Twitter: Trump’s Ring of Power

“I often tell students,” media scholar Henry Jenkins once noted, “that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups – evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.”

It’s a provocative grouping, which gives the observation its punch, and, as far as I can tell, it is also an accurate assessment. The engine, so to speak, that drives the media-related transformations of political or religious culture is the imperative to “get your message out.” Of course, as media theorists have observed, how you get your message out may transform the message itself and the audience.

We might say, then, that Twitter is to Trump what radio was to FDR or TV was to Kennedy or Reagan.

It is not that FDR was the first to use radio, or Kennedy TV, or Trump Twitter–those firsts were Coolidge, Truman, and Obama, respectively. Rather it is that these were the first presidents to fully exploit the potential of each medium, for better or for worse. Their success depended upon a confluence of personal qualities, existing cultural dynamics, and the affordances of the medium. Their success also reconfigured the norms of political culture and discourse–there was no going back and no way to undo the consequences.

The striking thing about Trump’s use of Twitter is how he deploys it, not only to circumvent the press but to control the other media as well. Need to shake up the news cycle? No problem, a tweet will do it. Thus the real power of Twitter was not necessarily that of reaching the audience on Twitter itself, which is quite small compared to TV, but in setting the agenda for how other media would cover the election and transition. It is as if Twitter were Sauron’s ring, the one ring to rule them all. In this case, the one medium to rule all media.

Incidentally, not unlike Sauron’s ring, Twitter also tempts users with power, the power to torment and destroy ideological opponents by unleashing armies of underlings, for example. But, like the One Ring, the power it offers to those who would wield it is ultimately illusory and destructive. The wise refuse it. They even refuse the temptation to do good by its use, for they know the ring serves its own ends and ultimately they cannot control the forces they unleash.

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11 thoughts on “Twitter: Trump’s Ring of Power

  1. Very intriguing. I really thought that television had the greatest impact on this election. Although I follow Twitter I’m not sure it can compete with the more traditional methods. (Although I must say that President Obama certainly used the Internet to his advantage in 2008.)

    1. I wouldn’t disagree about the importance of television, or radio for that matter. My point is only that Trump was able to shape the coverage of the other media with his tweets. Thus the real power of Twitter was not necessarily that of reaching the audience on Twitter itself, which is quite small compared to TV, but in setting the agenda for how other media would cover the election and transition.

  2. A very interesting post and set of observations about the use of “new media”. But it has triggered my thinking about old established media, and especially “producers” of the media itself. For example there is a simmering but increasing rage growing in the U.K. with the BBC, both their website and their tv news and chat shows. Once the bastion of independent and balanced reporting they are now more left leaning than the Tower of Pisa in their reports and staff. They have almost become anti-British ignoring the fact that they are not a commercial organisation but one supported by a mandatory license fee from the British taxpayer. What could be the “driver” for this?

  3. Try this for a piece of bile against ordinary voters in the UK:
    “Figures produced by a Twitter activist which claim over 120,000 voters who backed Brexit in the June referendum have now died have been hailed and even celebrated by left wing news outlets.
    Basing his figures on projected demographic change within the voting population, as well as changes based on a “Brexit regret” survey and the voting attitudes of new expat electors, architect and pro-EU twitter user Steve Lawrence claimedearlier this month that were the referendum to be held again, remain would triumph.
    While the majority of the shift he claims is based on so-called Brexit regret, news outlets including the Independent’s social-media focused arm i100and ShortList have leapt on the claimed deaths of Brexit supporters as a cause for celebration. Praising the claims of Mr. Lawrence as “the lord’s work”, ShortList referred to the number of estimated dead leave voters as “one of the most fun aspects” and suggested that remain voters would be “comforted by the news that only six months on… they’re already falling faster than pound sterling”.
    Shortlist writer Tristran Cross gleefully spins a narrative of dead Brits, writing:
    “Imagine them, shuffling into the voting booth, coughing and wheezing, barely enough blood left in their brain to fuel their xenophobic thoughts, dragging their ailing, shaking hand over the slip, carving a feint ‘X’ into the box marked ‘Leave’, feeling like they’d finally got control back, then immediately dropping dead.”

  4. new media, old concepts. I think twitter made news because Trump used it. Thats the purpose of your post, but I can’t agree that it was all twitter. Trump won principally because Trump figured out what a large disenfranchised portion of our society felt and felt very strongly. the fact that it was discussed as it was on twitter and TV are almost secondary

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