Stephen Collins, Kennesaw State University – Presidents, Twitter, and U.S. Soft Power

Words matter, especially in the political sphere.

Stephen Collins, professor of government and international affairs at Kennesaw State University, examines this through the lens of social media.

Dr. Stephen D. Collins is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University (Ph.D., Political Science, Johns Hopkins University, 2004). His past publications have examined diplomacy, economic statecraft, foreign policy, political communications, security and conflict resolution, democracy, and nuclear proliferation. He recently analyzed digital diplomacy in his co-authored work (with Jeff R. DeWitt, and Rebecca K. LeFebvre) “Hashtag Diplomacy: Twitter as a Tool for Engaging in Public Diplomacy and Promoting U.S. Foreign Policy,” Place Branding & Public Diplomacy, 15(2), 78–96.

Jeff DeWitt is a Professor of Political Science in the School of Government and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University where his primary field of study is American political behavior with research interests in public opinion and political communication. He recently co-edited The Republican Resistance: #NeverTrump Conservatives and the Future of the GOP and has published articles in numerous academic journals. In addition to teaching, he is coordinator for certificate programs in both professional politics and political communication.

Presidents, Twitter, and U.S. Soft Power

Twitter has become a vital communications platform of U.S. diplomacy, and the messages that carry the greatest potential to shape the global image of America are tweets made by the president of the United States.

In our study, titled “Words Matter: Presidents, Twitter, and U.S. Soft Power” we analyzed over 2000 tweets made by the first two presidents of the Twitter era – Barack Obama and Donald Trump – and assessed whether they reflected positively on the US, enhancing its soft power, in particular. Soft Power refers to a nation’s ability to influence global affairs through the power of attraction, which results in other countries willingly supporting the nation because of its perceived attractive qualities, including its values, culture, prosperity, and a foreign policy that is seen as benevolent and generous.

Our analysis reveals that Barack Obama’s Tweets were statesmanlike and highlighted America as dedicated to universal values – liberty, tolerance, and global cooperation – and heralded the US as a leader in science, culture, and the economy. As such, Obama’s tweets expanded US soft power.

Trump’s tweets, conversely, were often combative and conveyed an America less committed to universal values such as human rights, averse to global cooperation, including on shared threats like climate change. While all of Obama’s tweets reinforced American soft power, approximately two-thirds of Trump’s tweets eroded soft power.

Indeed, empirical data from global opinion polls and research institutions confirm that America’s soft power was robust under Obama and declined considerably under Trump. Data also show US soft power rebounding under Joe Biden.

Our findings demonstrate that words matter indeed. A US president’s social media activity can produce a profound impact on America’s image abroad, its soft power, and thus its security.

  1. Brendan