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The Digital Presidency of Donald Trump

Barack Obama’s administration designed a modern, interactive executive branch that connected his office to citizens. President Trump is doing things a little differently.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

When Barack Obama moved into the White House in 2009, he did so without many of the digital advantages that had helped get him into office. The previous administration’s WhiteHouse.gov website was functional but clearly outdated, official government social media accounts were nonexistent, and there were no online pathways for citizens to provide feedback to their government.

“We absolutely started with nothing,” said Kori Schulman, a former White House deputy chief digital officer. Schulman helped run digital efforts during Obama’s first presidential campaign and, after being hired for a White House position the following May, she and her team began carefully navigating new government territory. Obama’s transition team had launched a redesigned WhiteHouse.gov on Inauguration Day, but there was still plenty to do. Over that first year, they established methods to archive social media posts in accordance with the Presidential Records Act and figured out how to access social media platforms within the outdated White House computer system. They also created White House–specific accounts for Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and — because it was 2009 — Myspace. Though these were repositories for videos of the president shooting hoops or playing with kids, their purpose went beyond self-image. It was via these accounts that the White House staff would inform and engage with Americans — and eventually earn enough respect from Silicon Valley to recruit talented technologists to work for the government.

Eight years later, the White House Myspace page has languished, but plenty has remained. Donald Trump’s administration, which did not respond to a request for comment, has inherited a vast digital infrastructure, ranging from a Snapchat account to a White House Facebook messenger bot. But if the past 19 days are any indication, he plans to use the digital tools of the previous administration much differently than his predecessor. Early online decisions from Trump’s camp — which include his signature Twitter rants, major policy announcements, and an emphasis on Facebook Live broadcasts — have left many former Office of Digital Strategy employees anxious over the fate of their work. His team’s takeover of official government accounts and websites now hints at an action-based tone; a brutalist, unfinished aesthetic; and largely promotional motivations.

The Transition

Ashleigh Axios was surprised when she visited WhiteHouse.gov after Trump’s inauguration. In her four years working as an interactive art director and creative director for Obama’s Office of Digital Strategy, she had poured her energy into ensuring the website was responsive, crisply designed, and accessible to as many people as possible on as many devices as possible. At times, she and her staff would drop in on White House events to ask visitors with hearing or sight disabilities what fonts, interactives, or graphics were easiest to comprehend. Before she left the White House in the spring, she’d helped create plans to preserve — or, as they would say around the White House, “glass-box” — the site indefinitely. When she visited the URL after Trump’s swearing in, she saw the same branding she’d designed four years ago to represent the “feel of hope and change” for the White House website, replaced with the Trump administration’s information.

In the short history of presidential website transitions, every new administration has introduced a new version of WhiteHouse.gov. Because Trump’s transition team had reached out to collect assets and access the website only about a week before the inauguration, there was no time for that, according to a source from the Obama administration who had helped with the transition. So, much like the cake Trump ordered for his inaugural dinner, the website remained virtually identical to Obama’s, down to the blue-and-gray color scheme and Whitney font.

The most noticeable differences were absences: Trump’s team gutted the site of “issue” pages relating to LGBT rights, civil rights, climate change, and the Affordable Care Act, as well as its Spanish-language portal. The “We the People” petition page has so far remained, but its fate seemed uncertain after it amassed hundreds of thousands of total signatures asking Trump to release his tax returns, place his business interests in a blind trust, preserve national endowments for the arts and humanities, and resign. Axios was happy that her hard work on the site has not been wasted, but also disappointed to see her vision warped.

“In a strictly design sense, I find it pretty lazy that they did not put any time and intention into the voice and brand and values of the website as their own administration,” Axios said. “It just shows a noncommitment to the presidency in the digital design and technology capacities that we really set a pretty easy precedent for.”

While she worked for the White House, Axios’s team adhered to a fast-paced release schedule that coordinated with the Office of Communications. For each major issue on the Obama administration’s agenda, they put together a collection of images, fact cards, and charts, often unified by their own color palette. Their output would vary depending on the social media platform of choice, but each campaign sought to accomplish one thing: to communicate the facts and implications of an initiative in as clear and nuanced a way as possible.

“The way you’re going to communicate about the Iran nuclear deal and the way that you’re going to communicate about education are very different tones, as they should be,” Axios said. “One demands a serious, heavy nature and is probably going to feel a bit more like a hard-hitting news style. And the other is going to feel more whimsical and comfortable in a modern social media space.”

