Technology

Trump makes social media a player in impeachment

Social media is quickly becoming a powerful force in the impeachment hearings for President Trump.

The first impeachment carried out in the online age has seen Trump criticizing Democrats and a key witness, as pundits and lawmakers weigh in on the latest developments - all in real time.

The impact of social media was highlighted most dramatically on Friday when Trump sent out a tweet harshly criticizing former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch while she was testifying in a public hearing before Congress. 

"Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad," Trump tweeted. "She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President's absolute right to appoint ambassadors."

Trump's tweets immediately become part of the hearing.

"As we sit here testifying, the president is attacking you on Twitter," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said, as he read them to Yovanovitch.

Yovanovitch pushed back against the president, saying that she did not think she had "such powers," adding that she thought she had "demonstrably made things better, for the U.S. as well as for the countries that I've served in." 

When Schiff asked Yovanovitch what Trump intended, she responded that "the effect is to be intimidating." Schiff's fellow Democrats pounced on the tweet, accusing the president of "witness intimidation" and citing it as evidence of more misconduct.

And the tweet became the talk of social media and cable news. Fox News host Bret Baier called it a "turning point" in the hearing and pondered if Trump was "adding an article of impeachment" in "real time."

Trump later defended his tweet, insisting he had the right to speak out the hearings. "I have freedom of speech just like other people do."

Both sides acknowledged its immediate impact.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's cybersecurity subcommittee and a leading voice on tech issues, told The Hill that Trump's live tweets during the impeachment proceedings could affect how Americans viewed them.

"It has both positives and negatives, his followers are hearing from the president with each tweet, so it's a part of free speech," Langevin said. "I guess it's something that all people have to factor in as they are listening to the proceedings."

Trump has long seen Twitter as a valuable tool to counter the media and to take his message directly to his followers.

On both days of the public hearings, Trump has taken to Twitter early. On Wednesday, Trump dismissed the first witnesses as "Never Trumpers!" and urged the public to "Read the transcript!" of his call.

The White House said Trump would not be watching the events, but during the first public hearing, the president retweeted messages from Republican lawmakers.

Before Friday's hearing began, Trump blasted Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Twitter, describing her town, San Francisco, as a "disgusting slum" and accusing her of carrying out a "witch hunt."

Paul Barrett, an adjunct professor of Law at New York University's (NYU) School of Law, told The Hill that nothing "really compares" to Trump's "influence," on social media.

Barrett suggested that would be amplified during the impeachment hearings and highlighted how social media platforms have helped polarize political opinion.

"He is going to rile up and thrill his base while infuriating liberals and moderates who are opposed to him," Barrett said "That is very representative of the impact that social media has generally in terms of exacerbating polarization in the electorate."

The differences from the impeachment proceedings for Presidents Nixon and Clinton was easily apparent. While those were televised, allowing Americans to watch developments as they happened, social media now allows the public, not just media or political figures, to interact with each other instantly.

And memorable events are immediately shared and dissected. Within moments of the hearing ending, videos of Yovanovitch being applauded at the end of her testimony were shared on social media platforms. During the hearing, partisans from both sides shared their instant analysis.

"In the 1970s when Nixon impeachment proceedings were underway, it was primarily narrowed to just a couple of sources," Langevin said. "You had the newspaper of the nightly news, or watching the proceedings on television directly via special reports.

"Now people can get it minute by minute either by watching the proceedings, or they are getting updates and commentary from social media, and I'm sure that is going to have a factor on how people think," he added.

The rate at which information can be shared and solicit reactions on social media also means the public will be much quicker to form opinions, according to experts who spoke with The Hill.

"It has sped up the analysis," Darrell West, founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, said. "It used to be you'd have weeks of testimony, then a public opinion survey and then people would draw conclusions about the impact of the testimony. ... Social media allows people to make conclusions based on very limited information."

That acceleration will change how both parties strategize about impeachment, West added.

"I think it affects the strategies of both parties ... they better put their best arguments out front. If they wait ten days for their best witness that might be too late."

Joshua Tucker, co-director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, also said that social media had changed the nature of political communication.

During Clinton's impeachment, a war room of strategists crafted statements during the impeachment inquiry to be shared on cable news or in print publications.

Now, Tucker said Trump can "completely up-end strategy" with a tweet.

"This was kind of mind boggling what happened today," Tucker said. "That he would open himself up to charges of witness intimidation during an impeachment hearing... that's never going to be the advice that an advisor gives to the president and yet he was able to go out and do that.

"That was technologically enabled," Tucker added. "We don't have a way that he does that independent of social media."

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