Although messages posted on platforms such as Twitter initially seemed both ephemeral and insubstantial, they now have the power to drive news cycles, incite real-world rebellion and carry the first announcements of important policy changes. Scholars now agree that they are valuable sources for the archives of political figures and eras.
Carole McGranahan, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder has PhDs in both history and anthropology. In recent months, she’s analyzed social media practices from the perspective of these disciplines, in particular the voluminous archive created by the president.
“One of the things I've written about for a very long time is what becomes history,” she says. “What sort of events and experiences do we categorize as history and which ones do we leave in the category of personal experience?”
Historians will draw from social media to tell the history of the last four years, from the pandemic and the federal response to it, to protests regarding racism and police behavior, to an attempt to overturn a legitimate election. McGranahan discusses the ways that it has both reflected and shaped these events.
Professor Carole McGranahan: "Agencies such as public health departments are trying to figure out how to operate in this moment. It's one thing to be presenting neutral, safe fact-based evidence-based information - but what do you do with the responses you get on social media?" (Photo: Carole McGranahan)
You’re trained as an anthropologist as well as a historian. How does your familiarity with both disciplines affect your viewpoint?
I see the two as going together. The anthropology part is more what's going on right now, and the history part is “How did we get here?”
How do the writings of government leaders inform the historical view of their work or character?
They are very important. This is true going back for as long as we have written records. We turn to the writings of world leaders to understand who they were, what they were thinking, what their strategies were.
Those writings exist across different genres. Sometimes we have personal letters, letters written to loved ones. Other times we have formal or official documents that have been deposited in archives. Other times we might have writings that have been written for the public, such as poetry, or short essays, or their biographies.
Writings by government figures have always been important to our understanding of the person who's inhabiting the office, not just as public figures but also as private ones.
When did historians begin to think that writings on social media should be included in this source material?
Some scholars thought that these were important from the very beginning. That cuts across the disciplines: historians, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists. Others might have thought this was a bit more frivolous in the beginning, as did the general public and probably some journalists.
But reporters, and most scholars, pretty quickly clued into the fact that something substantive was happening, a part of public culture and political life that deserved their attention.
Scholars have written about all the different platforms, whether early discussion-based forums or chat embedded in games or virtual worlds online, and then the advent of what we now think of as social media. At first it was MySpace and Facebook, now Twitter, Instagram, WeChat, WhatsApp, all of these sorts of things. Now they're taken very seriously.
Do social media “records” provide different sorts of insights?
Different social media platforms enable and shape communication differently. Facebook is a place for private communication for the most part. Twitter is for communicating with the public in general, and not necessarily with a group of people who you've let into your social media world.
What we see with Trump is really different than almost anyone else. Prior to him, most politicians used Twitter as a fairly neutral site for communication about political accomplishments, congratulating someone else or honoring veterans on Memorial Day, but not for expressing unedited opinions.
In the past, the idea was that the office of the president was the account holder on a social media account and that whoever was in the role of president was representing that space, speaking as the president rather than speaking as themselves.
Donald Trump breaks that mold. It's not about the office, it's about the person. It wasn't as if when he became president, he adopted a more grave or serious tone, which might be expected of a U.S. president. In fact, it was the exact opposite.
Do you think he's thought how the things that he tweets or retweets might affect how history sees him?
I do think he thinks about that. He's clearly very invested in the way that he will be remembered, whether as a successful businessman, or as having the largest crowd ever at an inauguration.
What he appears unable to do is to have an external view of himself, or himself in the role of president, that’s dispassionate. That includes not being able to assesses the credibility of a source that he is retweeting. Anyone needs to do that if they are going to share something, which is perceived by others as a stamp of endorsement.
His Twitter presence is absolutely crucial to how he's perceived in this country and in the world. His Twitter feed has become a policy-making platform, a decision-announcing platform that’s not separate from the presidency.
Whether it's now or whether it's 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, any scholar will have to look at his tweets to have a sense of what this time period was like and how important, in a way that we have never seen before, the availability of this medium to speak directly to the public in an unrehearsed, unedited way was to both what his presidency was like on paper and how it was felt in real time by Americans.
Have the president’s tweets affected the tone of political discourse on social media?
His behavior has made it safer than it was before to forward conspiracy theories, anti-democratic or racist viewpoints, to push back against things that are fact-based and reasonable. He has emboldened other people to speak in this register, in a tone of defiance, of anger.
