In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the president wanted to use government money to provide relief to some very desperate people. He was initially opposed by establishment figures and some leading newspapers. President Roosevelt chose a new medium, radio, to communicate directly with the American public. Even though radio reception was undependable, still a crude instrument, it gave the president a capability to sway public opinion and, thus, the opinion of congress and the courts. If people responded to those radio broadcasts, they would have written a letter to the White House or, perhaps, their community newspaper. Many of those letters would have been about how much the writer and family were suffering. Newspaper editors would likely not have printed vile remarks or calls for unlawful behavior.
In the 1960s, television became the preferred presidential communication medium. Television reached a lot of people. The TV companies often provided response and rebuttal to the presidential broadcasts by having a prominent person comment about the president’s presentation. The public could respond by writing a letter or by making a phone call, but those messages did not ordinarily reach the general public.
Now, in the era of social media, a president can instantly and directly address the public, and the public can immediately respond with messages that reach a large audience. The new technology may promote citizen democracy, but it can also produce dissension among us. In radio and TV presidential deliveries, the script was usually reviewed by several people before delivery. Citizen responses were subject to editorial review. In the instant media we now enjoy, the editorial safety feature is missing. Self-discipline is not universal. Good judgment is not universal. The social media technology gives us the capability to intentionally or unintentionally do harm to others, to ourselves, and to society.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled, unanimously, in Matal Interim Director U.S. Patent and Trademark Office v. Tam that offensive trademarks cannot be prohibited. That means that a trademark promoting merchandise or a service can deliberately offend race, religion, or any other sensitive matter. Do we need more angry people? We citizens are going to have to supply the discipline to compensate for our technology and the license issued by the Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that money is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, that deliberately lying is free speech, and that offensive trademarks are free speech. How will the court rule when someone who released classified information claims First Amendment protection?
Social media technology gives a president a potentially powerful pulpit. But the effectiveness of that technology may ultimately depend on the skill and judgment of the president who uses it. The contribution to American democracy remains to be learned.
A little book by Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People, was first published 80 years go. Fifteen million copies have been sold. I think that the author would be appalled by the way some people try to influence others on social media.
Jack Stevenson is retired, served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.