The Politics of Social Media
Examining How Social Media Is Changing Newsrooms And Influencing Political Reporting
When the social networking platform Twitter was first created in 2006, the platform offered a revolutionary way for people around the world to connect with one another, share their viewpoints, express their opinions, and establish online communities — all by creating 140-word-character “tweets.” This tool was ultimately created with a noble goal in mind: to make the world a better place by making global communication available at the click of a button. “Twitter stands for freedom,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said at a conference in San Francisco in 2015. “Twitter stands for speaking truth to power.”
Since the social networking platform first launched over a decade ago, it has exploded in reach and popularity, and, with 328 million monthly active users, has become almost an essential tool for any citizens hoping to stay engaged in national and global conversations. It has provided a platform for the organization of grassroots movements, offered a voice to minority groups who are often not heard by mainstream media, and fostered the development of powerful online communities. Yet while Twitter has given ordinary citizens a tool send a message directly to those in power, it has also given those in power the ability to speak back.
In 2013, Twitter reported that all 100 U.S. Senators had a Twitter account, as well as 90 percent of members of the U.S. House of Representatives, meaning that nearly every single national U.S. representative could now reach, and be reached by American citizens. Politicians began using the social networking site to campaign, discuss policy initiatives, share details about upcoming legislation, and even share photos of their personal lives with constituents. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that “16 percent of registered voters follow candidates for office, political parties, or elected officials on a social networking site.” Of these voters who connected with politicians on the site, 26 percent felt that getting information directly from a politician’s social media accounts was more reliable than news from traditional news organizations. Another 36 percent reported that follow politicians on social media made them feel more connected to the politician or political group.
Around the time the survey was taken, Twitter had between 270 million and 300 million monthly users. Given that the platform has now grown by at least 20 million users, it is not currently known exactly how these figures have changed. But three years later, the sentiments expressed by those surveyed have now played out in the public arena in a way that has led to a number of implications for traditional American political journalists, specifically as a result of the election of Donald Trump, who has been described as “America’s First Twitter President.”
Trump, who has 36.2 million followers, frequently uses social media to send a direct message to the American people, while not holding regular press conferences to take questions from reporters, as is typical of the position and has been typical of his predecessors. He often uses Twitter to tell American citizens that most traditional media outlets are “fake news,” announces controversial policy decisions (like a ban on transgender military members) that have not properly been discussed with senior White House officials, and responds to media reports about himself without speaking directly to reporters. In addition to Twitter, he also utilizes other social media platforms, like Facebook, where he recently launched his own news show, which is broadcast once a week and described by Trump aides as a “real news” alternative to traditional media outlets.
Given that, according to the Pew Research Center, around 26 percent of Americans who follow politicians online feel that the information they are receiving is reliable, and President Trump’s statements often differ from those of mainstream journalists, reporters are now in an uncomfortable predicament. Basic political “facts” are now available to citizens from a variety of sources, and political journalists now must find a way to speak directly with politicians, who can now send their message directly to constituents with the click of a button, and find a way to give those constituents accurate information themselves. This paper will examine exactly how political journalists are adapting to these changes, what newsrooms are doing to expand their own social media reach, and whether the President’s tendency to tweet official statements rather than interact with reporters really is trickling down to the local level in a way that affects state and county-wide political reporting.
After President Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States in November 2016, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams lamented the role that his platform played in creating such a monumental shift in American politics, and questioned whether a social networking site that gives individuals, and politicians, unfettered power in reaching a mass audience was a good thing.
““I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Williams told the New York Times. “I was wrong about that.”
This paper intends to explore that statement, and examine the real-world implications that the free exchange of political ideas through various social media platforms strengthens, challenges, and facilitates quality political reporting.
Background And History
“Bypassing traditional media” can be defined as an instance in which an elected official, or other public figure, communicates directly with the public rather than speaks with news outlets or reporters about a particular initiative or topic. While the massive reach that politicians are able to have as a result of Twitter and Facebook, the prospect of politicians bypassing media to avoid unfavorable coverage is not an entirely new phenomenon. In fact, politicians have been doing this for centuries, though the methods for doing so have changed.
In the 1920s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Democratic governor of New York, he established “fireside chats,” radio broadcasts that allowed the politician to talk directly to the American people without having to deal with local papers, many of which had Republican leadership. After he was elected as President of the United States in 1933, these fireside chats continued, reaching millions of Americans with information about the New Deal, the American banking crisis, and World War II. Over time, these broadcasts became normalized and were regarded as a welcome source of comfort and vital information for many American people. According to the Library of Congress, these broadcasts positively “redefined the relationship between President Roosevelt and the American people.”
