Yesterday, President-elect Donald Trump gave his critics a preview of what may turn out to be a very frustrating four years. With a couple of tweets, Trump intimidated a House Republican caucus that had spent years riding roughshod over both its own leadership and the Obama White House. The caucus’s ill-considered plans to undermine congressional ethics oversight was abandoned in part due to Trump’s gentle criticism of it. For good measure, he also reaped the benefits of tweets criticizing U.S. manufacturers for exporting jobs when Ford Motor announced that it was canceling plans to build a $1.6 billion car factory in Mexico and would instead invest $700 million on a new facility in Michigan.
A pair of wins on that scale would constitute a pretty good day for any president, but they are extraordinary considering that Trump won’t be sworn in for another 16 days and that he did it singlehandedly using social media rather than traditional methods involving copious staff work. While we still have a lot to learn about what Trump presidency will mean, these achievements should provide a very late wakeup call to those who mistakenly assume that his unorthodox methods can’t provide results or that he would be putty in the hands of Congress or big business.
I love Twitter. I’ve been on it since 2009 and I now spend a lot of time on it — probably more than I should. But it’s addictive because (a) it’s a great way to write something and get instant feedback, (b) it’s a great way to catch up on articles I might have missed, and (c) it’s a great way to follow breaking news.
Yet, for all its strengths, Twitter is, as the business press tells us, in big trouble. It has some 310 million users and is the second-largest social media site behind Facebook (with 1.1 billion users) but it is not growing as fast as it once did, and not as fast as other sites such as LinkedIn, Google+, Tumblr, etc. Wall Street is frustrated that Twitter isn’t being at effective at “monetizing” its eyeballs as competitors are. In 2014, an Atlantic article even predicted the death of Twitter.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, is a prolific tweeter. And as with most policymakers, analysts, and activists who expound on Twitter, often their tweets can provide windows into their minds more illuminating than carefully edited essays.
Alas, from this recent tweet, it appears that Roth doesn’t really understand terrorism. He opines, in twitterese, “Abusive #Nigeria army is big part of why we have Boko Haram. Leahy Law key to ensure US aid doesn’t reinforce abuse.” Now, don’t get me wrong: Nigeria is an extraordinarily corrupt country and its army is often dysfunctional. Nor is the Nigerian army by any means a paradigm of human rights.
Whatever one’s opinion of Obama administration policies—and even on these pages there are different assessments—it is clear that President Obama and his administration have embraced social media far more than his predecessors. During the 2012 campaign, journalists noted that Obama had an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even if those counting deducted the millions of Obama’s fake followers.
Not only does the State Department tweet, but so does John Kerry. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweets constantly, even if at times nonsensically. While it’s all well and good to embrace the new communications tool, the technology is no substitute for substance.
My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.
Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.