Why words matter: A look at how social media is playing a big role in President Trump’s impeachment trial

DELMARVA – Social media: most of us have it, some of us love it, and some of us hate it. Now, it’s taking center stage in former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial. “The problem with social media, as has always been a problem with written communication, is tone and perception. Obviously that’s a key component of law, is interpretation of the written word,” said Salisbury University Associate Professor of Communications Dr. Jennifer Cox.

The context of former President Donald Trump’s social media posts holds more value than the average Tweet. That’s something that will likely be a deciding factor as he stands his second impeachment trial. Delaware State University Professor of Political Science Dr. Samuel Hoff says a big part of the trial is whether or not former President Trump had a hand in planning the January 6th attack on the capitol. “It’s not an easy case to prove. The impeachment managers noted that this issue was planned,” said Dr. Hoff.

So far, the trial has been filled with evidence posted to social media by both former President Trump and insurrectionists. “By building a case that this was something that started not after the election, but months before the election, in words and Tweets that the president produced and meted out – that’s a stronger case,” said Dr. Hoff.

Dr. Cox says the tricky thing with using social media as evidence is how subjective any given Tweet or Facebook post can be. “I think social media and law are similar in that way, in that people are going to interpret things different ways. You could take any one of President Trump’s tweets leading up to the events of January 6th and say this one was incendiary,” said Dr. Cox.

Dr. Cox says on top of that, the real-time nature of social media might set a standard for the use of social media posts as evidence in court. “We’re really going to see social media be the record of history going forward in a way that news organizations were,” said Dr. Cox.

Former President Trump was only the second Commander in Chief to take control of the @POTUS Twitter account. Dr. Cox says in comparing how former President Barrack Obama used the account to how former President Trump used it, the difference is clear. Dr. Cox tells 47ABC that former President Obama used the account to mobilize and connect with young people. She says now, impeachment managers are trying to prove that former President Trump used it to incite violence. “We saw President Trump take it many steps further in using it to specifically advocate for his causes and objectives, to the point where – as officials are arguing – he was able to rally his supporters to attack the capitol,”  said Dr. Cox.

As for if social media companies should be answering for their role in the attack on the capitol, Dr. Cox says that’s more of a difficult question to answer. “Any major corporation is responsible for the information that’s put out in their name and with their name attached to it. So, from a legal standpoint that’s a bit of a gray area,” said Dr. Cox.

Dr. Cox says social media companies could have their own reasons for not moving to censor content made by users. For example, divisive posts can drive up web traffic, and generate more clicks and revenue for social media companies. But, Dr. Cox says while those could be attractive reasons for allowing dangerous language, social media companies still have an ethical standard they should be adhering to.  “It creates a real visceral experience for the user and it certainly implants and emotional impression in peoples’ heads,” said Dr. Cox.

Looking at the trial in a more general sense, Dr. Hoff says he’s not quite sure whether the impeachment managers’ arguments are enough to sway two thirds of the Senate to convict former President Trump. Either way, Dr. Hoff says he believes more Republicans will move to convict the former president than the first time around. “We’ve seen more folks who are deviating from the main drag of the Republican party, which is to support the president, vote for acquittal,” said Dr. Hoff.

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