Over time, state representatives have also found ways to curtail negative coverage from major news outlets through speaking with outlets that are likely to produce more favorable coverage than outlets that are generally more critical. According to Joel Kaplan, a former Pulitzer Prize-nominated political journalist for the The Tennessean who currently serves as the Associate Dean for the Program of Graduate Studies at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, a U.S. Congressman under federal investigation found ways to skirt his news outlet when he was covering the state legislature for The Tennessean in the 1980s.
“For one year, he would not speak to us or call on us at press conferences,” Kaplan said of the politician. The politician in question would instead speak with another news outlet in town, or one of the three local TV stations “to get his message out after basically quarantining us.” According to Kaplan, this was not a unique or uncommon practice that politicians would use to avoid negative press coverage. But this method still required reporters and local press to act as transmitters of information to the American people. With the advent of social media, reporters are no longer as necessary a conduit.
“It’s not unusual for politicians, when they don’t like their coverage to find alternative ways to get their message out,” said Kaplan. “But now, those alternative ways have exploded. “Now they can go directly to the public. They can do whatever they want to get their message across.”
The rise of social media in national political use arguably began in 2008, when President Barack Obama was elected President: the first U.S. President of the social media age. Obama currently has 93.7 million followers, and holds the current record for having published the most-liked tweet of all time. Under his leadership during his tenure in the White House, his administration created an entire team of strategists dedicated to social media outreach, he took user questions during an “Ask Me Anything” event on the popular content-sharing website Reddit, hosted a virtual town hall conducted entirely through Twitter, and regularly used Facebook to send video messages directly to constituents.
“Presidents have always wanted to talk to all Americans at once, have them pay attention, and have them believe what they are saying,” Nate Persily, a Stanford University law professor, told the Washington Post. “With the new platforms, not only can President Obama speak directly to the people, but he can also target particular messages to audiences that ordinarily would not be paying attention.”
But Persily’s statement has a hidden truth: while social media has allowed politicians to speak to audiences who did not generally pay attention to politics, it has also given a voice to individuals and groups who felt that politics were not paying attention to them. Tom Hollihan, a prolific author and professor of communication at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, social media can be a powerful tool for providing a sense of community and belonging to these populations.
“Social media lets people develop, activate and sustain networks of people who share their values, beliefs, interests, issues of concern,” Hollihan said. “It permits politicians to talk directly with people who become core supporters wrapped around issues that identify their ideology.”
In the 2016 Presidential election, this meant that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was able to connect with voters who generally viewed themselves as forgotten, which included working class individuals in rural cities with few job opportunities. As Trump established a rapport with these communities, validating their beliefs and assuring them that he would work on their behalf, it gave a virtual voice to these individuals that ultimately translated into action at the voting booth.
Hollihan attributed this to a rich-poor information gap, which is the result of more economically advantaged individuals having greater access to knowledge and information than those of a lower socio-economic status. He states that those who want political information often need to have the means to acquire it from a variety of reputable sources. Those who don’t have the means, however, like working class voters, might be more included to join online communities and follow twitter accounts that affirm their confirmation biases.
Trump continues to speak directly to his base through Twitter, and what separates his social media use from that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, is that President Trump often uses his platform to not only convey his message to the public, but threaten journalistic institutions as “fake” when they have a different message than his own, even though he does not regularly speak with reporters on the record. He has regularly called the New York Times, one of the most established newspapers in the country as “failing” and “fake,” and in July 2017 he ignited controversy for allegedly promoting violence against journalists by tweeting a video of himself wrestling a CNN figure to the ground. In July, he then tweeted a photo that appeared to depict a cartoon CNN figure getting hit by a train.
The implications of the President’s rhetoric and untraditional social media use continue to play out in national, and local, politics, especially in the relationship between the press and politicians, and it should not be assumed that these practices are necessarily being mimicked by other elected officials. To further examine this point, and the role that social media is currently playing in affecting political reporting, this paper will turn its attention to two case studies: Kentucky and Texas. The governors of these states have both used social media in relatively untraditional ways to reach constituents. Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky has used Twitter to “set the record straight on fake news,” while Governor Greg Abbott of Texas used a Facebook Live stream in May to sign a controversial piece of legislation, with no reporters present and many members of the media reportedly unaware that the event would be occurring.
Reporters from both states discussed the challenges that these events caused for their newsrooms, the ways social media has both stifled and facilitated the exchange of political information, and some methods their newsrooms have taken to utilize social media to reach constituents.
Case Study: Kentucky
Kentucky is a predominantly red state with a population of approximately 4.4 million. Donald Trump won the state in the 2016 presidential elections with 62.7 percent of the vote, according to the New York Times, and Republican Governor Matt Bevin has led the state since 2015, holding a 50 percent approval rating with the public. Governor Bevin has a prolific social media presence, with over 38,000 followers on Twitter and 66,000 likes on his official Facebook page.
