Wesley thoughts and feelings in posts that are

Wesley
Hood

Cindy Skryzcki

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Final
Paper

4 December
2017

 

 

Trump’s Twitter: An
Inverse Panopticon Harming Media Perception, Literacy

 

 

Twitter,
founded in 2006 in San Francisco, is currently rated the third most popular
social media network in the United States and is also a widely used platform
internationally (Isaac & Ember 2016). The social media platform has
grown to have nearly 317 million monthly users (Pew, 2017), in the 11 years
since it’s founding. Its users vary, from members of the public to
celebrities, journalists, and politicians. The platform calls itself a “micro
blogging service,” where users can voice their thoughts and feelings in posts
that are 280 –formerly 140 – characters or less. The social media platform
tracks trending topics, trying to keep users updated on current events. As a
result, Twitter has become a source of breaking news and societal reactions to
present-day events. Due to Twitter’s immense popularity, the site can have a
huge impact, in multiple and profound ways.

A significant
aspect of Twitter’s impact on U.S. society involves how Twitter engages the
world’s political sphere. Due to Twitter’s social media prominence, there are
many notable and significant politicians who currently utilize the social media
service. Of those, arguably the most prominent user is Donald Trump. Through
his Twitter account, Trump is able to connect with members of the public in a
way that allows the public to feel as though he is speaking directly to them.

This gives him the ability to have a huge impact on public perception of a wide
array of topics.

On Nov. 30, 2017
Donald J. Trump tweeted: “The Dow just broke 24,000 for the first time (another
all-time Record). If the Dems had won the Presidential Election, the Market
would be down 50% from these levels and Consumer Confidence, which is also at
an all-time high, would be!'” (@realDonaldTrump, 2017) That statement was
retweeted 21858 times and liked 98094 times. So what is the problem with any of
that? It’s false information being fed to an audience that believes it to be
true simply because of the title of the person relaying the message.

President Donald
J. Trump has a following of over 43 million people on the social media site
Twitter, where he often candidly tweets out information to a large group of his
followers. Because of the high value they place on Trump’s title, as
“President” most of them do not view the messages he is circulating as false,
because they have 100 percent trust that he is being truthful as is supposedly
the case in the relationship of a President and his supporters. This 100
percent trust comes from the fact that they are always watching his tweets, and
therefore they become a main source for the information they are receiving.

Twitter allows for
its users – whether they’re politicians or just regular Joe’s – to communicate
with a selected audience through tweets that are 280 characters or less. The tweets
can contain various forms of media such as; a video, picture, link, survey,
etc. Those users interact with each other by replying to tweets that others
send out from their own pages. Those pages are where each user is able to craft
their own identity and their own authentic vision that they wish to portray to
their followers. Trump is doing just that.

In 1977
philosopher Michel Foucault wrote a book called Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, in which he
describes how we are moving from a disciplinary society to a control society.

In it, Foucault describes the workings of Panopticism and the Panopticon. A
panopticon is a type of prison where the guard is able to see all prisoner
activity from a singular location, although they do not need to do so all the
time. The main idea behind this is that the prisoners are aware of the fact
that the guard is watching their every movement at any given moment and thus
they are unable to tell when they are being watched. Panopticism’s model
“establishes control by presuming the prisoners will adjust their behavior
because of the possibility they are being watched.” (Foucault, 200) Foucault
uses this model to describe how institutions like school, church, the army,
etc. function in modern day society. This theory brings the question of how the
“gaze” of few can control the actions of many.

In many ways, it
seems that Twitter follows a similar yet slightly different model, especially
when you are considering Donald J. Trump’s usage of the social media platform.

Where as the normal panopticon theory has a single watcher, Twitter is the
inverse of that where several watchers follow a given person and their posts.

In this case, the watchers would be Trump’s followers and supporters, with he
serving as the watched. Trump’s followers create an omnipresent “gaze-like”
feeling because they are constantly watching his actions, but he never knows
when exactly. Trump uses Twitter throughout the course of the day, with absurd
Tweets that contain the messages he wants his followers to “watch” being
released at all hours. Again, this is because he never knows when his followers
are watching.

Twitter is a
platform that is voluntarily being used, by Trump to tell the world what he is
doing and thinking all day in 280 character snapshots. Those 280 character
messages seem to transport us inside his head and allow for his followers to
feel as though they are directly involved in the conversation that is
happening. The inverse panopticon model might help us to better understand the
way users use Twitter to follow the President and how the President uses
twitter to directly influence the views of his audience.

