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Politicians put too much weight on government’s ‘social media branch’


The Founding Fathers wisely created three branches of government — legislative, executive, judicial — with the goal of distributing power between them and ensuring checks and balances so that no single branch could become too powerful and usurp the will of the American people.

They never could have envisioned another, unofficial branch of government that now is making a mockery of the model they created: the social media branch.

Platforms such as Facebook (1.56 billion users), YouTube (1.3 billion), Instagram (more than 1 billion) and Twitter (321 million active users) can have outsized power in politics — and often reckless or even dangerous influence.

Their leverage and domination come from two main sources: the vanity and the need to be liked of most politicians, CEOs and academics, and their shared fear of criticism.

While it has become material for late-night comics, social media literally can make someone still living in their parents’ basement a force to be reckoned with. Corporations, politicians, presidential candidates and academics increasingly cave to a few self-appointed judges, juries and executioners. With enough online outrage, politicians will change policy, corporations will pull products, academics will change courses.

As a “leader” of our nation, why lean on our almost 250-year-old founding documents when you can be intimidated by social media “influencers” and activists who continually push you and your colleagues into more narrow and extreme ideological boxes?

A “profile in courage” in Congress today would be the person with the intelligence, confidence and wisdom to completely tune out the never-ending online activity that makes others around them buckle at the knees.

As a congressional reporter once brazenly (but honestly) said: “There are definitely some members of Congress who only give me the time of day because they’re afraid that not doing so might elicit a tweet.” Of course, these members not only bow to tweets but contribute plenty of their own.

These social platforms can become intoxicating, addictive to “leaders” who narcissistically enjoy going to a site to read about themselves and their words of “wisdom.”

But in some ways, they have become a negative power. And like any power, social media need fuel. In too many ways, some in the mainstream media now act as the fuel for this unstable engine of consequence. Depending upon the subject and a cherry-picked online response, advertising revenue can be created via a click-bait headline or story.

While it’s easy to manufacture and then capitalize upon rage, mistrust and hysteria, it is clearly detrimental to the health and welfare of our nation.

Beyond the political repercussions, social media platforms also have morphed into the weapon of choice for ignorant and cowardly bullies — be they trolls, celebrities, academics, politicians, media or executives — looking to exact some form of often anonymous revenge.

Last year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey apologized and spoke out against this poisonous trend of his Frankenstein monster, saying in part, “We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns and increasingly divisive echo chambers.”

For the good of our nation, our leaders must stop using this toxic “fourth branch” of government and revert back to the template put in place by our Founders. The will of the people is being overruled by the tyranny of the trolls.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.

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