President-elect Trump will dramatically shift the way the president communicates with the American people. Social media will usurp the press as the president’s preferred communication channel, and his style of communication on it will be more raw than the preprocessed, marketable messaging to which we are accustomed.
To understand the coming shift, you should closely read this transcript of Hugh Hewitt’s interview with Sean Spicer, the man set to become President Trump’s press secretary:
But there’s no question that you see through the platforms that exist right now, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, he’s closing in like 45 million people that he can have a conversation with, that there are new and modern tools that exist that while we have to sort of do these press conferences because they’re part of the fabric of our country, if you will, there are also some new opportunities that we can be utilizing to bring more people into the process and have a conservation with the American people and not just limit it through the filter of the mainstream media. [emphasis added]
The president-elect of the United States is on social media talking to 45 million Americans directly. More than 18 million people in that audience are on Twitter alone. For perspective, during primetime Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC have a combined audience of 4.66 million people. These numbers illustrate what president-elect Trump understood from the beginning of his campaign: you now reach the American people directly through social media, not indirectly through the press.
The Press Preprocesses Information
To cut through the noise on social media, one has to speak his mind. We are shocked to hear the president-elect speak his mind directly to us because we’re unaccustomed to raw, “primary source” material.
Case in point: recently the press made a big fuss over Texas’ decision to redirect Medicaid funding away from Planned Parenthood. Do a Google search for the story. You’ll see pages and pages of links from small to large news organizations covering it (NPR, Washington Post, The New York Times, the Texas Tribune, etc.). All of these news outlets built their story around a notice sent by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in 2015 and a final notice sent in December. You’ll see the original notice quoted repeatedly. You’ll see spokespersons and lawyers responding to the original notice. Know what you won’t see? A link to the original notice. Not one.
Everything we get from the press today is preprocessed. But that preprocessed stuff isn’t working like it used to. We’re a DIY society trending toward the organic, increasingly wary of preprocessed material.
President-elect Trump capitalizes on this trend by not treating Twitter like one of many managed channels. He doesn’t subordinate his tweets to his primary, pre-packaged messaging that he delivers first to the press. Instead, he takes to Twitter to verbally process his thoughts in real time. He writes like a real person speaking to real people. He is “@realDonaldTrump.” He doesn’t need to append his tweets with his initials to signify he actually wrote them. That is why President-elect Trump’s tweets make news while everyone else’s tweets simply regurgitate the news.
The Press’s Role Is Changing
So what does all of this mean for the press? It means their role relative to the presidency will change.
When President Trump wants to make a case to the American people, he will do it first through social media. His early remarks will be raw and unprocessed. Later, he’ll deliver his processed, marketable solutions to the public through social media and more traditional channels like the press. Just as a chocolate soufflé doesn’t simply look like egg, flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and other ingredients piled atop one another in a bowl, so also will President Trump’s official messaging be more presentable (and palatable) than his initial tweets.
Additionally, members of the press will no longer be able to base their authority on inside access to knowledge, making them credible experts on the president. Instead of sitting over the American people as inspired prophets telling us what is true or how we’re being manipulated, they will sit alongside us as fellow citizens offering opinions and insights. Their authority and credibility will now be rooted in their sensibility, or at least in their ability to mostly get their analysis right.
If I’m right, then we should expect an avalanche of stories from the press in the early days of the Trump presidency decrying his lack of “transparency.” Why? Because President Trump will not give preferential treatment to members of the press in the way past presidents have, and they will interpret this as a lack of transparency. In reality, Trump will use social media to give us a shocking amount of transparency about his thinking.
What This Requires of Americans
Understand, with this significant change comes a shift in responsibility. The processing work that the president’s advisors and communications team used to do is now partly shifted to us. To process responsibly, we should educate ourselves on the issues and understand the context of the conversation the president is having with us.
Even if we agree with the president’s end goals, we should push back early against any poor rationale or bad arguments. In pushing back, we’re helping to process the raw materials into a finished product. Likewise, President-elect Trump must be responsible in using social media and listen to feedback from the public.
All of this is not to say that, thanks to Twitter, we suddenly have the same sway over Trump as Reince Priebus does, but the odds of us being heard are now greater than they’ve been for several generations. Shocking as that shift may be, if we are responsible we will become a more informed populace engaged in a more democratic process.