How the Obama Administration Used Social Media

Art by Fahim Rahman

What will happen to @POTUS on Twitter? Since Obama was the first @POTUS on Twitter, there is no official protocol for presidential social media accounts. It is likely that, starting on inauguration day, Trump will inherit Obama’s 11 million followers and be the new @POTUS.

Not only was he the first president on Twitter, but Obama was also the first president to go live on Facebook from the Oval Office and the first to use a filter on Snapchat—all making him nothing short of a social media celebrity. Obama and his team have tweeted at least 30,000 times, including his iconic reelection celebration tweet, “Four more years,” which included a photo of him embracing his wife. As of today, the tweet has more than 740,000 retweets and 290,000 likes.

Time Magazine referred to Obama as a president “shaped by popular culture more thoroughly than any other president in our history.” In early 2007, Barack Obama was a little-known senator running for president against household name Hillary Clinton.

Obama pioneered a new way of getting his message out directly to the American people, without going through mainstream media. The Obama campaign created an energy of involvement, participation, and a sense of purpose in their supporters. His team launched the official White House Facebook page in May 2009, and since then, it’s been consistently updated with news, photos, and behind-the-scenes details from the administration.

Historically, the president has been a traditional figure, with limited visibility for members of the general public, usually pertaining to press conferences and national speeches. Select images of the president and First Lady were mediated through the lenses of official photographers.

The Obama Administration changed all that by embracing social media, along with mass media, wholeheartedly, especially after the election. They mixed serious topics with lighthearted and goofy ones, pushing their progressive ideas nonetheless.

On the same night, Obama appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live to read mean tweets and later made an appearance on The Daily Show to denounce Trump’s idea about starting a Muslim registry. Michelle Obama filmed a video holding a turnip while dancing along to “Turn Down for What” that went viral while also promoting healthy living. The First Lady’s Snapchat, often “hacked” by President Obama, was created to bring people with her on trips for Let Girls Learn, her organization created to improve educational opportunities for girls around the world.

The presidential shift toward pop culture has been happening for decades. John F. Kennedy was the first president to effectively use television to speak directly to the American people, and they turned Jackie Kennedy into a fashion icon. Many of President Reagan’s speeches were peppered with quotes from “Dirty Harry,” (1971-1988) “Back to the Future,” (1985-1990) and the “Rambo” movies (1980-present). Bill Clinton attempted to appeal to young voters with a saxophone solo on The Arsenio Hall Show.

However, Obama has changed the way Americans relate to the president. He posts about music, movies, basketball, and spending time with his kids. Obama’s social media is refreshing compared to those of his stale political counterparts.

Social media has highlighted relationships in the president’s life and helped humanize President Obama. Presidential photographer Pete Souza captured candid photos of the First Family doing the things regular people do—like eating pizza or playing with their dog, Bo—that were posted on the White House Instagram. Obama has referred to Vice President Joe Biden as his “best friend” on Twitter alongside a picture of their friendship bracelets, and his many tweets about his love for Michelle are heartwarming and help us see Obama as a man first and president second.

Various articles about the Obamas and their marriage have appeared in Vogue, People, Essence, and The Oprah Winfrey magazine. While most political families seem heavily sanitized and unrealistic, the Obamas are refreshingly candid, making them especially popular with millennials. Young people are “looking for authenticity, they’re looking for what feels real and natural,” Michelle said in an interview with The Verge. “People can get to know me directly. They can see that I’m kind of silly sometimes, that I care.” She’s right. To an entire generation, Michelle and Barack feel like cool parents. Inclusion was a big part of the Obama campaign, and their use of social media aids in making the American people feel like a part of the Obama family.

But social media hasn’t been all about the likes and retweets for the Obamas. In his most recent tweet on December 16, President Obama tweeted, “The Justice for All bill is a bipartisan step in making our criminal justice system fairer, smarter, and more effective. Proud to sign it.”

Perhaps the most memorable were the posts of President Obama and Joe Biden running around the White House with rainbow flags after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. These tweets and dozens of other social media posts like it show how the Obama administration uses social media to promote progressive reforms while also being entertaining.

While social media has been a mostly successful endeavor for the Obamas, it has not been perfect. There are two problems with social media: it’s public and it’s permanent. So, when Malia Obama was allegedly seen in a Snapchat video smoking pot at Lollapalooza, critics everywhere were quick to shame Michelle and Barack, while not taking into account that Malia was almost 18 and was very capable of making her own decisions. The American people need to realize that growing up as the child of the president is hard enough with all the heavy scrutiny and high standards, and social media slander and miniscule privacy are just more obstacles for Sasha and Malia.

President-elect Trump has faced similar backlash with his wife Melania, who posed for GQ Magazine handcuffed to a briefcase while laying naked on a fur blanket, wearing just a diamond encrusted choker and matching cuffs. A selection of other racy images from the shoot show Melania lying naked in bed with Scandinavian model Emma Eriksson. Similarly, Trump’s critics have popularized the images and used them to slutshame Melania and show her to be unfit for the role of First Lady.

However, Trump’s infamous use of social media is almost a polar opposite of Obama’s. His popular Twitter rants feature him slandering everyone from Fidel Castro to random cast members of his former show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Where Obama has used his social media platform to promote reforms or educate the public, Trump used it amplify his hate speech or make childish taunts. The Obama campaign thrived on inclusion, while the Trump campaign thrives on exclusion.

Social media is a tool politicians can use to either promote ignorant ideas or bring attention to important issues and broadcast them to younger audiences. Obama has been able to transform the office of the presidency with his use of social media and has made the American people really feel like a part of the First Family.

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