Social media became a respected force in political campaigns after Barack Obama galvanized multi-platform tech outreach to conquer his 2008 foes, a move of strategic prescience that delivered him two presidential terms. Even more so eight years later, no politician can afford to ignore or boycott the fearsome power that is online social networking. But during the 2016 campaign, the U.S. got a taste of what a weaponized Twitter account can unleash, courtesy of @realDonaldTrump. And now, a majority of Americans want Trump and Twitter to permanently part ways.
President-elect Trump is entwined in a complex weave of problems when it comes to tweeting, problems that range from "Not Good" to "Potentially Catastrophic." In the former category, take a look at Trump's use of Twitter to bully opponents during the 2016 campaign. The New York Times has compiled an exhaustive list of every person, place, and thing that has been the target of a Trump tweet. Currently, they've charted 282 unique targets, but keep in mind that most of the unlucky entities who wander into Trump's tweeting purview end up with multiple hits. Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and even The New York Times itself together tally in the hundreds in the amount of times Trump has thrown shade via a tweet.
It's fine to say this kind of public call-out is undignified. It is. But much more worrisome is the pass it gives to others – particularly young people – to do the same. The Southern Poverty Law Center has already published a survey of 2,000 educators who report seeing an uptick in bullying, an increase in "uncivil discourse," rising fear among marginalized students, and an admission that many are afraid to teach about the election at all. The SPLC has dubbed it the "Trump Effect," and it's easy to see why. There is nothing "civil" about how Trump communicates, blithely punching out public insults for his 15.8 million followers. If the president-elect doesn't care about anyone's feelings, why should a middle or high school student?
Trump can also use Twitter to distract, and oh my, is he ever good at it. After vice president-elect Mike Pence was booed and criticized while attending the Broadway musical Hamilton, Trump sent out a series of righteous rage tweets, defending his running mate from the "highly overrated" show.
But if you look just below the Hamilton tweets, you'll see that Trump's Twitter feed also includes a defense of his $25 million Trump University settlement. That was the actual big news of the weekend, that the next POTUS will be paying a cool $25 million to keep the fraud cases against him from going to trial. Trump might have wanted to make sure no one focused on the size of that payout and what it might suggest about the nature of the claims. Or perhaps he didn't care to have his followers remember all the times he promised never to settle. Either way, a cast voicing mild criticism of a vice president does not rise to the level of the future president settling a case he vowed to fight, on principle, because of course, he was innocent.
A more subtle problem is how Trump's Twitter works to entrench populism. His followers are now acclimated to direct discourse with their leader, and they may come to decide they don't need to look anywhere else for White House commentary. Some may have already done so. And that is a monumental hindrance for healthy democracy.
The U.S. has a long history of holding politicians accountable for their words, actions, and success or failure of policy implementation. But Trump doesn't have to, nor will he, address any of that via Twitter. It's easy to imagine him tweeting something like, "Many say my jobs program has been a great success! #MAGA!" It's also easy, though far more frightening, to imagine his devotees taking him at his word and ignoring the rest of the "corrupt" media, who might have something different to report. (Trump's not done delegitimizing independent news outlets either.)
The final, and most worrisome, problem with Trump and Twitter is his willingness to live-tweet emotional outrage. This was especially clear during the primaries, when Trump had an absolute meltdown after losing a debate to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. "Leightweight chocker [sic] Marco Rubio looks like a little boy on stage." "Lyin' Ted Cruz and lightweight choker Marco Rubio teamed up last night in a last ditch effort to stop our great movement. They failed!" Spelling mistakes aside, this internet proof that Trump is fully capable of flying into a rage and taking to Twitter could be potentially disastrous. What if a foreign leader egged him on, purposefully, then pushed Trump's phone across the table?
Some will say it's different, that moving from candidate to actual president will change Trump. I hope so. But even as president-elect, Trump's been using Twitter in ways that give little reason to hope. Yesterday, he tweeted that he was canceling his meeting with the New York Times, only to later tweet that the meeting was back on. Trump struggles to control his impulse to broadcast everything in 140-character commentaries.
So to assuage the fears that inadvertent national risks might arise from a Twitter-ful Trump administration, I stand with the 59 percent of Americans who are telling Trump: delete your account.