All About Trump

It is that graphic nuance that many former Office of Digital Strategy employees and designers say has vanished amid Trump’s first weeks as president. Though the skin of WhiteHouse.gov has remained largely unchanged, the administration’s strategy for outreach on major platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have all but turned inward, toward President Trump’s personal accounts. This runs counter to the previous administration’s guidelines, which required staff members to create new social media accounts when they joined, to prevent the use of existing personal accounts as administration mouthpieces. When staff members left, they were required to give up those accounts — and the followers that they accrued — because they were considered government property. Just a few days before he took office, however, Trump announced that he would continue tweeting from his personal @realDonaldTrump account. Since then, it has become clear that his individual Facebook and Instagram pages have also become the main sources of information about major announcements, photography from within the White House, and, naturally, Trump’s inevitable spew of declarations and insults.

“The White House Twitter account now is just a retweet account for @realDonaldTrump,” said Clay Dumas, the former chief of staff for the Office of Digital Strategy. “They’re generating less content. I think that’s a reflection of staffing, but it’s also that they are very focused on content that comes straight from the president.”

Some conservatives find it refreshing that Trump has all but swallowed the White House’s institutional presence online. Chasen Campbell, a vice president at the conservative digital strategy company Harris Media, argues that the attitude to preserve these institutional accounts is overly precious, especially considering the massive reach that Trump’s personal accounts have over those of the White House.

“That whole belief is still part of the establishment, to keep everything the way it is and let’s prepare for the next similar politician to take control,” Campbell said. “In my opinion, just blow it all up. Who cares?”

The former administration’s decision to use institution-associated accounts over personal ones was not only to maintain a digital asset that would grow from one administration to the next, but to also encourage engagement between regular citizens and members of Obama’s staff. The White House often held informational Q&As on platforms like Twitter, Facebook Live, and Google Hangouts hosted by senior staff members who advised the president on issues like the economy or foreign policy. These initiatives were tightly monitored by staff, and by no means contained as much information as, say, a Chris Matthews interview — but they demonstrated a certain level of transparency and openness within the office that would’ve been out of place on a personal account.

“We really looked at all of the White House social media channels as vehicles to connect directly to the American people,” said Schulman, the former White House deputy chief digital officer. “Not just as channels for message dissemination but really as places to have two-way conversations.”

So far, Trump’s digital strategy has instead demonstrated a desire to speak at — not with — the American people. The aforementioned “We the People” petitions have languished, and Dumas says he’s “not particularly optimistic” that the White House will offer a response to them after their standard 60-day deadline. Meanwhile, the Facebook Messenger bot that his team created so people could send the president messages is no longer functional, and Trump ditched the White House Snapchat account for one under his own name. Many of the infographics or captions posted on the president’s social media channels are slogans or direct quotes from Trump’s personal Twitter account. Since the presidential campaign, outlets have argued that Trump’s online posts are a premeditated strategy to avoid scrutiny and confuse critics. Either way, Dumas sees this approach as a missed opportunity to offer information about the administration’s significant changes to policy.

“The only conclusion you can arrive at looking at these posts is that they have little interest in trying to have meaningful engagement on issues or having a conversation with the American people,” Dumas said. “They’re just broadcasting programs from the Oval Office. I don’t know that we should expect to see more than that from them, ever.”

Most important to Obama’s digital team, however, was the research process that went into ensuring accurate information was posted on all channels. Sometimes the Office of Digital Strategy’s process included combing through data, or coordinating with research teams, policy staff, or other government agencies. Trump’s methods are slightly different. He recently tweeted “I call my own shots, largely based on an accumulation of data.” We can surmise what that data might be, based on the articles he posts on Facebook from outlets like Breitbart and the New York Post. Most recently, he shared a false report that claimed Kuwait had also issued a visa ban on several Muslim-majority countries, following his recent executive order temporarily halting immigration and refugees from seven countries.

“Putting out misinformation simply was not an option,” Schulman said. “Sharing accurate content is a standard that’s owed to the American people — because it’s their government — even if it’s in all caps with an exclamation point.”

