Guess Who’s Following Trump’s Twitter Lead

A liberal newspaper’s editorial board sets aside journalism to engage in grass-roots lobbying.

 
 

Guess Who’s Following Trump’s Twitter Lead
PHOTO: JAAP ARRIENS/ZUMA PRESS
 

‘President Trump Tweeted for the first time in a while,” my iPhone alerts me. That depends on the meaning of “a while”: I swipe right to find that he tweeted 2 hours ago—and also 5 hours ago, 6 hours ago and 15 hours ago. Since I don’t follow @RealDonaldTrump, I wasn’t sure why Twitter would send me this notification. But it seems Mr. Trump’s communication method is successful.

A year ago many Americans, including me, were uncomfortable with the president-elect’s tweets. “He’s going to have to learn how to be presidential,” we’d say. “At some point one of his aides will take him aside and tell him to stop tweeting. Somebody, take his phone away from him!”

But here we are. Mr. Trump hasn’t stopped tweeting, and Twitter is promoting the man in the White House to users who don’t even follow him. Mr. Trump would probably call this “winning.” But the fact is, he’s driving traffic, so Twitter was willing to bet if they sent me that notification, I would open it. And I did. 

Mr. Trump isn’t alone in using Twitter to communicate in unorthodox ways. Last week the bio for @NYTOpinion announced that the New York Times editorial board “is temporarily taking over this acct. to urge the Senate to reject a tax bill that hurts the middle class and the nation’s fiscal health.” An editorial board usually makes such arguments in editorials—and @NYTOpinion’s tweets normally consist of links to editorials, along with signed columns and guest op-ed pieces. But not last Wednesday morning when they took to Twitter with their slogan #TheTaxBillHurts.

Contrary to the Twitter bio, however, the Wednesday tweets weren’t directed at U.S. senators. Instead, they were an exercise in what is known as grass-roots lobbying. They exhorted voters to call their elected officials. “Contact @SenatorCollins,” one tweet read, giving an office phone number, “particularly if you live in Maine, and ask her to oppose the Senate tax bill because it would repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate, driving up the cost of health insurance.”

Under the First Amendment a corporation has every right to engage in such politicking, as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. But if it is unpresidential for Mr. Trump to use Twitter as a platform for announcing policy changes and pursuing personal rivalries, it is unjournalistic for the Times to tweet senators’ phone numbers.

The era of Trump tweets has given Americans a unique window into the president’s head, although I still think they are unpresidential, especially when he sends them at 3 a.m. But as much as the Times editorialists loathe the president, last week they were imitating his social-media behavior—and thereby, as the Times might otherwise fret, helping to normalize it.

Ms. O’Connor, an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal, helps administer the @WSJOpinion Twitter account.

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