“There is nothing more transparent than live video, me talking straight to you,” Bevin said in a recent Facebook Live stream. “There is plenty of access. You will always be able to hear directly from me.”
During his gubernatorial campaign, Bevin’s official website touted his social media presence, comparing his social media reach to that of his opponent and stating that his own social media accounts “dominate.” In August 2017, Bevin launched an Instagram account, which his communications director said would “show a different side of the governor.” He also encouraged users to share photos using specific hashtags that he would potentially share on his own page. His Instagram account has 376 followers.
Tweets About The “Fake News” Media
But Governor Bevin’s social media has stirred controversy in recent months for two reasons. The first is for what some people have called “attacks” on the “fake news media” in the form of tweets. According to Judy Clabes, editor and publisher of the Northern Kentucky Tribune, Bevin is not generally critical of all media, or of local newspapers like hers; rather, he is often critical of the two largest newspapers in Kentucky. Those papers are the Courier-Journal based in Louisville, which reportedly receives 20 million page views per month, and the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, which reportedly receives over 13 million page views per month and has a Sunday circulation of over 67,000. In both cities, Hillary Clinton won a majority of the vote in the 2016 presidential election, making them the only Democratic-leaning cities in the state that year.
Bevin has been the subject of two ethics complaints in recent years for an alleged “sweetheart deal” after purchasing a mansion with 10 acres of property for $1.6 million in Anchorage, KY a price that some allege was well below market value and may amount to an “improper gift” for the purpose of political lobbying. When media outlets began doing some digging and reporting on the issue to determine what the mansion was actually worth, the governor often expressed his frustration with the outlets, even disparaging specific reporters by name.
In one particular incident, local television station WDRB reportedly flew a drone over Bevin’s property, which the station claims was “in accordance with FAA rules.” The governor then took to Twitter to express his outrage at the incident, in particular his outrage at the station’s director, Barry Fulmer.
“The drone that was just flying over my home & filming my children was personally flown by @WDRBNews Director,” Bevin wrote, including a link to Fulmer’s professional page on the network’s website. Some commenters suggested that Fulmer should be prosecutor, and asked if it’s “legal to just shoot them down.” The station maintains that no children were filmed.
In another incident, Bevin claims that Courier-Journal reporter Thomas F. Loftus was sneaking around his property, and, in a string of tweets, blasted the reporter, labelling him a “Peeping Tom.”
“A sick man…@TomLoftus_CJ of the @courierjournal was caught sneaking around my home and property..Was removed by state police..#PeepingTom,” Governor Bevin tweeted in May. He continued, “Bizarre how #PeepingTom (aka @TomLoftus_CJ ) continues to be obsessed w/my home & how obvious it’s becoming that his original story [about Bevin’s property] is bogus.”
Additionally, he shared a video of himself addressing the allegations, using rhetoric similar to President Trump’s with the caption, “The media asked for it and they got it. Watch Gov. Bevin set the record straight on #FAKENEWS.”
The Courier-Journal maintains that Bevin’s statements are “untruthful and absurd.” It’s worth noting that his statements were made just days after Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs was allegedly body-slammed by Montana Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte the night before the congressional election.
Brendan McCarthy, a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a non-profit newsroom based in Louisville, said that these attacks on the press are troubling, and called the incident involving Jacobs “fairly extraordinary,” but he said that these events don’t necessarily mean that the fundamental relationship between the press and politicians has changed; rather, the methods by which they communicate have evolved.
“I don’t know if the landscape or the actual relationship has changed that much. What’s available now is just more ways to reach out to citizens and voters that’s not through the media. Something that we’re looking into is how that plays out in a city hall level in a community, whether local politicians now are taking some of those tactics or approaches.”
One question that this raises is whether local reporters have less access to local reporters than they had previously now that politicians can reach constituents directly through social media communication. Roger Alford, editor at the new online-only paper Kentucky Today who has worked in the field for over three decades, said that a lack of access to politicians is simply not as big of an issue as reaching politicians at the national level because “there’s a continuing relationship between reporters and who they cover. At the local level, we know one another much more intimately.”
But Alford does suggest that social media has perhaps strengthened the “power struggle” that has always existed between journalists and politicians in getting information to the public.
“It seems to me that there is a bit of a power struggle going on,” Alford said. “Obviously, politicians have never enjoyed having watchdogs, and if they’re able to find a way around the lens of traditional media, they’re going to do that. So on that point, politicians are truly enjoying being able to bypass traditional media and reach large numbers of constituents.”
