280 characters
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280 characters that can (literally) change the world

President Trump’s Twitter activity has set a dangerous precedent for world politics. The theatre of debate and international relations has become digitalised like never before, and others following the president’s trigger-happy example could make the 11th largest social media platform the world’s most important one.

Twitter’s market value has constantly teetered on the side of unpredictable and is dwarfed by the likes of Facebook and Instagram. The former leads the way – as it has done for many years – with a net worth of $70 billion.

It was only recently that Twitter turned over the first quarterly profit in its 12-year history. Most of today’s social media platforms are commercial money-spinners whose large profits come from the monetisation of advertising. Consequently, it is difficult to envisage Twitter ever becoming as lucrative as its counterparts – primarily due to its focus on verbal communication rather than user-based visual promotion, as well its reluctance to increase its ad exposure. Analysts predict its impending demise, when all of the above are considered.

President Trump’s Twitter activity has set a dangerous precedent for world politics

But Twitter’s distinction from other sites is both in its appeal and its power. The absence of numerical follower-counts on Facebook and Snapchat makes for the absence of social hierarchy, while the influence of Instagram and Twitter users is determined solely by such values. Twitter is distinguished from Instagram, then, through its aforementioned focus on the verbal over the visual. While this doesn’t make for an immediately profitable business, Twitter trades in unfiltered opinions. The result is a melting pot of perspectives, those that are accessible to all its users, including publicised communications between the world’s most famous individuals. This previously meant the platform would bear witness to feuds between pop stars and celebrities, controversial comments made by TV personalities and remarks of societal wisdom by pseudo-political commentators. Most of that which filled our virtual timelines varied in relevance, substance and accuracy – but Twitter has changed irrevocably.

President Trump’s verbal diarrhoea can be interpreted in two distinct ways. One could consider his commitment to expressing his opinions over Twitter – be it those concerning his I.Q. or national security – as, at least, in keeping with his commitment to public transparency, a significant factor in his election. Attempting to dispel any notions that he is anything like “crooked Hillary”, and ensuring he is unlike any smokescreen president that came before him, Trump will do anything to prove he is “the man of the people”. For the neutral spectators looking on, they can point to his Twitter activity as an important part of that justification. But for all the candid honesty that his tweets provide, there seems to be a consensus that such incessant online activity works to the detriment of his credibility. The embarrassing downside of such public expression becomes clear when observing the president’s online relationships with Twitter’s usual celebrity clientele.

Twitter trades in unfiltered opinions

Trump has engaged, one way or another, with titans of the entertainment industry. He took on Hollywood when he called Meryl Streep “overrated” and then angered fans of America’s two biggest sports when he criticized both NBA’s LeBron James and the entirety of the NFL. He found solace in Kanye West, at least, owing to the “dragon energy” that they share. If Kennedy started a race war with The Temptations, or Reagan decided to get cosy with Lionel Richie, the world may question the integrity of the Presidential position – but not so with Trump. Instead, the world is questioning the integrity of his character. The President’s stream-of-consciousness approach to tweets has also proven to have serious repercussions on the employment status of his staff. Former White House official David Shulkin was warned that Trump would announce his firing over Twitter, while ex-secretary of state Rex Tillerson was caught unawares by the public announcement of his sacking Whether Trump is proving his unsuitability to govern or offering further evidence of his attempts to engage with society remains open to debate.

Despite being the subject of ridicule over childish outbursts of aggression towards fellow (nuclear) button-masher Kim Jong Un, Trump has made what seems to be admirable progress with North Korea and its slow crawl towards denuclearisation. How a relationship between the two leaders has formed after one called the other a “short and fat” “rocket man” perhaps speaks volumes of the credibility of the North Korean leader rather than the effectiveness of Trump’s unique tactics, but their frequent and publicly hostile exchanges have nevertheless cemented a precedent that Twitter can be used as a political battleground.

Russia enjoyed the same treatment, being warned by Trump (via Twitter, of course) to “get ready” for missile attacks. Iran has also been the subject of his diatribes – being told, in capitals to “never, ever threaten the United States again”. While many countries have accepted Trump’s behaviour as isolated and unrepresentative of the U.S. as a whole, the more volatile nations may not be so accommodating.

Their frequent and publicly hostile exchanges have nevertheless cemented a precedent that Twitter can be used as a political battleground

Clearly, Trump is at the helm of the online revolution of actual internet politics, and it wouldn’t be concerning if his behaviour was anomalous – but elsewhere on the Twitter-sphere national representatives are following suit and taking to the keyboard to vent their political opinions. Most recently, Saudi Arabia placed Canada on its ‘blacklist’ after the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister tweeted her criticism of human-rights violations in the country. Trade deals between the two nations have been frozen, meaning such initially-trivial action will have genuine, lasting implications on their relationship, not to mention short-term consequences for their respective economies. Riyadh considered the tweets “against basic international norms and all international protocols” – and they are right to think so. Countries wishing to condemn the actions of another would usually do so in a public statement, an international summit or through private correspondence, but it appears the boundaries of politics have extended into the very-public world of social media. Twitter-founder Jack Dorsey has seen his lowly, unprofitable social platform transformed into a genuinely-influential vessel of political communication, and one that risks further enabling international tensions – or worse.

The boundaries of politics have extended into the very-public world of social media

‘Political Twitter’ may too prove the first step in the dangerous world of so-called fake news and the ever-presence of falsification in the media. Electronic media expert David Buckingham recently highlighted the link between the two, suggesting that new ‘deepfake’ technology, that which he describes as “human image synthesis”, would mean “it wouldn’t be too hard for somebody to create a video of Donald Trump threatening to use nuclear weapons against North Korea”. Though such fabrication would be easily identified and dispelled as false if it were created tomorrow, Buckingham warns that the software “is evolving very rapidly” and that experts predict that “within a few months, it will be impossible to detect”. Perhaps, then, social media will prove to have further implications for both politics and news, and far more serious dangers are just around the corner.

It would be untrue to suggest that Trump is the first person with political influence to utilise social media in the way that he has, but he is certainly the first President of the United States to do so to this extent. His behaviour is proof that 280 characters can, indeed, change the world. Twitter is so-called for the casual, bird-like ‘tweeting’ of its users, though America’s national Eagle has found himself squawking.

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