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Gage Skidmore © Wikimedia Commons

Sara Polak warns about social media: ‘What do you do with those tweets by Trump?’

Sara Polak, American Studies expert and University Lecturer investigates how American presidents deal with the media and how new, social media influence our collective memory and the political game. ‘Social media algorithms influence us and our political choices in ways we do not foresee’, Polak says.

What she sees is a ‘fundamental shift we don’t yet understand: how social media and the prosumer culture really work.’ She is referring to the concept of the ‘producing consumer’ who produces content on social media, including memes, tweets and vlogs. 

Social media en democracy

Social media are far more influential than they sometimes seem, she explains. Think of the commotion surrounding data company Cambridge Analytica, who used data from Facebook users to influence Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. ‘Once the algorithms that influence people’s voting behaviour work perfectly, democracy as we know it will become impossible. We can’t protect ourselves against these mechanisms if we don’t understand them.’

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter don’t create content but they do invite a particular kind of interaction, explains Polak. Every medium sets its own conditions for a specific type of behaviour: ‘Twitter is all about short sharp messages. There’s no room for nuance, which is why people are quick to come into conflict with one another.’

Trump and his tweets

Polak recognises that her impact as a researcher lies in the scientific perspective she can bring to the news. The Dutch media often ask her to comment on developments in US politics. But in the informal chats before and after interviews, journalists want to talk about other things than the news: ‘For example, many journalists struggle with how to report on Trump’s tweets’, Polak says. ‘When should you respond, and when not? These are things I can comment on from the perspective of my research.’

As an example: shortly after being elected, Trump posted something on Twitter about actress Meryl Streep. ‘This was around the time when the first reports about possible Russian interference in the elections were coming to light. It was the Twitter equivalent of: “Hey, your shoelace is loose!” Trump is first and foremost an entertainer; it’s something he’s extremely good at’, she explains. ‘So you can be dead sure that if he suddenly starts tweeting about Meryl Streep, he’s trying to draw attention away from something. His tweets during that time were clearly a smoke screen.’

Virus research

Polak is currently working on a volume entitled Embodying Contagion, on the cultural representation of epidemics. The coronavirus outbreak suddenly made this volume particularly relevant. ‘Writing this book made me realise that our cultural imagination around these kinds of health crises are very much determined by popular culture, for example zombie films or series like The Walking Dead. Take stockpiling, for example: people do that in part because popular culture has been feeding them an apocalyptic scenario of scarcity during emergencies.’

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