Communications technology is a key element at the center of politics. The printing press, the telegram, radio, television, and the Internet have successively formed a long cascade of change in how politicians and leaders communicate with citizens. Twitter seems to be the latest iteration in this evolution.
President Trump has decided that it is important to communicate through Twitter because it allows him to speak directly to his base “outside of the filter of the mainstream media,” by which he means the media’s pesky insistence on fact-checking his comments and including unflattering news in analysis of his presidency.
Trump in July took this defense of his social-media use to a new place: Not only is his tweeting perfectly fine for a president, but it is defining what it means to be presidential.
My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL. Make America Great Again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 1, 2017
In a sense, this is probably true, for better or worse.
But Trump’s defense of his tweeting depends largely on the idea that he’s unusually skilled at social media, playing the strings of Twitter like a fiddle.
What if, instead, Trump’s not that great at Twitter? What if … Barack Obama is better?
Allow us to present that case:
Donald Trump might use Twitter considerably more than Barack Obama, but even the casual observer can see that users overwhelmingly prefer the former president. In fact, Obama has around three times as many followers as Trump.
Obama boasts 93.6 million followers on Twitter and has six of the 10 most-liked tweets of all time, while Trump has a comparatively paltry 36.1 million followers.
And if we look at the number of retweets per tweet — how much engagement each tweet gets on average — we see that Obama actually fares much better than does Trump.
Obama has used Twitter only sporadically since January, tweeting a handful of times every month to weigh in on national conversations, including the terrorist attack in Manchester, England, and Sen. John McCain’s brain cancer diagnosis. He did so again two weeks ago, after the deadly violence in Charlottesville.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” Obama said, quoting former South African president Nelson Mandela in tweets.
"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…" pic.twitter.com/InZ58zkoAm
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 13, 2017
The message, which shows a picture of Obama smiling at four children, became the most liked tweet of all time. It has been retweeted more than 1.6 million times and liked 4.566 million times and counting.
Given Trump’s savvy for digital propaganda, it must be frustrating for him that he only commands a third of the following that former president Obama does.
Something deeper must be underlying the numbers. What’s behind the enormous gulf?
A Harvard scholar of political science, Joseph Nye, coined the term “soft power” in the 1980s. Nye has written that “Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use … economic and military might to make others follow your will.”
Unlike real-world politics, there is no hard power in the online sphere. Soft power—essentially a synonym for coolness, received admiration, or genuine respect here—is the currency of social media. Obama exuded a presidential equanimity and global consciousness that drove worldwide perception of the United States up 15% during his eight years as president, according to Pew Research.
That positive view of the States immediately suffered a precipitous drop when Trump took office in January. Where 64% of global citizens favored Obama, only 22% of them have a positive view of Trump.
These numbers, coupled with the fact that Trump’s first day in office inspired the single largest protest in U.S. history, underlie one simple conclusion: People simply don’t like Trump. They don’t like him in real life, and they don’t like him online.
In the real world, people may laugh at his antics, they may watch his borderline syntax-less speeches, they may even obligingly vote for him as the least worst of two options, but they still don’t like him. Conveniently for the electioneering Trump, this fact can be hidden in real life, but online—where popularity among human users is truly democratic and organic—the numbers tell the whole story.