This is inherently
bad for those who follow Trump on Twitter and rely on solely his tweets as a
source of information because Trump is using Twitter for power and influence
much in the way that “the panopticon functions as a kind of laboratory of
power” (Foucault, 204). Trump is using twitter as a laboratory of power, and
his followers feed into the information because of his stance and the office he
holds. In addition, his followers further fall into the panopticon because they
see his tweets that favor certain media outlets over others, and then choose to
distrust them because he tells them to. For example, on Nov. 29, 2017 Donald J.

Trump quoted a tweet from Press Secretary Sarah Sanders that discussed how CNN
planned to skip the White House Press Holiday Party, then he said: “Great, and
we should boycott Fake News CNN. Dealing with them is a total waste of time!”
(@realDonaldTrump, 2017) In direct contrast, he then directly links new
organizations like Fox and Friends, and Fox News in tweets that he sees as
positive, and containing “real” information. Such as this tweet on Nov. 29,
2017: “[email protected], we are in record territory in all things having to do
with our economy” (@realDonaldtrump, 2017) and then he cites a statistic on
consumer confidence. This blatant bias towards certain media platforms over
others, causes his followers to adopt similar opinions because they are to
believe that President Trump knows what he is talking about, because after all he
is the President of the United States. In addition, the tweets feed false
information, as there is no direct link between consumer confidence being at an
all new high (Patterson, 2017), for example. Trump’s tweets not only feed false
information, but also attack the press and cause his followers to do the same.

 And Trump has many critics that say this is
negatively affecting media literacy. The president has however defended his use
of social media in a series of tweets, hitting back at claims that it is not
presidential. Trump has and still does come under fierce criticism from
both Democrats and Republicans because they view his social media usage as
negatively affecting the public’s perception of the press and other issues
relating to the government. Trump fought back and continues to with his most
notable account being, a set of tweets in July 2017. He tweeted:  “The FAKE & FRAUDULENT NEWS MEDIA is working
hard to convince Republicans and others I should not use social media – but
remember, I won…….the 2016 election with interviews, speeches and social
media. I had to beat #FakeNews, and did. We will continue to WIN!” and
then added: “My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s MODERN DAY
PRESIDENTIAL. Make America Great Again!” (@realDonaldTrump, 2017).

However, we have
to take in to consideration that Trump is not the first President of the United
States to use this method of bypassing the media to directly get messages out
to the American people. He’s just the first that seems to get mass amounts of
coverage for doing so. And that, is the reason it’s affecting media literacy.

Because instead of covering important stories, the press is choosing to cover
the tweets of Trump rather than real information, which in turn is causing his
followers to not be literate even if they wanted to be. If they wanted to get
further information, beyond his tweets, when they try to research all they are
seeing are stories about his Tweets, not actually news coverage. That’s
directly harming media literacy. But I digress, as I stated before Trump isn’t
the first to take up this strategy. Past leaders like Nixon and Bush. also used
methods to bypass the press and speak directly to the American people, which
also affected media literacy.            

“One method Trump
uses to bypass reporters is through Twitter…” (PBS, 2017). This is indeed the
case, but he isn’t the first to do so. Trump’s battle with the press is epic in
it’s magnitude and influence, but other presidents have fought with the press
from time to time for as long as the office has been in place in this country,
according to Thomas Patterson, a Professor of Government and the Press at the
Harvard Kennedy School. Mr. Patterson recently told Boston.com, “George
Washington thought he was treated unfairly in print. Even Thomas Jefferson, who
praised newspapers as the greatest tool for protecting liberty, changed course
with some of his statements about the press once he was in office.” More
modern President’s have partaken in this behavior as well. And, Patterson states,
“part of the reason Trump can do what he does with Twitter is because past
President’s like Nixon and George W. Bush did similar things.”  

Bush’s
administration sought to bypass the national media and reach local media, which
his administration found to be less hostile towards their agenda. According to
Patterson, “They sent out not only releases directly to local papers, but they
sent canned video stories, some of the local affiliates were carrying them
until others in the press blew a whistle on it.” Indeed, according to The New
York Times, about 20 federal agencies, “produced and distrusted hundreds of
televisions news segments…” According to the Times, the reports were designed
to fit smoothly into a typical local newscast, and were broadcast in cities
such as; New York, Chicago and Dallas. 

During Nixon’s time in office, Early in his presidency, the administration attacked the
television networks and used public policy to attack the press, according to
Patterson. “It was done most publically by Vice President Spiro Agnew, who
called the networks ‘nattering nabobs of negativism.” The Nixon administration
also threatened to strip all of the networks of their licenses. Nixon then
began using other ways to directly reach the public, like through
radiobroadcasts. Nixon used the same tactic as Trump is employing, of
belittling the press in front of the American people so that their opinions of
the press followed his opinions.

