall Show to sidestep the mainstream news media.
At the same time, we’re seeing efforts to diminish social media’s gatekeeping authority through regulation, in a manner similar to what took place in broadcasting. Not only were broadcasters compelled to become passive conduits for candidates’ advertisements, but regulations such as the Fairness Doctrine required them to provide politicians with the opportunity to respond to news reporting that they found objectionable.
Today, efforts such as President Trump’s Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship, and the recently introduced Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act are directed, at least in part, at curtailing the gatekeeping authority of social media platforms, not unlike how Congress responded to the growing power and influence of broadcasters.
These recent developments highlight, once again, that politicians naturally desire wide-reaching, unfiltered conduits to the American voter, and that a key part of media history is their persistent efforts to use—and regulate—new technologies to get them.
As much as we are able to draw parallels between the past and the present, it is also important to recognize that the current moment represents something fundamentally different. Social media represent the most expansive and sophisticated form of mass access to the electorate that politicians have ever had; which creates profound social responsibilities for these platforms in order that the delicate balance of power between politicians and media gatekeepers not be upset. Donald Trump represents perhaps the most unreliable and incendiary communicator in the history of the presidency, with perhaps the greatest hostility to established media gatekeepers that the country has ever seen. For these reasons, this latest chapter in the long history of tension between gatekeepers and politicians is likely to continue to be far more contentious than anything we have seen before.
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