Governor Bevin does reach a wide range of constituents, and it’s worth mentioning that in addition to the particularly aggravated tweets mentioned above directed at particular reporters or outlets, Bevin does regularly use his account to inform constituents of issues and legislation like job growth, donation drive, and bills that will provide resources to fighting the opioid epidemic. Additionally, he recently tweeted a photo of himself with a reporter from the Spencer Magnet, a local news outlet in Taylorsville, Kentucky, with the caption, “Thankful for local media & the role they play in their communities!”
But aside from his tweets about the media, Governor Bevin’s social media use has raised other questions as well, particularly about the Constitutionality of a government official “blocking” individuals on public social media platforms.
Blocking Constituents And Reporters On Twitter
Social media communication is not a one-way street. Just as it gives politicians the power to send their message directly to citizens, citizens also now have the unprecedented ability to speak directly with those in power to express their reactions, beliefs, and concerns. Often, however, especially when it comes to a controversial political leader like President Trump, users around the world use social media to express dissent and frustration with government policies. Increasingly, according to new studies and crowdsourcing campaigns, this dissent has caused many politicians, including the President of the United States, to “block” many citizens on Twitter. This action means that the individual who is blocked cannot view posts, engage in conversation, or send messages to the official who blocked them.
President Trump has blocked numerous citizens and reporters from his Twitter account in the months since he has been elected President. Often, individuals have been blocked for sometimes seemingly frivolous offenses, like tweeting a joke about the President’s memorable online “covfefe” slip-up. Yet the implications of the President’s action could prove to be much more than frivolous — in fact, according to Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, it could amount to a violation of free speech laws.
According to attorneys in a lawsuit that has been filed in federal court against the President, when the President blocks individuals on Twitter, he is unlawfully excluding them from engaging in political discourse and prohibiting them from learning about government actions and legislation based solely on their viewpoint.
“Twitter enables ordinary citizens to speak directly to public officials and to listen to and debate others about public issues, in much the same way they could if they were gathered on a sidewalk or in a public park, or at a city council meeting or town hall,” the lawsuit states, calling the President’s actions unconstitutional and asking that he immediately restore these users’ access to his account.
One person who was blocked by President Trump on Twitter and asked to join in on the lawsuit (but declined) is J.D. Durkin, a political anchor for the online live news network Cheddar who has White House press credentials. According to Durkin, he was blocked for posting a “bipartisan & realistic thread about Trump’s impact on the market indices and unemployment.” Durkin said that, as a White House reporter, Trump’s action has negatively impacted his work and ability to keep up with the fast-moving news cycle.
“From what I’ve gathered, the President has blocked somewhere between 50 and 100 people on Twitter in total, but I’m the only the White House reporter blocked,” Durkin said. “There are always little worksarounds to see what is tweeted from the @realDonaldTrump account, but this is the blink-and-you-miss-it world of digital journalism and being first to something can matter. I’m definitely affected, even if that sounds strange. Political media right now is particularly well-fueled by Twitter, and this White House has made clear that these are “official statements” from the President and that he speaks for himself on the platform … I think my case is weirdly compounded because I’m in the WH all the time.”
Durkin said that he does have concern that local representatives might “feel increasingly emboldened” by “the aggressive social media strategies of Trump,” and that many of Trump’s online strategies to bypass the media might bleed into local reporting. Fittingly, a lawsuit regarding Twitter blocking has been filed against a local politicial in a district court in Virginia, and could set a legal precedent for the issue. After a citizen filed a lawsuit against a county government official for clocking him on Twitter, the federal judge presiding over the case ruled in favor of the defendant in July, arguing that public officials violate the First Amendment when they block constituents from access to information posted on social media platforms.
As the local Virginia lawsuit suggests, politicians around the country, at both the national and local level, have been called out by constituents who feel that their individuals freedoms have been infringed upon through social media blocking — including in Kentucky. According to documents obtained by the Courier-Journal, Governor Bevin has blocked approximately 600 users on his official Twitter account, the majority of them being Kentucky residents. Additionally, ProPublica found that many of the blocked accounts included users who had previously shared disdain for President Trump and Governor Bevin. The action even prompted hashtags, #bevinblocked and #blockedbybevin, which users shared on Twitter to express their frustration and the content they had previously posted that led to their being blocked.
After reporting on the issue in June, The Kentucky Center For Investigative Reporting used social media in a new way through a crowdsourcing initiative that sought to engage Kentucky citizens in the reporting process while also providing valuable information to its readers. In an article titled, “How To Find Out Who Your Favorite Politician Is Blocking On Twitter,” reporter Brendan McCarthy explained to readers the step-by-step process they could use to discover how suppressive their local politician was being on social media.