So how do we begin to fix this issue? The issue of
media literacy and how Twitter and other social media platforms – which have
become one-stop shops for information – affect media literacy?

At the end of the
day, this isn’t about Trump’s twitter usage. Sure, it’s unconventional and it
is harmful, but there is a deeper issue hiding in this country. We need to call
out the real issue here — America has a major media literacy problem. While the
numbers have slightly fluctuated, a recent Reuters poll found that 45
percent of the country has “hardly any” confidence in the news media. It should
then be no surprise that two Yale professors published a study showing that “a
link between analytic thinking and media truth discernment was driven both by a
negative correlation between Cognitive Reflection Test and perceptions of fake
news accuracy (among liberal voters), and a positive correlation between
Cognitive Reflection Test and perceptions of real news accuracy (among
conservative voters).” What does that mean? In other words, those who believe
less in vetting for quality news sources and critically thinking about the
information they are taking in were more likely to believe fake news and the
rely solely off of one source for information – such as President Trump’s
tweets.

In a study from
Stanford, researchers evaluated students’ ability to assess information/sources
and those conducting the study said, “the results were bleak and dismaying, a
threat to democracy.” Most participants in the study were unable to tell the
difference between information that was found to be false or misleading in a
tweet from information from a credible and vetted news source.

This
could be seen as a definite polarization between political parties and their
respective beliefs, a polarization that is affected by Trump’s messages and his
Twitter account. Studies have shown that group polarization on Twitter does
exist, especially within the realm of politics. Studies surrounding how
politicians utilize Twitter have shown interesting interactions between
politicians and their Twitter followers. Politicians have used the social media
outlet to spread political propaganda and gain support from their followers,
including during peak moments of an election campaign. Aragon’s (2013)
Barcelona study of the 2011 Spanish national election found that Twitter
activities for political candidates closely followed important events during
the election, such as debates and Election Day. This peak in activity not only
applies to political candidates, but to their followers as well.

 A recent study of the presidential election
studied Trump’s tweets during the Republican primaries and found that they were
vocally amplified and defended by his loyal Twitter followers, who ensured that
their candidate was always trending on Twitter and other forms of social media
(Wells, Shah, Pevehouse, Yang, Pelled & Boehm, 2016). Utilizing social
media during peak moments of their campaign allows politicians to garner
support from their followers when they need it most.  But, the exact causes behind Twitter’s
polarization still needs to be studied and it isn’t just during election cycles
that politicians are using this methodology and feeding into it, Trump
continues to take advantage of the panopticon that is Twitter by furthering the
divide between his followers and non-supporters, but issuing information that
may not be 100 percent true, but is seen as such by his followers while the
non-supporters see through it.

 The above studies show that there is a dire
need for an investment in media literacy education in this country, whether
that be at the high school, collegiate, or public forum level. As Thomas
Jefferson said, “a well informed citizen is the best defense against tyranny.”
And while that may be extreme, it’s true, and the public is left defenseless if
they have no perception of the truth and literacy around the information they
are seeing.

And while it may
seem as though most Americans don’t mind the President’s twitter usage, that’s
actually not the case. Twitter may be one of
President Donald Trump’s favorite methods of communication, but many Americans
seem to wish he would change his behavior on the platform, according to a new
ABC News/Washington Post poll. About
67% of Americans disapprove of the way Trump uses Twitter, according to the
poll. When asked to describe the President’s Twitter usage, about 68% found
Trump’s tweets “inappropriate,” 65% described the tweets as “insulting,” while
52% called it “dangerous.” The poll came directly after Trump attacked and
berated the media as being “fake news.” The ABC/Post poll
also found that 57% of Americans like Trump less the more they hear about him.

At the same time, Trump’s approval rating has fallen to 36%.

While Trump’s use
of Twitter may be startling to some, what we have seen is that it is nothing
out of the ordinary for a President to do – in the sense that it is a way for
him to cut through the press and directly influence the opinions of his
followers and voters. Trump uses Twitters to influence their opinion of
different news networks and also a wide array of topics, because the idea is
that the President is being truthful in every statement he makes, even if that
statement is 280 characters or less. 
We’ve seen that Trump uses his twitter account as an inverse panopticon
that traps his users and followers from any sort of media truth or literacy by
shrouding them in a cloud of false and biased information. The way to fix this
would be through incorporating media literacy into the education of many
Americans, but are we ready for that? I’m not entirely sure. 

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