On Trump, Twitter and transparency

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As has been true of many mornings in 2017, President Donald J. Trump started the day by sending out a series of tweets from his personal Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump — including one regarding media criticism of his use of social media.

At least, we think the president tapped out a message on his iPhone and sent it. We don’t know for sure if he authored it — and that’s a problem for public trust and the historical record.

Not all @realDonaldTrump tweets are written and sent by the President, and projects like the “@TrumpOrNotBot” that seek to determine if Trump wrote the tweet aren’t authoritative.

As with any tweet by @POTUS, the public should be able to know who wrote a @realDonaldTrump tweet. Someday, perhaps Twitter or Facebook will work with a White House to show tweets or updates written by a president differently, adding a Verified layer that acts as a watermark or a simple annotation in the meta data that changes how the text is displayed.

In the meantime, there are two strategies to address this: either the president starts adding -DJT or the Trump administration ends any “ghost tweeting” by White House staff, whether by Dan Scavino, the director of social media, or others. The latter option seems more likely, and a better choice. (The probability of this or any president being willing to add 5 characters to each tweet is low.) A presidential seal might be a fix, too, as illustrated below:

There are larger issues with this president’s use of social media, Twitter included.

There are both good and bad uses of social media by public officials, of which informing public is a key one, particularly regarding public safety or national security.

Misinforming the public, attacking the press or private citizens, and insulting allies are all bad uses of social media.

That includes the president, but special considerations apply. When any president tweets insults, false statements or unsubstantiated accusation, it erodes public trust. That’s one reason the Wall Street Journal editorial board took Trump to task today.

The medium a president selects for the message isn’t the point: it’s the words he uses.

Yes, they’re tweets, but it’s important to divorce the medium from the message.

Each public statement by a President of the United States matters.

In 2017, @realDonaldTrump tweets are statements by the President. The @RealPressSecBot, which formats each tweet into a White House press release, illustrates this point:

We hope that the president and his staff choose those words carefully and transparently.

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  • I’m a bit confused by the argument here. It’s been a long time since we could assume that Presidents were the sole authors of their public statements. That’s why they employ speechwriters, etc. Why is this situation different?

    Rather than introducing new technical and bureaucratic mechanisms to prove who wrote a given tweet, it would seem a lot simpler to just view these tweets like we do other official communications: as public statements of unknown authorship that express the position of the President.

    • Alex Howard

      Sorry not to be clear, Kevin. When the White House issues a statement by the president, it’s often by crafted by his communications staff. When the president speaks in an interview, press conference or town hall, we understand him to be making the statement himself. While many elected officials use social media as a place to publish canned press releases, some do use it personally, typing and tapping out their own words, taking pictures or even recording video. When a given politician creates an expectation that he or she is the one behind the account, as Trump has, the public (rightly) assumes that words are his or hers, not a staffer. It would be simpler to make the assumption that you do, but we know otherwise: many of this president’s tweets would never be written by a staffer, for a variety of reasons. The public can’t know for sure, however, which is why this was worth calling attention to today.