Trump's tweets: Transparency or manipulation?

Donald Trump's Twitter habits, if continued into his presidency, have the potential to fundamentally change the way the president interacts with the public. Whether that's a good or bad thing is a matter of perspective. 

Gerry Broome/AP
President-elect Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally in Fayetteville, N.C. on Dec. 6, 2016.

As Donald Trump prepares to take his place in the White House, questions – and concerns – abound about the president-elect's potential use of Twitter come Inauguration Day and beyond. 

The business mogul's strained relationship with the press throughout his campaign, during which he temporarily banned a number of media organizations from access at his events and regularly railed against The New York Times, has some critics concerned that his strategic bypassing of the "mainstream media" in favor of social media could translate into a lack of presidential transparency and a heightened ability to push an agenda-fueled narrative unchecked. Meanwhile, others have suggested that Trump's heavy use of Twitter, if allowed to continue into his presidency, could provide a new kind of transparency, giving Americans the opportunity to engage with their leader in a more personal and authentic way.

Whether a positive or negative, observers say, it's undeniable that Trump's frequent and masterful use of Twitter to share his message directly with his followers has set a new precedent for interactions between politicians and voters – and, if he continues to tweet from the Oval Office, it would mark a fundamental shift in how the president communicates with the American people.

While Trump's social media presence is unprecedented, political scientists say, the intention behind it is not. In some ways, the president-elect's use of Twitter to connect with voters is merely a more successful continuation of efforts by past presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, to speak directly to the public using any technological means available. 

"It looks, on one level, like it's all brand new and disruptive, and it might be," says Jeffrey Cohen, professor of political science at Fordham University, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "But," he continues, "it represents a pattern of presidential behavior," going back at least six decades, of "trying to find a way of getting their message out to the public and policy-makers in a way where they control the content and timing of the message." 

What sets Trump apart from past presidents is that his medium of choice happens to be more effective in quickly – at any hour – spreading an unfiltered message to a wide audience – an ability that could translate into a "major departure from the way presidents have governed in the past," says Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington and author of "Spinner in Chief: How Presidents Sell Their Policies and Themselves." 

Whether this shift is good for American voters or not is a matter of perspective. 

Critics worry that Trump's use of Twitter – and dismissal of the mainstream media – could pave the way for a dangerous form of manipulation once he enters the White House. 

"These Twitter explosions — it’s not that he’s trying to describe the world in a factual way or even trying to be politically clever in aiding his agenda," said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, to Politico. "He’s trying to demonstrate that he has the power to create his own reality and get sufficient numbers of Americans to live inside of it." 

"When he gets the press to react and exclaim how outrageous it is, it aids him in creating the alt-reality his presidency will likely be about," Professor Rosen added. "People who study authoritarianism in Europe mention this as one of most disorienting things about living in those regimes — the realities put forward that aren’t based on people’s real, lived experiences, but leader’s ability to create this reality is the point." 

But others, including some critics of Trump, have suggested that his Twitter account could offer a valuable glimpse into the mind of the future president and provide a tool for holding him accountable for his statements. 

"Because of Trump’s tweets, Trump and his people can’t shade the truth," Trevor Noah of "The Daily Show" said on his show Monday. "He gives it to us unvarnished, [so] we’ll always know what he really thinks." 

Whether Trump's tweeting habits carry over into his presidency remains to be seen. Shortly after the election, he told CBS's "60 Minutes" that though he plans to continue using social media as president, he will be "very restrained." Security concerns, a busy schedule, and media coverage may all play a role in determining the quantity and content of Trump's tweets come January, observers say.

"One of the key variables here is traditional media, in terms of... whether media will sort of step up and more directly challenge some of these tweets," says Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, professor and chair of political science at the University of North Texas. "We're beginning to see early evidence that maybe there will be heightened scrutiny of some of his tweets. That may present a different environment for Donald Trump, and he may have to adjust. That’s the unknown." 

But regardless of whether Trump reshapes the presidency through his use of social media, political scientists say his Twitter account has already set a new precedent for presidential candidates.

"Twitter amplifies the ability for presidents and presidential candidates to focus on character rather than policy substance," Professor Farnsworth says. "People in great numbers voted for Donald Trump because they liked who Donald Trump was...and that connection with the public may be a model for future politicians who think about using social media to say more about who you are than what you would do in office." 

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