This past week has been like no other in American politics. Despite the violence, a historic impeachment, the militarization of the nation’s capital to prepare for a presidential inauguration, there is an eerie calm. It’s because Donald Trump is off Twitter. Of course, these events generated terabytes of hot takes, memes, retweets, and arguments. But the temperature has cooled. There’s no bully at the bully pulpit. No longer can Trump stoke 88 million followers, drive a news cycle, or redirect attention away from a scandal. According to social media monitoring service Zignal Labs, online misinformation about election fraud is down 73 percent. And it feels, dare I say, refreshing. Whether Trump should be “deplatformed” from Twitter and other sites raises serious questions about free speech and the few billionaires who control the biggest social media platforms. Put these matters aside. Now that the @realDonaldTrump experience is over, it’s time to recognize that the President of the United States — or any government official — should not have his or her finger on the Tweet button. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for democracy. If there is a lesson for the incoming Biden team, it’s that when it comes to 280-character missives, just say no.
At its best, Twitter is like the best after-work bar you can imagine — without the booze. In one place, you have a curated group of people interested in chatting about exactly what you find interesting. It becomes familiar, and over time, you get to “know” people you may rarely see or have never met. In my slice of the Twitterverse, I know who cares about my favorite football team (CNN’s Jake Tapper and Congressman Brendan Boyle, to name two ) and who shares my interest in urban development (venture capital investor Kim-Mai Cutler). Like your local bar, Twitter is a place where everyone knows your name — but it’s open all the time.
For a President, though, it’s not about hanging out virtually with online friends and acquaintances; Twitter is a way to send messages directly to the American people without the filter of the media.
In most cases, this is a good thing, but in the hands of someone like Trump, with no compunction about lying or egging on violence, Twitter doesn’t inform. It’s a way to misinform, incite, and inflame. Add in the ability of fervid supporters to automate retweets (the way information gets shared on Twitter), then any message sent by the President can spread among supporters almost instantaneously. Indeed, a Cornell University study of COVID-19 misinformation during the pandemic’s first months found that Trump was “likely the largest driver” of this “infodemic.” And thanks to the campaign by Trump to propagate the false idea that he won, 66 percent of Republicans in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll say that there is solid evidence of widespread voter fraud. That’s in contrast to the 66 percent of all those polled who say there is no evidence of fraud.
Hopefully, there are few public officials with the megalomaniacal tendencies and compromised ethics of Trump. But even for them, Twitter is designed in a way to reward communication that does not strengthen civil society. Not only is it hard to convey a complex point in 280 characters, the platform rewards scoring points through sarcasm and mockery, confrontation, and controversy. The more partisan you are, the more you are liked and retweeted. Now more than ever, these are traits we do not need from our leaders.
Perhaps more damaging is that the more time an official spends on Twitter, the more she is exposed to a distorted view of what her constituents actually want because the Twitterverse is anything but representative of the nation.
Democrats on the platform, for instance, are younger, whiter, more educated, more male, and more liberal than the rest of the party. Unsurprisingly, according to a study of Democrats online from last year by Third Way, Twitter Democrats also were more concerned with social issues such as abolishing ICE (64 percent support versus 29 percent of all Democratic primary voters) than with kitchen-table issues such as reducing the cost of health care (24 percent support to 43 percent) — and Twitter Democrats are 24 percentage points more likely to call themselves Democratic Socialists. Another study of the Democratic electorate, by the nonpartisan Hidden Tribes project, had similar findings: only 11 percent of online Democrats are African American compared to 24 percent of Democrats in the real world, and 53 percent of Democrats on social media said they have become more liberal over their lifetimes; only 30 percent of offline Democrats said the same.
Thankfully, Joe Biden ignores Twitter. Even though his staff is arguing with the company to have the followers of @POTUS transfer to Biden just as they did from Obama to Trump and everyone from the Chief of Staff to the incoming Second Gentleman have accounts, Biden does not actually tweet. When his staff does on his behalf, it’s usually mercifully non-controversial– urging people to wear a mask or praising his latest nominees.
Indeed, the Biden campaign’s central strategy from before the primaries to Election Day was to ignore Twitter. As one Biden campaign aide explained to CBS News’ Ed O’Keefe on election night about how they won: “It’s very simple. We turned off Twitter. We stayed away from it. We knew that the country was in a different headspace than social media would suggest.”
The Biden Administration — every Cabinet member and senior official — should follow the President-elect’s lead here and turn off Twitter. Take it off your phone. Block it on your laptop. Rely on your communications’ staff to tell you when there’s breaking news. That delay may actually lead to a better response. Put into perspective what a Twitter firestorm about your latest initiative actually means in the real world —almost always, nothing. Ignore it. So, too, the incoming administration should follow Biden’s lead and make Twitter boring again.