News in the Age of Twitter

For some time now, institutions overall have been grappling with a loss of power, even relevance. The rules of the road and the traditional top-down orientation in the world order of things have been turned upside down.

There’s no better example of this than the election of Donald Trump as president. Trump was dismissed by his own party, until winning the nomination, and then was given little chance of toppling Hillary Clinton. He didn’t take the usual pathway to the Oval Office through the halls of Congress or a governor’s mansion.

Trump effectively used Twitter in building an army of loyal voters, frequently circumventing the “filter” of the national press. In fact, his tweets became news on a daily basis—which he leveraged to get more exposure for his message than any of his opponents. Pretty simple, but until the rise of Twitter, no one had done that before.

There’s a lot more, it can be argued, that brought Trump to the White House, but the use of social media and avoiding the usual norms in running for the office tells us something bigger is going on around us.

While Trump’s White House staff may be wrestling with him for control of his smartphone and its capacity to tweet, his use of Twitter to launch broadsides almost always becomes instant news, with multiple days of panel discussion on cable news shows. Lots of politicians and others are taking notice.

This trend of speaking directly to an audience or constituency has been brewing in the digital age for some time. Crowdfunding, online fundraising, social movements now have direct and instant access to the people.

It was just a few years ago that Kony 2012, a documentary film produced by the organization Invisible Children and exposing Joseph Kony, the brutal warlord in Uganda, became, at the time, the most viral video ever shared through social media with over 100 million views. Many aspiring filmmakers would give their right arm to reach an audience that large. And while there is controversy about the film and the organization behind it, the point is well taken that a compelling message can make an impact at warp speed.

Another profound example of life in the digital and social media age, and as a response to the Trump presidency, was the 2017 Women’s March, a worldwide movement hatched by a woman in Hawaii on social media. It is regarded as the largest single-day protest in U. S. history and included protests on seven continents, even one in Antarctica. The protests were streamed live on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

So will social media outlets like Twitter become the new direct news source for the masses? Let’s hope not as tweets, in addition to connecting people in a flat world who were never before connected, have also become a sophisticated vehicle to promote an ideology or propaganda.

Let’s hope that in the next presidential election cycle all tweets from candidates will face, to use a Trumpian phrase, “extreme vetting.”

The good news is that journalism is still alive. After the harsh 2016 presidential election concluded and all sides in the aftermath flailed about “fake news,” The Washington Postreported business was so good in its traditional business of publishing a newspaper that it was hiring new on-the-ground reporters.

My Dad, the late Carroll Robbins, the former editor of both the Springfield Daily News and The Republican, who wasn’t alive when Twitter was born, would be cheered by that news.

Photograph of Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

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