“Want to find if your favorite Kentucky official’s Twitter account is open to all?” McCarthy’s article asked. “Are they blacklisting some social media users? Well, KyCIR is here to help.”
The article then provided readers with a pre-filled “Request for Public Records” form with instructions on how to submit it to their local officials, who, McCarthy reminded readers, are “paid for by YOU, the taxpayer.” McCarthy encouraged readers to then share what they found as a result of their public records search on social media using the hashtag #KyBLOCKED.
“We’re trying to engage our community and pull some layers back and show people behind the curtain how we do what we do. The benefit is twofold: One, it builds trust and shows people that we’re being open and transparent in our work. But also people will ideally take it and run with it and keep the conversation going and we can get a better understanding from their reporting. The idea was maybe citizens can take what we did and build upon it.”
McCarthy’s reporting is an example of newsroom using social media in innovative ways to directly engage readers, especially those readers who are frustrated with politicians’ social media power, in political conversation. McCarthy said that he did receive responses from some readers who had filed public records requests, but the results of those requests are not the only thing currently pending in this situation: as of July 31, a lawsuit on the matter is also pending. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky on behalf of two Louisville citizens, who claim to be active citizens in their community, after they were blocked by Bevin on Twitter and Facebook.
A Bevin spokesperson told the Courier-Journal that the governor’s right to block users from social media platforms “in no way violates their right to free speech under the U.S. or Kentucky Constitutions, nor does it prohibit them from expressing their opinion in an open forum.”
Given Governor Bevin’s prolific use of social media — which is done with the intention of speaking directly to constituents while questioning the credibility of some of the state’s largest newspapers — and the local press’s attempts to respond to it, Kentucky can be seen as a small-scale example of the current nationwide debate about the social media use of national politicians. Bevin’s social media use often mirrors that of President Trump’s, including his adoption of the term “Fake News” and his willingness to challenge reporters and outlets by name in Tweets that reach thousands of constituents.
Veteran Kentucky reporter and editor Judy Clabes said that while social media has changed the way outlets and politicians communicate with citizens, the “nature of what real journalism is” has remained the same.
“We’re under siege, journalists feel right now, and rightly so. It’s not just that some people are providing direct social media contact, it’s that they’re undermining the trust of the whole system. That’s not a good thing and we have to combat that.”
Clabes went on to state that her mission for her news organization, the Northern Kentucky Tribune, is to stick to honest, ethical, hardworking reporting.
“We’re sticking to basics, keeping our heads up and ears open,” Clabes said. “We just have to keep doing the basic job. Local media unfortunately doesn’t have all the resources that the big guys do, but we can still keep being the best we can be.”
Fellow veteran Kentucky reporter Roger Alford agrees that journalists must stay true to following basic journalistic principles, regardless of how their local politicians may use social media. He argues that an over-reliance on social media has been an unfortunate consequence of the digital age, which he believes could be more damning to the profession of journalism that politicians’ use of social media themselves.
“What I hear from traditional legacy newspapers in all honesty is a lot of whining and whimpering that these folks should not be bypassing them,” Alford said. “ Instead of whimpering and whining, journalists should stake out these elected leaders and pose their questions as they always have.”
He went on to say that it “amazes” that many journalists have become “so very adept at quoting Twitter and Facebook.”
“When I was AP (Associated Press) correspondent covering government and politics, elected leaders would routinely go on talk radio, conservative or liberal, and I never once quoted from one of those interviews. I treated them as if they did not exist. I would arrange to get facetime with them to address the issue because I did not like the idea of them finding a way to not take my questions.”
This case study provides an example of both the opportunities and challenges that social media has for political reporters. While Governor Bevin, like other national politicians, may use social media in a way that bypasses and refutes traditional local political reporters, newsrooms are also finding ways to use social media to engage constituents in not only their reporting, but in the political process. Additionally, Bevin’s use of social media challenges journalists to find alternative ways to conduct shoe-leather reporting without adopting an over-reliance on newsgathering from social media.
Case Study: Texas
Texas is a predominantly red state with a population of approximately approximately 28 million. Donald Trump won the state in the 2016 presidential elections with 52.2 percent of the vote, according to the New York Times, and Republican Governor Greg Abbott has led the state since 2015, holding a 60 percent approval rating with the public. Governor Abbott has 171,000 followers on Twitter and approximately 1.2 million likes on his official Facebook page. Like most politicians, Abbott uses his social media accounts to share information about upcoming legislation and his thoughts on community events and upcoming measures in the Texas Senate. However, a few of his more controversial uses of social media and comments about the media have stirred controversy with local reporters and national audiences, adding to the national conversation about the relationship between the press and politicians.
