Buckle up for America's first social media impeachment

Blurred Donald Trump walking and people taking photos of him on their mobile phones
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For the fourth time in the history of the United States, the House of Representatives is holding public hearings in an attempt to remove a president through impeachment. Wednesday’s hearings mark the third time Americans will be able to turn on their TVs to watch live impeachment proceedings against a sitting president — Andrew Johnson was exempt from this scrutiny, thanks to the technological limitations of 1868, but Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both had their alleged indiscretions debated before the masses. But as the live impeachment hearings into President Trump began Wednesday morning, both major parties face a cultural and technological challenge that was not an issue the first few times around: social media.

The existence and prominence of social and new media platforms will make the impeachment investigation of Donald Trump unlike that came before it. Previously, presidents only had to contend with the narrative produced by traditional print and broadcast media outlets, but the ubiquity of social media has changed not only how the public receives information — but how lawmakers suss it out, too.

Johnson was impeached in the wake of the Civil War in 1868, well before the onset of modern technology. When Nixon faced impeachment, the hearings about his conduct were the first ever broadcast live and in full on public television. The damning images contributed to his decision to resign in 1974, before the House had the chance to officially impeach him. In 1998, Clinton's impeachment hearings were also beamed into every household with a TV, and he faced the additional scrutiny of the internet age — but while internet existed, only 26% of American homes had at least one member who actually used it.

Needless to say, that's not the case today. According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of Americans received at least some of their news from social media in 2018. The transition Wednesday from closed-door to public hearings now means everyone involved in the Trump impeachment process — both the Democrats who hope to convince the American public of his wrongdoing, and the Republicans who hope to defend him — will not only be focused on sussing out the truth, but also on whether they've done so in a clever-enough manner to achieve maximum exposure on social media.

That might be a burden for lawmakers, but it could be a boon for the president. “Trump has a platform that neither Nixon nor Clinton could have dreamed of,” says Regina Lawrence, director of the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon. “He’s been using Twitter since 2016 to craft a narrative, an ongoing drama with daily installments.” Lawrence says Trump’s massive Twitter presence — he currently has 66.8 million followers — leaves Democrats and others who hope to see Trump impeached in a bind.

“Impeachment is a political process that rests on persuading the public, not a legal process that rests of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt,” she explains. At the end of the day, while removing Trump from office would require a trial, it's a trial among lawmakers — and as jurors they're highly attuned to what their constituents want to see happen. That means the winning side will have convinced the public that their message is the right one. “Narrative is everything, and no one on that side has a social media presence to rival Trump’s," Lawrence says.

In 1973, the National Public Affairs Center for Television aired full, unedited tape of the Nixon hearings in primetime for 15 weeks. But in the modern media landscape, the incentive for a viewer to watch the hearings for themselves is much lower: They're during the middle of the workday, they're full of boring government jargon, they last for hours and hours. Most convincingly, anyone who has even moderate interest in knowing what happened knows they can turn to Twitter, Facebook, or their favorite opinionated cable hosts to get the scoop through bite-sized video clips later tonight.

Better still, social media has made it extremely easy for people to consume news through only outlets and influencers who share their political affiliations. That makes the task of informing oneself even more comfortable — and the act of persuasion all the more challenging.

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“It seems that many Democrats are proceeding on the assumption that, as in previous impeachment proceedings especially against Nixon, the facts are what matter, and that if they ask the right questions of witnesses, a majority of the public will be persuaded to support impeachment,” Lawrence says. “I don’t know if they’ve made the adjustment to the new media era, in which no amount of testimony is likely to budge the views of Trump’s 35% to 40% of the public [that supports him], and in which we all are watching different versions of the story.”

By now, lawmakers are generally pretty familiar with this framework. They know that in order to make their case, they have to appeal to the new media landscape of punchier quotes and shorter attention spans. Consider the current pool of Democratic presidential candidates, and how many of them have been rewarded for standout lines of questioning in televised hearings. California Sen. Kamala Harris has played up her experience as a prosecutor, and she initially showcased her strength in Congress by asking pointed questions of Jeff Sessions during his 2017 confirmation hearings. Sessions later admitted that Harris made him nervous; as a first-term senator, she's now running for president, and she often references the Sessions hearings on the campaign trail.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, first earned buzz as a possible presidential contender after she was unafraid to spar with then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his 2018 Senate confirmation hearings to become a Supreme Court Justice. The trend extends to the lower chamber too: Both Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Katie Porter (Calif.) have built their name recognition by passionately grilling witnesses in committee hearings.

It's not just Democrats who know how to play this game. Republicans are just as good at gaming the optics. Take South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, who recently railed against the impeachment inquiry in a way that clearly seemed geared toward going viral — or at least pleasing our Very Online president.

This incentive system is dangerous because it dilutes actual discourse. In his new book, The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media, author and media expert Jay David Bolter wrote about how social media has weaponized the video game concept of flow, which keeps users “moving from one element to the next, repetitively, in search of gratification from the act of consuming media rather than from engaging with its content.” In the political realm, that means that users can scroll through an endless stream of posts that affirm their beliefs— without ever really having to reckon with their contents.

It's hard to come back from an environment like this. Social media has made the consumption of information so selective, and so subjective, that it's near impossible to convince someone of something they don't want to believe. When there's a source for every possible opinion — even the conspiratorial ones — proving anything is a tall order.

In an impeachment hearing against a loud president who is a master of distraction, Democrats will now have to see if they can thread that needle. Can they garner enough attention through public questioning to create the viral moments they need to convince the American public of Trump's misconduct? Or will the never-ending quest to be heard undermine what they are trying to say?