After Barack Obama’s first election in 2008, political commentators hailed him the first social media President. Since Donald Trump’s 2016 election, some have referred to him as the first Twitter President. This preoccupation with leader’s digital lives is potentially signalling a new a new era in not only voter engagement but political discourse, one where the public judges on 140 characters rather than carefully planned policies.

In the run up to the 2008 US election, $22.5 million was spent on digital media campaigns. In 2016, the figure topped $1 billion. Amount spent on digital advertising has now become a key indicator in the success of hopeful candidates, and slowly Twitter has become their preferred platform to seek their mandate. From the first primary debates in late 2015 till election night in late 2016, 1 billion tweets were posted concerning the US election. The most popular hashtag of 2016? “Make America Great Again,”, with 11,433,550 posts (followed by “Black Lives Matter”, “Feel the Bern” and “I’m With Her” respectively). This shows an optimism the political elite put in digital media, that they themselves see a vote-based return from money invested.

Money represents power, and where it is placed speaks volumes. With many using social media as a source of political news, Twitter particularly, it would appear that the internet has certainly encroached on the realms of more traditional advertising.  

Studies have shown people rely on Twitter as their first source to get “unfiltered information and insight from political leaders” and that gives users a “unique advantage when it comes to receiving and spreading political information.” Those surveyed also said Twitter was their preferred platform over Facebook and other social media sites because it was faster for receiving information, was more secure and allowed personal insights into politicians’ thoughts.

However, this feeling is largely false. Most politician’s Twitters are managed by a media team, an integral part of the campaign and managerial machine. Publicity teams often micro manage online accounts with a specific message in mind – to make candidates likeable. To promote memorable policies, politicians need to have relatable platforms which voters will connect with first. Media teams aim to create personas which appeal to a broad base of voters. Thus, politicians often portray a much more fabricated message than they otherwise would.

Dick Costolo, then CEO of Twitter, said in 2013 that he intended the site to be a “global town square,” and in many ways, it has come to this. Where traditionally politicians would preach to the people first on a soapbox in a town square and then through distant television screens, increasingly they have begun to reach out electronically. Twitter is a simple, efficient site that quickly delivers information right into voters’ hands, allowing voters to be talked with instead of to – something television and placards can’t achieve. A particularly important upgrade from methods seen in the past few decades, being clean cut video messages and distant debates, it allows for (seemingly) real engagement with the people.

While the importance of Twitter as a place to connect with the public cannot be undermined, it has also proven a fantastic stage in which to clap back at one’s opponents. Closer to home, our own Malcolm Turnbull has recently turned to what some have deemed a “Trump style” Twitter rhetoric in which short, sharp tweets with simple messages are sent out. Often this is followed with an attack on the opposition. This can be seen when Turnbull recently fired off a series of tweets about allegations he was cutting the aged pension, before shifting to accuse Shorten of spreading the rumours. Exchanges like this between leaders, seen increasingly since the beginning of the US presidential election, have led some to wonder whether Twitter is cheapening political discourse.

Twitter has created a public sphere in which politicians can face off without having to pre-arrange a debate. Because of the highly confrontational nature of this, where leaders cannot dodge questions without the whole world seeing, clashes often remain highly adversarial and combative. 140 characters is very little in which to express a valid point, but it is also enough for people to quickly grasp a situation. Often political messages are warped and shortened to fit neatly into a tweet, but more alarmingly quick back and forth has become a spectator sport and favourite pastime for the masses.  

It could be argued that this is a natural progression of the 10 second news spot and a 24-hour news cycle, but the commodification of political discourse seems like an unintended side effect. Politicians lives are increasingly lived in the public domain by their own doing, and yet if they want to be accessible to voters there seems to be little law makers can but accept this.

With the world constantly watching, Twitter is both the best friend and worst enemy of candidates and the elected alike. While it creates a place to create meaningful connections with voters, it has the potential to become a circus of petty arguments and superficial messages. After all, how much can 140 characters really express?

Words by Hannah Smith, art by Danyon Burge.

This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 3 SOAP.