In May, Governor Abbott passed a bill that would significantly reduce the cost of gun licenses in the state, thereby making it easier for citizens to obtain handguns in the open-carry state. Governor Abbott turned the signing of the bill into a press event, visiting a shooting range and engaging in target practice while members of the press watched. Abbott then held up his target sheet and said to the members of the press in attendance, “I’m going to carry this around in case I see any reporters.” While the comment was intended to be a joke, the rhetoric fits into the larger national narrative surrounding journalists; specifically, it is consistent with other threats, jokes about threats, or acts of physical violence, made against journalists in the past year.
Additionally, Abbott has blocked constituents from his Twitter account, and used his social media accounts to bypass traditional media during the signing of a major pieces of legislation. Each of these are examples of how this case study will examine how nationwide issues that affect political journalists are manifesting themselves at the local level, and what local Texas journalists are doing to use social media to their advantage.
Blocking Constituents And Reporters On Twitter
Although Abbott frequently tweets important policy updates and legislative details to his million followers, he, like Governor Bevin of Kentucky, has blocked many citizens from accessing this information online. Olivia Krauth, a date intern at the Austin American-Statesman based in the capital city of Texas, is originally from Kentucky and noticed similarities between Bevin and Abbott’s social media use. In an effort to learn more about Abbott’s Twitter use, specifically if he was also blocking constituents from his account, she filed a public records request with the Statesman, asking for information about who exactly Abbott had blocked from what she described as his “public, taxpayer-funded Twitter account.” To her surprise, the request was denied by the governor. He claimed that releasing that information could make his account vulnerable to Russian hackers.
“They were basically saying you would see what we’ve identified as security threats, that could cause Twitter accounts of the governor to be attacked,” Krauth said. “So I really have no estimate of how many people have been blocked.”
Krauth has witnessed what she believes to be “unfair” social media practices from politicians in both Kentucky and Texas, and said that she will continue filing public records requests in Austin, like access to Governor Abbott’s direct messages,to better understand the governor’s social media use, and the effect that this use could have on both local citizens and local reporters.
“The information is coming directly from public officials. That might be a direct access point to that person’s opinion, and when you’re cutting them off from information about actual policy that could directly affect them … I just don’t think that’s fair.”
While Krauth believes that Abbott’s social practices could have a negative impact on citizens who are blocked by the governor for expressing opposing views, she did, however, express optimism for the effect that political social media can have on the future of political reporting.
“Journalists will just have to work harder,” Krauth said, echoing Alford’s opinion. “They won’t have to rely on press conferences. They’ll have to be more bulldogs and less just showing up at press conferences.”
Bypassing The Media Through Facebook On Major Legislation
In May 2017, after President Donald Trump stirred nationwide debate about immigration after he repeatedly threatened to crackdown on people who are living in the United States illegally, the Texas Senate held hours of fierce debate about how the state would or would not comply with Trump’s new immigration initiatives. Although liberal-leaning, Democratically controlled cities, like the capital of Austin, committed themselves to becoming “sanctuary cities,” the Texas Senate considered passing Senate Bill 4, a controversial piece of legislation that would make all local leaders guilty of a Class A misdemeanor if they refused to comply with federal authorities to fulfill immigration requests. The bill would also allow local police officers to question a person’s immigration status during detainment.
The bill sparked intense debate on the Senate floor, leading some elected officials who opposed the bill to provide tearful testimony about the damage they believed the bill would do to immigrant communities. Public opinion was also divided, with a number of heated protests that resulted in misdemeanor offenses taking place outside the Governor’s office.
When it came time to sign the bill into law, Abbott eschewed traditional procedure and signed the bill into law, without notifying reporters or the public ahead of time, instead broadcasting the event to constituents through a Facebook video stream.
“It was crazy that no reporters were told, no one besides him was present, and he just decided to completely bypass the media,” said Lyanne Alexia Guarecuco, a political journalist with the Quorum Report who was a Legislative Fellow with the Texas Observer at the time. “ My personal view is that he didn’t want to answer any questions, or just wanted to get it over with because he knew [the bill] had been so controversial.”
According to Guarecuco, Abbott signed the bill on a Sunday evening when “everyone was just minding their own business on a work night,” a stark contrast to traditional bill signing ceremonies, which typically include the authors of the bill and a press pool. Abbott’s Facebook Live bill-signing was so out of the ordinary that it received national attention, including from conservative pundit Glenn Beck, who said that Abbott used “social media like a boss.” In an interview with Beck, Abbott defended his decision, stating that it “won’t be the last time” he bypasses the media to get his message to constituents.
“We’ve seen an evolution with regard to digital media, with regard to the way that elected officials are communicating directly with their constituents,” Abbott said. “We saw it first with what Barack Obama did with digital media. We saw what happened in the Trump campaign. And now this is the next step.”
