The Digital President

By Jordan Stephen

Having been swept into office by a wave of voters looking for change, it is no surprise that President Barack Obama has upended many White House conventions during his tenure on Pennsylvania Avenue.

One irregular area the commander-in-chief has come to dominate is social media. An early adopter of the disruptive technology, Obama has re-shaped the way the president interacts with the public by diving head-first into the digital world with unbridled success.

The president's recent visit to Alaska only helped solidify this fact. The trip, which was intended to draw attention to the effects of climate change, was broadcasted via a barrage of tweets, Facebook videos and Instagram pictures, complete with a guest appearance from Bear Grylls of "Man vs. Wild."

But there more to it than the president simply wanting to share his vacation photos.

Social media gives Obama a direct line to the public, something that never really existed prior to the mid-2000s. Other presidents had tried accessible communication methods, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats broadcast on radio and George W. Bush's weekly podcasts, but none has been able to reach citizens in such an upfront and immediate way as the current office holder.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Twitter is by far the president's biggest platform. The official Barack Obama Twitter pages has upwards of 66.8 million followers, making him one of the most followed public figures in the entire world. Two other accounts, one designated for the White House and one for the office of the President, both garnered 4 million and 7 million followers, respectively.

Facebook also gives Obama a large pool of online listeners. His official page has attracted 44.5 million followers, a massive number for any politician.

As news media and political communication change, these huge audiences become more and more important.

A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, found that more than three fifths of Americans get their news from Twitter and Facebook, respectively, and 59 percent said they use Twitter to follow news stories as they develop in real time.

This is a far cry from relying on newspapers or television to stay informed.

With so many people relying on quick, digital soundbites for political information, the Obama administration has a perfect opportunity to inject their policy ideas directly into the public mind without commentary or opposition from the press.

The White House, which contains the digitally-minded Office of Public Engagement, has also looked to more creative ways to get their message out. Perhaps the most memorable was an appearance by the president on the parody talk show "Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis" to promote the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, Obama was also engaged in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session in 2012 which attracted 22,000 comments.

Even before he took office, the president recognized the political value of social media tools. His 2008 election team is often credited as waging the first digitally-focused campaign, using Twitter, Facebook and even their own original platform to get voters excited about the candidate. For much of the 2008 race, Obama's Twitter page was the most followed in the world.

Four years later, the president's reelection campaign took social media just as seriously, a move that played a large role in his victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

There is little doubt that President Obama's use of social media has redefined how the White House communicates and influences public opinion. With only 15 months left in office, we will see if his successor can keep up the game.

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