Social media doesn't go away. It is part of the archive that's in the making. We know that hate speech begets hateful behavior, and scholars will be able to make correlations between things that he said and how they filtered down.
Have you seen others in government use the medium this way?
Most politicians are more mild, and fall into that camp I was describing before of sharing information, congratulations, positive news and are not using Twitter as a verbal battlefield.
However, in the last four years, more people felt compelled to speak back or perhaps to correct misinformation. A lie is serious at all points of command, but more serious when coming from the president.
Has social media changed the nature of interactions between citizens and government officials?
There's something about the anonymity of engaging strangers online, sitting in your living room or at your kitchen table, that somehow feels safe. Online communication enables things that people would not do face-to-face.
I'm in Boulder County, Colo., and on Facebook, the Boulder County public health department regularly puts up posts about the pandemic and COVID-19, things you should and shouldn't do, where we are in the different state and county regulations. Some of the people commenting are absolutely vicious.
A public health department, a governor, a president now exists on social media in ways that they didn't before – constituents, or people anywhere in the world for that matter, can speak directly to public figures or to government institutions and agencies.
Agencies such as public health departments are trying to figure out how to operate in this moment. It's one thing to be presenting neutral, safe fact-based evidence-based information - but what do you do with the responses you get on social media?
How do you respond when people start challenging you, saying “scamdemic,” or that the election was stolen? Do you respond or do you just let those comments stand?
What sort of presence do you have online? Do you have a playful one? Do you try to create a personality to interact with your constituents, or is that too risky in these days? These are questions that were not on anyone's radar 20 years ago.
Is the medium changing behavior, or is it amplifying attitudes that were already there?
Hate and violence that's category-based, directed at people who belong to certain categories of identity and belonging, is not new in the world.
Social media is a new way to bring people together. I think it touches a chord with a lot of people because it's so self-directed. You don't have to wait for the nightly news to come on at six, or a radio program that airs once a week at a certain day or time. Social media is 24 hours a day.
What can government officials do to navigate the social media world?
I would say they need to take their social media accounts seriously. Any time you have an account, and you have an employee who is posting things publicly in your name, take that role very seriously.
Don't think that's something that anyone can do without being thoughtful about the image of the organization, its leadership and the community that you want to share with the world and stand by.
Is there anything else government officials should keep in mind?
I would really emphasize that credibility matters. I'm a registered Democrat and over the course of my life I have not taken Republicans to be purveyors of falsehoods. Instead, I've taken them to have different views on how society should be governed, how the economy should be run, and so on.
One of the real flaws of our societal response during the Trump presidency, including the media, is a hesitancy to know how to respond. Can we call these lies? What does it mean to even go as far as to say something is misinformation? It's really only been very, very late in the game that social media platforms, as well as print media, have started to be bolder in calling out purposeful misinformation that is doing damage to our democratic system.
Why does simply saying that something that is true is “fake” - election results, for example - seem to work so well?
It’s a populist sort of approach in which deception is part of political strategy. It's not that we haven't seen these sorts of things before. We're in a moment right now where this is happening in a number of places around the world.
Many countries have multiple parties, and the strategy is not to try and defend your stance or your position, but instead to cast aspersions on the other side.
How do we push back against this?
This country has a history of democracy, even if it works imperfectly at times. We have a history that we can draw on to right the ship, to make corrections, especially around racism and communities that have been marginalized and dispossessed for a long time.
We need to draw on our strengths. There's evidence of things that we have done well, things that we have to offer each other, things that we can build together.
We both have to correct lies and to provide truthful information, not just about the election, but to try and keep people safe in the pandemic. We also need to combat the work that these lies and misinformation do. The thing that's most distressing right now is that misinformation is causing people to believe they need to go out and take violent action.
It’s been disturbing to see the ways in which the mainstream media and government has been discredited. People are turning to sources like YouTube for news. Anyone can make a video in their home, put it up and claim it to be true, using the rhetoric of the mainstream media as “false news.”
That’s a challenge for state and local governments. How do you regain credibility and the trust of a segment of the population that has been told for the last four years that media and government are lying to you?
How can that be changed?
The message has been coming from inside the building, from the very top, that everything you hear, the media is not trustworthy.
We need a healthy media in honest partnership with leadership at all levels, such that we can have political disagreement, but not the state of discourse and scorn that we're in right now.