He went on to say that it is important for him to connect with his one million followers “unfiltered through other media.”
But according to Guarecuco, social media has also been a tremendous tool for the exchange of ideas that she believes has in some ways strengthened the relationship between local press and politicians during her time covering Texas politics. She said that one hashtag in particular, #txlege, has been crucial in allowing her to join in the conversation about what is occurring at the Capital, and to keep up with any quotes or events that she may have missed throughout the day.
“Twitter is a good archive because everything is there. It facilitates communication between reporters and lawmakers, and also facilitates communication between lawmakers and their constituents. The use of twitter and #txlege has definitely mobilized protesters and pressured politicians. Even if they vote a certain way, they know that everyone’s watching now. Everything is live; you can know when people are voting minute by minute.”
Guarecuco said that she can’t image what covering a session would be like without being able to follow, in real time, votes at the Capitol on the hashtag #txlege. According to Guarecuco, doing so enhances her reporting by adding information she may have missed in-person, and that she sometimes tweets at lawmakers for clarification or direct messaged them to schedule in-person meetings and interviews.
Ultimately, she feels that social media has created a powerful online community that strengthens her in-person reporting each day at the Capitol by helping to facilitate political conversations and reporting.
Governor Abbott’s social media use provides another example of national trends trickling down to the local level and affecting political journalists on the ground. Through an untraditional social media video stream, Abbott disrupted traditional media and was able to directly reach his constituents without having to answer to reporters or run the risk of drawing protesters. Given that Abbott has said that he plans to continue using social media in this way, this could potentially make the job of Texas reporters more challenging in terms of staying informed about major political events in the state.
However, that one particular instance of bypassing the media is by no means common throughout the state, and has been referred to by local reporters as an extraordinary circumstance. While another aspect of Abbott’s social media use, his Twitter blocking, could pose potential constitutional issues and legal battles ahead given the way other similar cases are playing out across the country, social media has not stifled, but rather facilitated political conversation in other ways in the state. Through one particular hashtag, journalists have created a community in which they can interact with each other, politicians, and constituents in a way that can ultimately strengthen local reporting and the relationship between politicians and the press, and their access to one another.
A Nation In Transition
As social media use has evolved among both journalists and politicians over the past decade, particularly after Barack Obama served as the nation’s first “social media President,” political journalism, and in some ways politics in general, have changed over time, and continue to find ways to adapt to the changing digital landscape. One of the major challenges that social media now poses to political journalists is speed. While speed and accuracy have always been principles central to the journalistic profession, the speed with which politicians can transmit information, unknown to the press, to constituents, which the press then has to quickly report on, is unprecedented.
While Abbott’s Facebook Live legislation is an example of how this issue can affect local reporters, the issue is more widely seen on a national level, given that President Trump regularly uses Twitter multiple times a day to comment on issues of national security and announce new executive orders. Alex Witt, a weekend anchor for “MSNBC Live,” oftentimes sees a new tweet from the President while she reporting on-air, and then attempts to incorporate it into her broadcast.
“My only concern is the speed with which things can be done. You may try to put out your message and control your narrative even if it’s not correct. I worry that journalists will have that kind of pressure and that what they may react to is not as substantive. They may put out a reaction to a tweet that isn’t substantive. I feel in many ways that it’s almost a dumbing down of journalism and society in general.”
Witt mentioned that, given the frequency with which the President tweets and the reality that oftentimes, one tweet could change the entire news cycle has caused her newsroom to adapt in a number of ways. She stated that her studio has “a deep deck of people we can get into the studio quickly,” and that she frequently weighs whether or not she should give air-time to the President’s more controversial tweets.
This is a conversation happening in major news outlets across the country as reporters and editors grapple with the newsworthiness, or just mere sensationalism, of some of the President’s statements on social media. One newsroom that is thinking critically about how to cover, or not cover, President Trump’s tweets is Teen Vogue, a print and online magazine for teens that has expanded its political and cultural coverage in recent months and come to be known as an educational publication that inspires and encourages politically active youth. Alli Maloney, the magazine’s News and Politics editor, said that discussing how, and when, to cover sensational Tweets from politicians is “a conversation that happens a lot in the newsroom here.” She said that her newsroom has made the decision not to cover every controversial tweet, but rather to determine how that particular tweet fits into a larger issue or narrative and write a more holistic piece on that instead.
“The reported pieces go farther for us,” Maloney said. “We’re not going to write a story about so-and -so said this or so-and-so tweeted this. To us that became not only a waste of time. Our readers are right there in the comments saying ‘I don’t want to read things like this anymore.’ I’m not saying our entire editorial policy is about what our readers are saying, but it says something when our readers are saying, ‘This isn’t real news. I wish you guys would stick to the hard stuff.’”