Rough Around the Edges

When it came to populating Obama’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts with profile photos and headers, his staff often involved the president in the process. Typically, they offered him a selection of images to choose from, about which they’d then have candid discussions. The theme was always consistent: Obama demonstrating warmth toward his family, staff members, or visitors.

“We’d say, ‘We love that you’re so natural in this and you’re smiling, and it’s better than a formal headshot that says, Serious Head of State,’” Axios said. “People know that you’re that, so we can show them the other side and show them your personality, the reason they voted for you in the first place.”

These inviting images of Obama that were sprinkled across his social media channels stand in opposition to Trump’s brash businessman persona. For Mark Fox, a graphic design professor at the California College of the Arts, the contrast is clear just from their Twitter headers. The Obama administration’s now-archived White House Twitter account shows a photo of Barack and Michelle embracing as they look out over Washington from the White House. Trump’s profile, on the other hand, shows him sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, surrounded by aides and photographers.

“I think part of what comes through on Obama’s social media presence is that he comes off as warm and connected to the people,” Fox said. “His humanity comes through in much of the images in a way that it doesn’t with Trump. With Trump, he’s in command, he’s working, but he’s not physically in contact with anybody.”

Alongside images that portray Trump as a singular and hardworking leader, the text-heavy posts shared on his social media accounts denote what Fox describes as “brutalist.” Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards recently argued that the Trump administration’s aesthetic is inherently fascist in its “celebration of victory over an invisible enemy (‘the system’) expressed in aggressive terms, and the celebration of a heroic singular man with the rare ability to be active in a land of inaction.” It is also intentionally gaudy. An image published on Trump’s personal account a week ago, for instance, uses thick block letters and red, white, and blue coloring for an in-your-face patriotism typically reserved for a Budweiser Fourth of July commercial.

“They’ve popped out slogans in red so that even in scanning the brief amount of text, you come away with ‘strong again,’ ‘proud again,’ ‘safe again,’ which becomes arithmetic for making America great again,” Fox said. “The invocation to his supporters is that Obama’s America was weak and unsafe. It’s about revival, rebirth, to bring the country back to what it was. It’s simple phrases, it’s repetition, it’s almost like a child’s song.”

Even when it comes to maintaining professionalism in the design that comes out of the White House, Trump has thwarted expectations. Aside from photography that is uncentered, blurry, and generally appearing as though it were snapped on an aide’s smartphone, his team posts low-resolution images like this WhiteHouse.gov logo.

“Design-wise, we all know Obama admin places a great care into design both with voice and aesthetics to make his ‘brand’ friendly, engaging and visually appealing to both designers and mainstream,” said Shawna X, a designer and artist who has worked for brands like OkCupid, Adobe, and Nike, via email. “Trump does not give a shit about the creative community, so aesthetically speaking his team probably went on one of those ‘5 logos for 99 dollar’ websites or just did it themselves.”

The Trump administration’s output will likely improve over time as Trump adds more staff members. According to Schulman — who herself was hired in the fifth month of Obama’s presidency — it took a while for his digital outreach team to gain its footing and establish a consistent publishing schedule. Trump’s team has already hinted at improvement in the slightly more subtle graphic images released around the announcement of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee last week. But according to Fox, publishing well-designed output may not be a strategic priority for the administration.

“I don’t look at their feeds and think, ‘Wow, this is an intelligent, sensitive person,’” Fox said. “I’ve got to be pretty honest, I don’t think that’s what they’re looking for. His supporters could care less about typefaces or layout or messaging. It’s almost as if those niceties are a sign of weakness.”

For the most part, that divide in design quality between Democratic and Republican candidates is a consistent theme. Campbell says most Republican candidates are much less savvy at social media, but Trump has harnessed the scrappy internet meme aesthetic that some people feel is more authentic.

“What a website should look like and what resonates on social media are two entirely different things,” he said. “There’s a reason why these pixelated, crappy GIFs and these sloppy designs do so well. It’s because they’re hilarious or they’re just treating the candidate in a way that we’re used to from the BuzzFeeds of the world. Different parts of an online apparatus should serve different purposes.”

Still, the Obama staff that helped build the digital infrastructure that is now at Trump’s fingertips hopes his administration will find more meaningful ways to communicate with the public.

“If and when they do, hopefully it’s still with the same positive intent that we did, and not something that’s totally heinous and manipulative,” Axios said. “It’s about: How do we use the resources that we have to communicate goodwill and to unite the American people?”