Social media is often considered to be the domain of the young. Every student has shared memes mocking inept parents struggling with technology, sharing embarrassing posts on Facebook and doing the unthinkable on TikTok, but what happens when the fight for the most powerful political post on earth is being contested and it’s votes, not laughs, that are being fought for in the social media arena – and both of the contenders are pensioners?
Firstly, looking at last year’s presidential candidates, we can clearly see they are older than the average candidate. When Donald Trump became president 4 years ago, he also became the oldest president to assume the position for a first term, at 70 years old. Obviously, this year, Joe Biden, as the president elect, beat this, at a shocking 77 years old. The minimum age to take on the role of President of the United States is 35. This begs the question, should there be a maximum age? It seems very hard to imagine that someone of this age bracket, can accurately navigate all forms of social media and advertising, as it is generally believed that the majority of people this age struggle with modern technology and media.
I feel with other presidential candidates, it is very clear that they have been somewhat out of touch with social media, with very political, formal posts across various platforms. It is evident that a team of people in the background are managing their accounts, quite probably with little personal input from the candidates themselves. For example, looking at Barack Obama’s time in office, when he personally wrote a tweet, he signed it off “ -BO ”, but the majority of tweets made from his account were written by his staff. In 2009, a year after assuming the presidency, he actually admitted in an interview that “I have never used Twitter, my thumbs are too clumsy to type things on a phone.” He did not start to personally tweet until 2011 in the run up to his re-election campaign.
Obama is seen as a pioneer in politics in terms of social media, and it is often said that his use of social media is what won him 2 elections, despite his limited knowledge on the area. This is because he knew he wanted to target a new audience. As all presidents before him did, he didn’t put the majority of his resources into trying to change previously republican voters, to democrats. He instead focused on a whole new window of opportunity. Young people. The people who were over 18 and have the right to vote, but often don’t as they are uninterested or simply feel uneducated on the subject. Obama changed this. 48.4% of 18-29 year olds voted in 2008, which at the time marked the highest percentage since 1984. So even though he openly admits his naivety regarding social media, he realised its potential. He also clearly had a very skilled marketing team behind him who were able to put his ideas into action. He is now the most followed person on Twitter, beating Justin Bieber by 13 million.
Donald Trump really couldn’t be more of a contrast in his use of media. As a candidate in 2016, he didn’t need to spend a whole lot of money trying to win the presidential election because the media (particularly television) treated his campaign initially as a novelty, then as a spectacle – as entertainment instead of politics. So Trump got lots of free airtime on cable news and major networks. The equivalent of $5 billion in free media by the end of the presidential election. Such pervasive coverage, even if much of it was negative, helped to propel Trump to the White House.
Trump has also been front and centre with his use of Twitter for some time, some would say uncontrollably. In a documentary I watched, “President trump: Tweets From The Whitehouse” on channel 4, it said that White House staff reached a compromise with him following a series of his more controversial tweets that they would be able to vet what he was sending out. However, we can still see that his tweets are often sent around 2 or 3am. This shows the President clearly reflecting on the news of the day and responding in the visceral manner for which he is known and in what must surely be an uncensored state. The non-PC nature of his tweets is remarkable, for example the tweet below, where he insinuates that the Supreme Leader of North Korea is “short and fat”. I feel that Trump’s victory in his first presidential election is a real advocate for “any publicity is good publicity”, it seems that as long as people are talking about him, he doesn’t care what they’re saying. And despite it being so shocking, some people obviously loved this aspect of him. It showed he was a real person, with real feelings and emotions, and he wasn’t afraid to say what he thought. Ironically for a politician, he didn’t feel the need to be ‘politically correct’. Marketing advisors will often deter their clients from ever giving controversial opinions in fear of the repercussions, but Trump ….. well he just sacked the advisors who tried to advise.
In contrast Biden in many ways has behaved like the inept parents in his use of social media. It is widely believed that he does not manage his own social media, including his Twitter feed, in any direct way and has instead asked a younger team to manage it for him. This has resulted in a completely different style of communication from Trump – far fewer personal reflections and remarks, much more considered responses with more retweets, more politically correct language in fact …. more like Obama. So while the question was what happens when pensioners use social media to fight political battles well, the answer is we don’t actually know. We only know what happens when one pensioner uses social media and the other hands his phone over to a whole team of people the same age as his grandchildren. And what we know is that on this occasion, the phone in the hands of a pensioner did all the things we would expect – he liked things he ought not to have, said what he thought when he should have been quiet and did a whole range of swiping and tapping that anyone of us under the age of 25 knows we FORBID when we show our parents something on our phones. We hold on to the phone at all times, at a distance – no matter the pleas about failing eyesight, because we know they cannot be trusted not to do the wrong thing. And this election has shown us on this occasion, the pensioner who handed the phone over to the kids who know what they’re talking about was right, as it resulted in him becoming the President of the United States, while the other pensioner is left writing childish tweets saying, it’s a fix!! It’s not fair all the votes were counted!!!! I want a do-over!!!
Charlotte Cockcroft is a final year BSc in Communication Management and Pubic Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found on: LinkedIn and Twitter.