WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Barack Obama called on world leaders
at the United Nations to do more for the world's refugees, his mention
of a young boy named Alex could have just been a footnote, a forgotten
paragraph in a daily blizzard of speeches and press releases.
White House had other plans. Social media gurus at the White House built
on the president's remarks by sending a video crew to Alex's home in
New York. They recorded an adorable Alex reading aloud a letter he had
written. Alex asked the president to bring to his house a 5-year-old
bloodied boy the world had seen sitting in an ambulance in Aleppo,
Syria. He promised: "We will give him a family, and he will be our
When the White House posted the video on the president's
Facebook page it was watched 27 million times. It also generated a wave
of stories in media outlets around the country — drawing attention to
the boy's compassion and, by association, Obama's desire to persuade the
United States and the rest of the world to embrace more Syrian
The Alex video demonstrated how the Obama administration
has increasingly turned to a new menu of options to engage the public.
The first American president of the social media age, Obama has for
years been breaking ground on how politicians connect with a digitally
savvy electorate. He has used social media as a tool to educate, to
amuse, to spin, and, undoubtedly, to shape his legacy. And judging by
his successor's Twitter account, it's one of the few legacies he's
leaving that President-elect Donald Trump has embraced.
Obama came into office, the White House joined Facebook, Twitter,
Flickr, Vimeo, iTunes and MySpace. In 2013, the first lady posted her
first photo to Instagram. In 2015, President Obama sent his first tweet
from @POTUS, an account which now has 11 million followers. This year,
the White House posted its first official story on Snapchat, a promotion
of the president's State of the Union address.
officials said the focus on social media is simply a strategy of going
to where people get their news. It's an add-on, not a replacement, they
said, for press conferences and interviews with journalists. They said
presidents, with very rare exceptions, can no longer rely on a single
method for communicating their message.
"The biggest lesson that
we've learned is that the bully pulpit is dead," White House
Communications Director Jen Psaki said. "So we have a responsibility as a
government and as his staff to come up with a range of ways and levers
to communicate information."
The Pew Research Center recently
found that about 4 in 10 Americans often get their news online. Digital
is second only to TV news as the most prominent news platform. Younger
adults are especially likely to turn to the web for their news.
Hindman, an associate professor at George Washington University, said
presidents are increasingly closed off from the press, and Obama is no
exception. Social media allows the Obama administration not to be
"hostage" to what the press is focused on during a particular day, he
"What this is about is getting their message out to their
supporters, energizing the base, getting support for their policies, and
to some extent shaping the agenda by forcing coverage of issues they
think are important," Hindman said.
The American Presidency
Project said Obama has held about 21 individual and joint press
conferences a year during his presidency, fewer than his three
predecessors. George H.W. Bush held about 34 a year, Bill Clinton
averaged about 24 press conferences annually and George W. Bush, 26.
Ronald Reagan, given the moniker the "great communicator," held about
six a year.
Obama jokes about his social media skills, saying his
cellphone doesn't allow him to make or receive calls, and he can't text
or take pictures. Basically, he can only use his phone to look at the
internet and send emails.
"I now have an iPhone, but it is, you
know, like, the phone you give your 2-year-old, where they can pretend
to press things, but nothing actually happens?" Obama said on Jimmy
Obama said in a recent interview for Snapchat's
political show, "Good Luck America" that he wasn't up to speed on every
aspect of social media when he ran for president.
"But I hired a bunch of 25- and 26-year-olds who were all into it," Obama said.
has about a 15-person shop in the White House Office of Digital
Strategy. Last year, he brought in Jason Goldman, who helped start
Twitter, to run the operation. Goldman said Obama has a keen
understanding of the power of social media, driven from the success of
his 2008 presidential campaign.
"He clearly understood this was a
way to reach people directly," Goldman said, "how they would emotionally
engage with an issue."
To encourage that engagement early on, the
White House set up a platform on its web site in 2011 that allows
people to petition the administration to take a certain action. If a
petition can get 100,000 signatures within 30 days, the White House will
provide a response. The administration more recently gave people the
chance to send a message to the president through Facebook. (Fun fact:
The president reads 10 of these posts daily, prospective messagers are
Goldman said those functions fit with Obama's focus on "the
imperative of citizenship," where input from citizens can help the
government deliver better services. And that just won't help the Obama
"A lot of the things that we've done here will continue on regardless of what the next administration is," Goldman said.
media organizations have complained about the administration's use of
social media. The Associated Press complained in December 2013 that
images posted on the White House Flickr page were "visual press
releases" and were increasingly offered to the media in lieu of real
But the White House flatly rejects the notion
that its social media operations help the president bypass traditional
media outlets. Aides note dozens of interviews Obama has had in recent
months with the TV networks and other outlets.
"The goal isn't to be less filtered. The goal is to meet people where they are," Goldman said.