Some Potential Limitations of Social Media

As I started diving into my research on the use of social media by a sitting president to influence policy (rather than just using it in campaigns), I had several ideas and hypotheses about the potential of social media as a political tool. However, as my research progressed, and as I started reading certain authors, I found that there was a significant amount of pushback in the presidency literature against some ideas that I thought were obvious and uncontroversial. While none of the pushback caused any major problems for my paper’s central argument, I thought that some of the alternative ideas I found were interesting and worth sharing here

For instance, one assumption underlying my research is that a president can be effective and successful in influencing public opinion. My paper centers around the argument that social media can be the next revolution in presidential communication, helping the president reach out to more people and connect with them on a deeper level. I was surprised to find that although the literature generally accepts that the president can influence public opinion, several scholars dispute this. Perhaps most prominently, George Edwards argues in On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit, that the president can do very little to get his way through appeals to the public. Edwards suggests that the president can actually often do more harm than good by involving the public in the policymaking process, and in many cases, keeping policy and decision-making private is often a better idea.

A second interesting idea that ran contrary to my general idea that social media could be great asset to a president was that social media is not an effective mobilization tool. Central to this argument is that, to a greater degree than television, radio or newspaper, news transmitted via social media tends to be reach fewer people who are not already politically active and opinionated. At best, this would mean that social media is an ineffective way for a president to reach out to the public. At worst, social media use by a president could actively work to further polarize the views of politically active citizens.

Writing the paper was a lot of fun, and sifting through divergent ideas was quite interesting. I look forward to presenting my findings (not just arguments against them) at the conference.

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