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Oh Snap! Founding Fathers Didn’t Envision Snapchatting State of Union

January 12, 2016
by Krissy Eliot

Not unlike virtually everyone under the age of 25, the White House has a blog. And its most recent post reads like a hokey commercial: “Our Official Story will take you behind the scenes of the White House’s State of the Union preparations, with footage and angles you won’t find anywhere else.”

Where you will find the “Official Story” is on Snapchat, the third most popular social media app (after Facebook and Twitter), which famously allows users to send photos and videos that only last a short time before disappearing.

To the marginally initiated, the app may be more associated with teenage flirtations than presidential aspirations. So perhaps unsurprisingly, not everyone is cheering the White House’s choice to integrate Snapchat into its social media repertoire. On Mashable, journalist Seth Fiegerman pondered whether the decision to use Snapchat is a “savvy political strategy or the government’s version of a midlife crisis.” The derision can be bipartisan. On the GOP side, presidential contender Rand Paul’s debut on Snapchat spurred the Huffington Post to declare: “Rand Paul Officially Ruins Snapchat Forever.”

Of course, Snapchat is but the latest in a history of political forays into new media, traceable back at least as far as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” and including Richard Nixon’s off-kilter 5-second appearance on TV’s “Laugh-In” to deliver the punch line “Sock it to me!” Since then, each new venture seems to have been greeted with skepticism if not outright disdain—such intermingling of politics and entertainment, critics say, risks dumbing down our democracy with frivolity and vulgarity. Says Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director and lead researcher of the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies: “Ronald Reagan introduced Hollywood into politics, and even that seemed vulgar at the time.” So, too, did Bill Clinton on MTV fielding a question from a high schooler about whether he wore boxers or briefs. “Briefs,” he said to audience laughter, adding “I can’t believe she (asked) that.”

Nor can we forget Clinton’s scandalous sax solo on Arsenio Hall’s TV show. And Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns pioneered how to effectively exploit social media to reach and activate younger voters. “They have a pedigree in social networking,”says Rosenthal, “and it has served them well.”

Greeting President Obama before a previous "State of the Union" addresses

If we collectively get over the fact that integrating new technology into politics is initially unsettling, we can pose the more interesting question:

Why is the White House using Snapchat, anyway? After all, the Obama administration already has Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and YouTube accounts. Theoretically, Snapchat sounds as if it could offer unique appeal to politicians of all stripes because of its trademark function: Any comment or pledge you make vanishes in seconds. But actually—given this pesky little item called the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which shifted legal ownership of presidential records from private to public—the White House reportedly made arrangements to ensure a record is maintained.

The reality, of course, is that Snapchat allows users to take screen shots of its temporal snaps and chats. That alone prevents it from ever becoming an ideal communication channel for politicians to avoid having something they said hovering over them for all eternity, such as Hilary Clinton’s memorable announcement: “I want to be as good a president as Beyonce is a performer.” (Face palm.)

Nor is this just the Obama administration trying to be hipper-than-thou.

Part of Snapchat’s appeal (to the public) is that it’s ephemeral—but that doesn’t seem to be part of why the White House is using it; it’s interface doesn’t serve any particular advantages,” says Josh Jackson, media studies lecturer at Cal. “Maybe the app isn’t the best fit for the White House, but in order to attempt to best communicate and attract and bring audiences into the political realm of public discussion here, they use what people are using. An app, no matter how well made, isn’t going to be useful unless there’s an audience for it, unless there’s a user base. And Snapchat already has the user base, so it’s about the White House adapting its own policies or working with Snapchat in order to use that app to speak to that user base.”

“Snapchat is already pretty successful in their own rite, they have a ton of users,” adds Coye Cheshire, professor at the Berkeley School of Information. “But the fact that the White House would actually choose to use it as one of their social media outlets actually kind of furthers the credibility of Snapchat as a player in the social media landscape.”

As the White House noted, over 60 percent of American smartphone users between the ages of 13 and 34 are Snapchatting.​ And that user base far exceeds the audience for any one of the morning network news shows—assuming they actually, you know, vote.

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