“Describe yourself in a sentence.” Teachers commonly use this phrase as an invitation to their students, presumably to get to know them better. All your thoughts, ideas, motivations, and aspirations, all condensed into one sentence. That is a lot of editing — your gist can only contain the ‘best’ or the most ‘memorable’ aspects of your life and whatever that amounts to is to be your public presentation. Now imagine that your micro-introduction impacts the lives of every student sitting in the class with you. So it is these days on a global scale: 140 characters can change the world.
It is now essential for leaders from all around the world — United States, United Kingdom, India, UAE, Jordan, Turkey and even the Vatican — to have an active social media presence. This demand of immediacy may seem a novel invention of the high tech era, but in truth leaders have relied upon an immediate access relationship with their ‘followers’ since the advent of radio. With the radio’s arrival, a new medium could connect people at a distance and keep them informed about global affairs, such that populist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler were able to connect to not only their citizens but to a wide global audience who heard in horror their plans for Europe. What they chose to present and how they chose to present themselves and their ideas to their citizens and the world clearly speaks volumes about the politics of the time, and the fact that they could show up in their citizens’ homes via radio gave them all the more power. Goffman describes the phenomenon and relates it to the present day:
Indeed, the mere appearance of individuals has a direct impact or can influence the opinions of the people around them. With the radio, leaders could arrive in people’s homes as a disembodied voice, which stands in for appearance, and these days social media creates another platform for leaders to “appear” and communicate with their citizens without physical presence. Appearances matter, even online — and to suggest otherwise would be naïve. Thus the personage created by multiple social media ‘appearances’ has a powerful impact on the way policies are created, framed and how they present the truth and reality of politics. This is evident enough today.
Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister in India, is the most followed world leader on Twitter since the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. This is a clear sign of victory for the Prime Minister’s Digital India strategy, which aimed to connect rural areas of India with high speed internet with the creation and investment into digital infrastructure. Modi’s social media presence was also carefully crafted to encourage this policy. Using social media to promote digital literacy was a masterstroke by Modi: He literally used the medium as the message.
Online interactions have a significant advantage for leaders and a disadvantage to the unaware citizen because leaders are able to stylize facts, merge fact and opinion, and create and sell grand illusions. Therefore manipulation of facts — and the presentation of opinion as fact — is a true threat and consequence of online interactions. Trump’s declaration that “all negative polls are fake” is one such example. Here he uses his opinion as fact and peddles his viewpoint as the truth. The truth that he is getting negative ratings is obscured by the reality Trump does not accept the ratings. His interpretation of the truth is what he transmits to his followers.
The character demand of Twitter also leads to vague populist language, which has its own effect, with Trump tweeting: “We must keep “evil” out of the country.” There is no clear definition of evil or how he plans to “keep it out” but these words, though vague, are arousing. They create a false enemy and pose Trump as the protector, which he reinforces with each Tweet conjuring — and promising to defeat — a faceless enemy.
Goffman wants us to distinguish between the expression the individual gives and the expression the individual gives off. This expression an individual gives off in public is usually controlled by moral norms. However Trump disregards the moral impositions society has placed on leaders through social media. Trump uses his social media platform to merge these two expressions, by promising to make America great again by defeating the invisible enemy and of course the expression he gives off is polarized. Some Americans believe him to be a narcissistic populist leader while others believed him to be a President who will make America’s problems his priority, which of course is the job for every American leader. However, Trump’s victory can be seen as a merging of these two expressions through the power of social media where he is able to disregard moral norms and attempts to control his image in society through social media.
This is a very dangerous trend involving the exaggeration and simplification of policies. Policies are not simple, and their impacts and consequences are never absolute. To be transmitted to the populace often requires that the full complexity be reduced, but this need to simplify the language of policies does not have to lead to mass deception; it could also very well lead to meaningful conversations which then lead to a more sophisticated public sphere. That is the power of social media — of course, it all depends on how it is used.
With the advent of social media, a new public sphere came into being, enabling citizens to exercise free speech online and be heard by others. This in turn allowed private thoughts and conversations to go online, and people were able to engage with others globally. This dynamic is also seen with the relationship that citizens desire and can now share with their leaders. People want an intimate relationship with their leaders, especially in a democratic society because the leader is appointed by the people. Therefore decisions made by the government are — or should be — a representation of the citizens’ thoughts and viewpoints. Trump is president because American citizens voted for him. Discrediting or not engaging with this type of American voter has led to a populist leader coming to power who offers easy solutions through convenient and simplistic media such as Twitter. The failure to recognize this American voter leads to the loss of two social worlds meeting and talking in the public sphere. Trump’s victory clearly symbolizes a failure on the part of Conservatives and Democrats to merge their belief systems and work towards a common truth and for the good of the public.
Yet social media does have the power for those two worlds to cross and for citizens to create a public that is built on critical reflection and as Goffman has said, develop “a working consensus of the situation.” Online interactions are therefore vital to the public now, for the Internet represents a space where opinions can be shared and conversations can be had even though, or especially because, they are evidently lacking in face to face interactions. There is a demand for an online public sphere not simply because of its convenience, but because of its capacity for diversity of opinion and rapid exchange of ideas.
The Medium is the Message. This powerful phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan emphasizes the importance of the delivery of the message rather than the message itself. We see the power of the medium in religious exemplars such as Gabriel the Messenger, who revealed God’s truth to Muhammad and Jesus. The fact that he was an angel sent by God gave the knowledge he was imparting credibility as the words from God himself. Twitter might be the contemporary Gabriel, for it represents a public sphere that is diverse and versatile: it includes harsh truths, memes and also lies. But it has become the most important public sphere for a global, inclusive audience.
Therefore social media sphere that has often been discredited or not valued as real public engagement has actually transformed itself into the most global, inclusive public sphere where the public is able to engage — whether truthfully or not — and to become more aware and reflective. The public informs the state and especially in a situation where the public is so polarized as in the case of the 2016 American elections, social media especially Twitter can be a tool by which the public can still engage with each other to be better informed and where the truth of the nature of our current exchange is on display for examination. Illuminating or being aware of a problem first is more important than trying to solve it. Social media is a platform by which problems are made visible, can be talked about and can include the participation of every individual. We must take it seriously as the new public sphere.