Ten years ago, how many of us would have thought that the President of the United States would ever make extensive use of the same media outlet that pop stars and celebrities use to communicate with the public? And how many of us would have guessed that we, regular citizens, would be able to use that media outlet in the exact same way that the President does? Probably none of us. But this scenario, previously inconceivable, has become today’s reality. Barack Obama, as well as many congressmen, now use Twitter, Facebook and blogs as one of their primary ways of reaching out to the public, especially young people.
This phenomenon has fascinated me since the 2008 presidential election. Obama’s ability to use social networking as an engine driving his grassroots campaign transformed the political landscape that year, and may forever change the way candidates campaign. I believe that social media has the potential to be the next revolution in news, creating huge communications opportunity for the President and other politicians not only in campaigning, but also in day-to-day affairs.
The opportunity, in my mind, is mainly opened by the unique nature of social media. Every other major news outlet the world has encountered is passive in the sense that the recipient simply watches, listens to, or reads information and internalizes it. With social media, news can be an active experience. When I read a blog post on BarackObama.com I can immediately comment on what I have just read, spawning a discussion with millions of other people. When I read one of the President’s tweets, I can instantly retweet it to my friends or share my opinion with them. And when I think of something on my own, I can post it on Obama’s Facebook wall for all 23,219,984 (as of this second) of his fans to see. This interactivity in social media gives the President the ability to incite discussions, raise people’s political awareness and efficacy, and most importantly, hear their opinions.
While social media has the potential to be a powerful tool for the President, if he is not careful, it could also turn out to be a formidable weapon used against him. Will Obama (or future presidents) be the next Franklin Roosevelt, making Tweets the next fireside chats, or will he be Nixon, whose lack of preparation for a new type of media (the first televised presidential debate), lost him an election? This is one of several questions I will attempt to answer in my paper, which will explore the potential for social media to strengthen, weaken, and forever change the President’s “bully pulpit.”