Newsrooms across the country are having similar conversations, discussing the best practices for covering politicians who can Tweet or Facebook stream major legislative actions directly to constituents with the push of a button. While the immediacy and speed of this poses many challenges for political journalists, Witt maintains that it will ultimately strengthen the profession, as long as journalists don’t allow it to dumb them down.
“If we learn to adapt, it will make us smarter. It will make us sharper.”
National reporter J.D. Durkin agrees, and argues that political reporters who have adapted to social media, particularly Twitter, have established oustanding reach through online platforms, becoming proficient in breaking scoops and exclusives through 140-characters while still staying true to the basics of quality reporting.
“If politicians look to bypass the press, I think reporters are super sharp right now, especially with Twitter,” Durkin said. “For every Tweet or comment by Trump, Twitter get swarmed with thousands of one-person super sleuths — pulling screengrabs and pull quotes and resurfacing links and correcting the record — with commentary that flies around the internet and reaches people’s feeds in moments.”
“Political Twitter playgrounds tend to be A+ as an industry because it’s a ton of really smart and/or egotistical people trying to one-up eachother with scoops, excellent reporting, good work, clever one-liners, and well-delivered original media.”
Similarly, newsrooms are learning how to adapt their own social media strategies to reach as many readers as possible with thoroughly reported information. In Texas, where Governor Abbott’s tweets reach up to 171,000 people, a local non-profit, digital-first news organization, The Texas Tribune, reaches 148,000, and also utilizes a number of other social media platforms, like Instagram and Snapchat, as well. Recently, the organization’s social media team has adopted a new online strategy to boost audience engagement: using “tweestorms” to explain complex local issues with the brevity of 140-character tweets while drawing readers in further into the topic as if they were reading a story.
A “tweetstorm” is when a series of tweets on the same topic are posted in rapid succession, each one continuing where the last left off. The Tribune has used this tactic to explain issues like support for Trump’s border wall, access to potable water in East Texas, and President Trump’s proposed transgender military ban. According to Bobby Blanchard, the social media director for the Texas Tribune, these tweetstorms generally perform above average for the social media team, and typically result in a spike of traffic to the Tribune’s website. He referred to the outlets use of social media storytelling as “explanatory,” and said that his team is ultimately “trying to make sure that this stuff is digestible to our readers and making sure that they can understand why it is important and why we are telling them about it.”
Additionally, national legacy media companies are also adopting social media strategies to reach a greater audience, experiment with storytelling on a variety of platforms, and compete with new, video-centric startup news outlets, like Mic.com and VICE, that tend to reach a younger demographic. NBCUniversal, the company that owns MSNBC and NBCNews.com, and TODAY.com, recently expanded its own online political reporting through a major investment in the social networking platform Snapchat. While the app is beginning to attract users over the age of 25, the average user is 18–24 years old, and reaching into this demographic would greatly expand the reach of news outlets by providing news to millennials through a platform they visit relatively frequently (according to Quartz, the average user visits the site 18 times a day).
Recognizing this potential, NBCUniversal invested $500 million in Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, and recently launched a new daily news program,”Stay Tuned,” available exclusively on the app. The program is hosted by Savannah Sellers and Gadi Schwartz, and breaks down the top political news stories of the day in manageable, continuous 30-second segments. In its first month, the show attracted over 29 million unique monthly viewers, according to NBC officials.
The success of the show, and the willingness of a legacy news corporation reaching into new social media platforms to reach younger demographics and experiment with new forms of storytelling, speaks to how the media industry is evolving to match social media consumption patterns.
“Social media is always changing, and the tools at your disposal are always different,” one NBC official involved in the Snapchat launch said. “But every journalist should know how to use it. Our President is using social media. It’s not 2007 anymore.”
The rise of Twitter in political reporting and discourse has produced a number of challenges and opportunities for political journalists. As the case studies of both Kentucky and Texas show, it can be argued that some aspects of the Trump Administration’s use of social media to bypass traditional news outlets has trickled down to the local level. Some politicians can now use social media accounts to directly reach constituents, often while stifling dissent though online blocking and reducing trust in mainstream outlets by labeling specific journalists or news outlets “fake news” in tweets that reach thousands of people.
Yet social media is also in many ways facilitating conversation between the press and politicians and, according to many experts interviewed for this paper, strengthening the profession of journalism and the skills that many journalists in the field can utilize. As newsrooms continue to expand their social media presence through different forms of online crowdsourcing and social networking platforms, political reporting itself will continue to evolve, and bring with it a generation of informed, engaged constituents.