It should come as no surprise to anyone with a Twitter account that social media allows, and in some ways demands, politicians and public figures to respond to news events in real time. 16% of registered voters follow candidates for office on social media, with 41% of them getting their major political news from those accounts, according to a Pew Research Center study.
In the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, that reaction often took the form of a condemnation. Democrats and Republicans alike condemned the neo-Nazi protestors and President Trump’s statement that blamed “many sides” for its moral equivocation.
— (((Rep. Nadler))) (@RepJerryNadler) September 6, 2017
But is this race to tweet a condemnation a new phenomenon? Not exactly, said NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving in an interview with MediaFile.
“In the old days, you waited for a reporter to call you to be outraged or if you were really outraged you called a news conference and called the reporters and said, come hear how outraged we are,” Elving said.
With two-thirds of American adults using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, every politician has garnered a social media presence to keep up with the growing social media audience and their online critics. Politicians no longer need to wait for a reporter to call to give an opinion, they just need a smartphone.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) August 25, 2017
“There is a necessity to make sure that you communicate your outrage as quickly and as clearly and as often as you possibly can,” said Elving.
In an interview with MediaFile, Kevin Lerner, a professor of journalism at Marist College, attributed these condemnations to a wave of tribalism in today’s politics.
“Everybody wants to be a part of a group and part of being a part of a group is identifying yourself as not being a part of the other group,” Lerner said. “If you don’t immediately dissociate yourself, you are in some way associated with it.”
— Rep. Ted Deutch (@RepTedDeutch) August 24, 2017
The ease with which constituents can interact with their elected officials online allows any Twitter user to demand a reaction from an official, taking on the role of the “citizen journalist” in a limited sense. Rather than wait to be caught without an appropriate response, politicians are making the first move and are issuing frequent statements to cover their bases.
Although mainstream media may not have originally called on politicians to condemn events like the protests in Charlottesville, these calls on social media eventually made their way into and dominated mainstream news reports.
In an interview with MediaFile, NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley likened it to calling on all Democrats to disavow violence against Republican lawmakers after it was revealed that the shooter who opened fire on Republicans at their softball practice in June was a supporter of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
“It’s an interesting demand to make and probably not one that would get a lot of mainstream coverage in the news media,” said Horsley. “But maybe social media gives people an alternate avenue to make that demand.”
Social media is especially predisposed to that type of rhetoric. Though the guiding principles of journalism are fairness and accuracy, Twitter is ruled by humor and pithiness. Twitter, with its 140 character limit, tends to reward the sharpest takes–which, though often funny, are not always an accurate picture of a news event or of editorial judgment.
In addition, the calls for condemnation may have become a tactic used to trap politicians.
“If you’re putting people on the spot to disavow something that we can all probably assume they disavow, in a way you’re setting a trap for them,” said Horsley. A trap, he added, that the president has walked right into. “There is a little bit of gotcha to it isn’t there?”
While the rise in calls for condemnations may not be a new phenomenon, they are likely serving a larger journalistic purpose than ever before. Social media makes politicians constantly accessible, therefore, there’s a new immediate demand to respond to an event in real-time instead of crafting a special press conference. Social media also allows politicians to be held to a new standard, giving citizen journalists and Twitter-addicts more influence over the narrative of current events.