WASHINGTON – Joe Biden had been the nation’s 46th president for just 36 minutes when he made use of a powerful presidential tool newly at his disposal.
He tweeted from the @POTUS account on Twitter.
“There is no time to waste when it comes to tackling the crises we face,” Biden tweeted minutes after wrapping up his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20. “That’s why today, I am heading to the Oval Office to get right to work delivering bold action and immediate relief for American families.”
The tweet, meant to reassure a nation still in the midst of a deadly pandemic, was markedly different in style, tone and content from the incendiary and often untrue messages that got his predecessor, Donald Trump, banned indefinitely from the platform just two weeks earlier.
Trump often used Twitter to hurl insults, settle scores and promote baseless conspiracy theories. In the first month of his presidency, Biden has used the popular digital platform primarily to promote his policies and his political philosophy.
“Wear a mask. Save lives,” he tweeted on Jan. 29.
“We are stronger when we welcome immigrants — not shut them out,” he wrote fourdays later.
And on Feb. 9: “Now is the time for a big, bold COVID relief package that will change the course of the pandemic and jumpstart our economy.”
Biden’s approach to Twitter shows “a very traditional understanding of the role of social media,” said Brian Ott, who heads the communications department at Missouri State University. “He sees it as a PR tool.”
Biden’s Twitter feed also reflects the return to a more traditional style of governing — a significant departure from Trump’s undisciplined approach to the job. Gone are the days when Twitter was the vehicle for Trump to make foreign policy pronouncements, roll out domestic programs and even fire staffers. Rex Tillerson reportedly learned that he was getting dumped as secretary of state when Trump announced his firing on Twitter.
A White House official familiar with Biden’s digital communications strategy said social media affords the president an opportunity to have a conversation with Americans about policies and initiatives that can directly impact their lives.
“There are things the government will have to communicate with people to make their lives better,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s an important communications tool for those reasons.”
The official would not say whether Biden writes his own tweets or whether they are written by his staff. But, “he certainly is involved in things that are being sent (out) – not just on social media but anywhere in his office,” the official said.
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Transfer of power
Twitter switched the official @POTUS account from Trump to Biden in January as part of the transfer of power to the new administration. One thing Biden did not inherit: Trump’s millions of followers. Twitter set the number of followers back to zero when Biden took over the account.
In just four weeks, however, Biden has amassed 7.7 million followers. Biden also maintains his personal Twitter account (@JoeBiden), which has more than 28 million followers but has been mostly dormant since he took office. As president, Biden has used the personal account simply as a vehicle for retweeting his posts from the official government @POTUS handle.
Biden has tweeted more than 160 times from @POTUS, which carries the label “US government account.” More than three dozen of his tweets have been about strengthening the economy, while another two dozen have been related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we don’t take action, we won’t return to full employment until 2025,” he wrote on Feb. 11, adding that “full employment” will return next year if Congress passes his $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package.
“When I took office three weeks ago, America didn’t have a plan or enough supplies to vaccinate most of the country,” he tweeted a couple of hours later. “But my team got right to work, and as of today, we’ve increased weekly vaccine shipments by nearly 30% and purchased enough vaccines to vaccinate all Americans.”
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Judging from the content, it seems clear that Biden doesn’t write the tweets himself, Ott said.
“Biden’s tweets are almost certainly created by his communications team – few of them are written or probably even dictated by him,” Ott said.
In contrast, “Trump authored the vast majority of his tweets – in fact, I suspect it was among his primary activities that he engaged in as president, beyond watching television and speaking with sycophants,” said Ott, who studied Trump’s Twitter posts and co-authored a book analyzing them.
“Trump spent a lot of time on social media and Twitter. My guess is Biden is not very involved in what’s going up on his Twitter feed. He may approve it, but it’s not authored by him.”
‘This is not about Joe Biden’
Biden’s tweets also differ from Trump’s in terms of the audience he’s trying to reach.
“Biden’s tweets are intended for the entire American public, whether you agree or disagree with him,” Ott said. “Trump’s tweets were directed almost exclusively at his base. Trump did not use the platform to try to convince people who did not already agree with him.”
“Everything Donald Trump did was about himself,” he said. “For Joe Biden, this is not about Joe Biden. It’s about what he genuinely believes is best for the American people.”
Not all of Biden’s tweets have been about policy. He has used the @POTUS account to mourn the recent passing of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron and legendary actress Cicely Tyson, to congratulate the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on last week’s Super Bowl victory, and to laud Cabinet members like Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg upon their confirmation by the Senate.
A handful of his tweets have been of a more personal nature.
On Jan. 25, five days after taking office, he retweeted a message from first lady Jill Biden with photos of the family pooches at play on the South Lawn. “Champ and Major have joined us in the White House!” the caption read.
When a snowstorm blanketed Washington on Jan. 31, Biden tweeted a photo of himself walking along the White House colonnade, apparently heading to the Oval Office, with the snow-covered Rose Garden in the foreground. “Grateful for the short commute on days like these,” he wrote.
On Valentine’s Day, Biden tweeted a photo of him embracing the first lady and included the message: “The love of my life and the life of my love. Happy Valentine’s Day, Jilly.”
Presidential tweets have become routine since President Barack Obama sent the first tweet under the newly created @POTUS handle in 2015. But it’s still risky business because presidential tweets are a form of propaganda, said Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University.
“I’m deeply concerned that we have normalized government propaganda and the ability for them to reach a mass audience on social media,” Grygiel said. “And it hasn’t changed under Biden.”
The risk is “you will see more information coming out from the federal government – from the president of the United States – than you would see from the free press,” Grygiel said.
Even seemingly innocuous tweets, like the memes featuring the first family’s pets, can be problematic, Grygiel said.
“They’re not benign,” Grygiel said. “You know, the dogs are cute. And it’s fun to talk about Major being in the White House.’’
But, “this is a strategy we’ve seen employed by police departments around the world, especially here in the United States, to grow audience. Anytime an official institution – especially the federal ones, especially the presidential handle – is able to grow audience because of the content they’re pushing out that people like and think is cute, it increases the propaganda risk.”
The White House official countered that the president’s Twitter account isn’t intended to be a substitute for the traditional press.
“Social media is an effective and important tool when it’s used for good,” the official said. “It doesn’t take the place of a free, independent press. Because that’s still a critical piece of democracy. That’s why we have press briefings every single day. That’s why the president will continue to do interviews and take questions from the media.’’
Certainly, social media can be abused “if it’s used in the wrong way,” the official said. “But we’re determined not to do that.”
Michael Collins covers the White House. Reach him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
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