He Said What?

President Trump's use of social media is overturning decades of conventional wisdom from scholars of communications and management and some anthropologists, writes Maurice Hall.

October 10, 2018
 
Istockphoto.com/ViewApart
 

President Trump’s use of social media has been criticized for being destructive to his stated political goals and objectives, and confusing for his political allies at home and abroad. Most of this commentary has appeared in major broadcast and cable networks as well as major print outlets such as The New York Times.

Essentially, the argument has been that the president should stop tweeting and relegate himself to using the expected outlets for presidential communication -- his press office, carefully selected traditional media outlets and writers/historians who will construct more orthodox and multilayered narratives of his presidency and his decision making.

Like much of what we have observed during Trump’s tenure, this accepted wisdom has been turned on its head by his behavior.

Rather than take the accepted view of his tweeting, as is often presented in the traditional media, I would like to suggest that Trump’s use of social media can be examined productively through the lens of what we have come to understand about effective leader communication over the past 50 or so years. Trump will cause scholars in communication and management and some anthropologists, among those in other academic disciplines, to rethink our understanding of leader communication.

More recent academic research that has focused on the study of leader communication (under the broad scholarly banner of transformational leadership) has argued that leaders are at their most transcendent and, therefore, at their most effective when they are able to persuade their followers to buy into a grand, collective vision, a positive values-based expectation for the future.

Academics such as James McGregor Burns ask us to think about leader influence, as expressed through their communication, as being at its most effective when based on motivational principles that encourage followers to buy in to a vision of the future that is high-minded and that taps into these followers’ best instincts. In a similar vein, management scholar Robert House helped us think about charisma as an important construct in understanding this type of leadership. Put simply, the research on charisma in leaders links its manifestation to behaviors associated with strong role modeling, strong self-confidence and the ability to communicate high expectations to their followers. Think Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or John Kennedy’s “Ask Not What Your County Can Do for You.”

Arguably, leader communication usually has been understood by some scholars as being most effective when the leader’s message is perceived as collectively positive.

Trump has flipped this concept on its head. His rise to influence and power derived from his ability to use highly polarizing language and phrasing to define his perspective of the world for his followers. Trump has rejected our understanding of leadership as thriving on popular support and, instead, has exemplified a type of leadership that is anchored in a very narrow but passionately intense base of support and a model of governing that uses policy primarily to reward loyalty in his followers. His public communication as a leader has often been received as divisive and destructive to any vision of a pluralistic, multicultural society.

What is more, Trump has complicated how the traditional media pursues its agenda. Instead of the media coverage being dictated largely by newsroom editors in print and broadcast outlets across the country, Trump’s tweeting has ensured that the media agenda is often set -- and is just as often disrupted -- by responding to what the president tweets on a daily basis. He is controlling the news cycle in a way we have never seen before. Not only does the collective media wait on his tweets, but Trump, through his use of social media, has been able to get his viewpoints broadcast to the world while being able to avoid having to sit through interviews with respected, tough media interrogators.

How does he do this?

Trump, in his use of social media, engages very effectively in what communication scholar Gail Fairhurst describes as “framing.” This is a very specific leader communication tool that is highly strategic and is used to narrow the interpretation of an issue to suit the leader’s larger strategic purposes. An example of framing is the president’s reinterpretation of negative media coverage as “fake news.” He has used the term regularly to divert attention away from the substance of the issue being covered and has his followers focus instead on how he feels -- and therefore how they are supposed to feel -- about the very fact that the issue is being covered in the first place.

The president also uses this technique of framing to amplify the voice of a cultural minority, while also positioning opposing opinions as a threat to his supporters’ “values.” He routinely uses repetition (“fake news”), idiosyncratic language (“the swamp”), strategic phrasing (“witch hunt”) and punctuation (abundant exclamation points) to speak directly and viscerally to his base on Twitter. Because his use of framing is so highly affective, it is very difficult to challenge his public communication through reasoned, rational analysis that focuses on factual rebuttals.

Why is this important?

It is not enough to decry or moralize publicly about the president’s social media habits. His model of leader communication and the intersection of his behavior with the prevalence of a variety of social media platforms provides a great opportunity -- indeed an obligation -- for undergrads, graduate students and faculty members in disciplines such as communication, media studies, political science and anthropology to study both the advantages and the potential dangers of this kind of interaction by the president with the body politic.

Of particular interest is his ability to demonize groups or individuals with a catchphrase (“Crooked Hillary”). The power of the presidency in the hands of someone who views the use of epithets as a form of brand marketing is deeply disconcerting. Leader communication does not merely describe reality; rather, leader communication calls into being the reality with which it engages. It is powerful because, used judiciously, leader communication can change the course of history (think Winston Churchill). It is also worth studying Trump’s ability to set the media’s agenda rather than the other way around. We have seen the president use the media to frame his agenda and influence the news cycle to fit his proposed policies. Our current debate about immigration, for example, has as much to do with the president’s communication about the issues as it has to do with the actual issue itself.

In an intentionally pluralistic democracy such as ours, we should be rightfully skeptical about the accumulation of so much potential power in the hands of one individual, or in one office -- even if or, perhaps, especially because -- that office is president of the United States.

Bio

Maurice L. Hall is dean of the School of Arts and Communication at the College of New Jersey.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top