Trump’s Tweeting And Government Records In The Digital Era – Forbes

Twitter accounts of U.S. President Donald Trump, @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

As US President Donald Trump becomes known as the “tweeting president,” increasing attention has been placed on how heads of state utilize social media to communicate and engage with the public and how we preserve government records in the digital era.

While President Obama had formal governmental accounts on the major social media platforms from which he posted on many topics of the day, those accounts were, for the most part, run as traditional governmental public relations outlets, with their content produced and managed by an army of press aides (though Obama was claimed to write some social missives). In this way they were just new mediums through which the traditional governmental press mechanism functioned – broadcasting official polished messages out to the masses.

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, on the other hand, has brought with it something fundamentally new to American politics – the notion of a head of state who speaks his/her mind candidly and in realtime stream-of-consciousness, offering unprecedented access to one of the most powerful people on earth.

Heads of state personally communicating via social media without their army of aides filtering and editing every word profoundly humanizes politicians in a way we’ve not seen in the modern era. Political leaders have become ephemeral entities seen only on television or the rare political rally, hiding behind phalanxes of PR aides who carefully craft their every word which they read from a teleprompter like a Hollywood actor reading their script, perhaps with a few minor adlibs here and there.

Yet, as many a diplomat will tell you, heads of state are, after all, only human. They get angry, scream, holler, curse, even throw furniture, but we the public never see any of that, it is all safely hidden and instead we see a calm and collected leader strolling to a podium and reading a professionally crafted message from a teleprompter. President Trump’s social stream-of-consciousness, on the other hand, for better or worse, lets us see his inner thoughts and reactions to global events #nofilter.

Of course, he is not the first head of state to take to social media to engage with the world. Perhaps most famously, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves was globally renowned for his incredibly active engagement on Twitter during his decade as president in which he personally used the platform to advance the interests and conversation about Estonia, posting himself directly to the world without the army of aides drafting and editing tweets of other heads of state, offering a #nofilter view of life as president of Estonia. Indeed, BuzzFeed once labeled him “The President Of Twitter.”

This raises the question of whether the world’s citizens will increasingly come to demand that their heads of state step down from their podiums, set down their carefully crafted PR statements, turn off their teleprompters and engage directly with their citizens via social media. Are the examples of President Ilves and now President Trump glimpses of a future to come in which all heads of state will communicate directly and personally with their nations in unfiltered streams of consciousness without aides writing their every word? Or will we decide that its better to keep our leaders up on pedestals above the social media fray?

It also raises the question that all of this conversation is occurring on private platforms owned by American companies that have the legal right to quietly restrict and shape the narrative between politicians and their publics.

If we accept that social media and other digital communications platforms represent at least part of the future of government communication, this raises the question of how we archive and preserve these communications for future generations to look back upon. Already the Covfefe Act has been put forth by one Congressman to ensure that presidential tweets are archived.

In the United States, the Presidential Records Act (PRA) and Federal Records Act (FRA) are two primary legal infrastructures that govern the preservation of presidential communications. I asked the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for comment on its current views towards the preservation of presidential tweets and they referred me to a letter sent this past March by the Archivist of the United States David Ferriero to the US Senate offering NARA’s perspective.

In the letter the Archivist states that “attorneys with the Office of the Counsel to the President have consulted with NARA officials on a regular basis regarding compliance with the PRA” and that “NARA has advised the White House that it should capture and preserve all tweets that the President posts in the course of his official duties, including those that are subsequently deleted, as Presidential records, and NARA has been informed by White House officials that they are, in fact, doing so.”

However, letter further clarifies that “under the PRA, records management authority is vested in the President, and NARA does not make ‘determinations’ with respect to whether something is or is not a Presidential record. Rather, NARA provides advice and guidance concerning the PRA upon request of the White House.”

In short, the White House has considerably latitude in determining what it considers to be an official presidential record that must be preserved.

When asked whether this meant that President Trump could later change his mind and determine that tweets were no longer considered a presidential record and whether he could stop archiving them or delete the current archive, NARA did not respond to repeated requests for comment. It also did not respond to a request for clarification of whether this meant that the President could delete or modify his social media posts at any time, so long as a copy of the original was provided to NARA.

While President Trump’s Twitter posts have garnered most of the attention of late, it is important to recognize that the issue of preserving ephemeral digital government records and just what constitutes such a record is by no means a new issue.

Nearly a decade ago in 2008 a colleague and I used the Internet Archive’s snapshots of the White House website to document that the Bush-era White House had extensively altered, deleted and posted-dated documents in the White House press release archive over years, a practice which we later found to continue under the Obama administration. In one particularly egregious example that the New York Times Editorial Board titled “Orwell Comes to Iraq,” the White House repeatedly edited the public record of just which countries constituted the “Coalition of the Willing” over time by silently changing official press releases, post-dating releases, deleting releases and conducting other editing of the historical record.

While the original copies of many of the releases could be accessed by traveling to a Federal Depository Library and consulting the paper versions on deposit, for the majority of the American people, the electronic copies of press releases posted to the White House website constitute the public record and thus to them their publicly accessible record of government was changing before their very eyes and without them being the slightest bit aware.

At the time, NARA personnel indicated that the web versions of press releases on the White House website could be freely modified and deleted at any time without any notification to the public so long as copies of were deposited with NARA. In effect, the web versions were not considered immutable digital editions of official government records, but rather living interpretations that stood on their own and could be modified at will.

Putting this all together, what does this mean for the future of government records in the digital era? Only time will tell if the world’s citizens demand that future leaders take to social media to live stream their thoughts about the world or whether they decide its best for leaders to step back behind the podium and read from the teleprompter, but as even our access to those teleprompted remarks is increasingly mediated by social media and the web, we need to think long and hard about what it means for governments to communicate in a digital world.

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