What Trump's Twitter and Clinton's Sax Have in Common

 wired.com  07/02/2020 13:00:00   Philip M. Napoli

President Trumps social media strategy may be about to change. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, President Trumps campaign staff is looking at alternatives to Facebook and Twitter for delivering the presidents message to voters. The campaign is considering relying more heavily on Parler, a relatively new social media app with about one million users, but with a policy of minimal content moderation. Founded as an alternative to the ideological suppression of the major tech platforms, Parler is attracting a growing number of conservative political figures; though its user base pales in comparison to Facebooks 175 million or Twitters 53 million U.S. users. The Trump campaign is also investing in its own mobile app, which enables both direct campaign communication and user data gathering, and has almost 800,000 downloads since launching in April.

These moves come in response to recent slaps from mainstream social media. Facebook removed Trump campaign ads and posts featuring an inverted red triangle used by the Nazi party. Twitter fact-checked Trumps posts about mail-in voting and hid his violence-inciting posts behind warning labels. Snap has stopped promoting Trumps Snapchat account on its Discover home page. Most recently, Twitch has taken the unprecedented step of temporarily suspending the presidents account over violations of the platforms hateful conduct policy.

The Trump campaigns efforts to bypass an increasingly vigilant social media infrastructure are the latest development in a long history of politicians circumventing media gatekeepers, a history that highlights the important role new technologies can play in tilting the balance of power, as well as the ways in which media gatekeeping behaviors have changed over time.

This kind of political detouring goes at least as far back as FDRs famous fireside chats, which were delivered to millions of radio listeners in the 1930s and 1940s. Revolutionary at the time, these intimate addresses allowed the president to communicate directly and unfiltered to unprecedentedly large audiences. FDRs innovative use of a then-burgeoning technology was driven in large part by his desire to counteract negative press coverage, a motivation that has obvious parallels with the Trump campaigns current tactics.

When television came along, TV advertising offered an even greater opportunity for politicians to directly reach the public. Its hard to imagine a time when engaging in this type of communication with voters was considered unseemly, but TV advertising pioneer Dwight D. Eisenhower was famously reticent to air televised political ads during his presidential campaign. To think that an old soldier has come to this, he mourned when filming his first ad. Adlai Stevensons opposing campaign was convinced that the strategy would backfire; that voters would reject candidates being sold like dish soap. And major broadcast networks such as NBC and CBS initially refused to air Eisenhowers ads, considering them to be beneath the dignity of the office.

Of course, all parties involved quickly overcame their reluctance when the effectiveness of the ads and the piles of revenue they generated for broadcasters became clear. Congress became so enamored with TV advertising that in 1972 it passed a bill that obligated broadcasters to carry political ads, limited what broadcasters could charge candidates for airtime, and even prohibited broadcasters from refusing ads on the basis of their content (for instance, if they contained outright falsities).

The 1992 presidential campaign proved to be another watershed moment. That year, billionaire third party candidate H. Ross Perot spent nearly $35 million of his own money to purchase large blocks of network TV time to deliver 30- and 60-minute campaign infomercials to American voters, including one that ran on all three of the major broadcast networks on the eve of the election (this was at a time when these networks still commanded fairly large national audiences). The Perot campaign saw this approach as a necessary response to an increasingly consolidated mainstream news medias tendency to ignore third-party candidates.

What many remember most from the 1992 campaign is Bill Clintons sax. While politicians appearances outside of news programs are commonplace today (we do have a reality TV president), Clintons guest spots on programs like the Arsenio Hall Show and MTVs Choose or Lose represented a dramatic shift in presidential campaign strategy, intended, once again, to circumvent established media gatekeepers. In a more fragmented television environment (thanks to cable TV), candidates now had more options available to them for reaching voters while skirting traditional news outlets.

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