Biden becomes @POTUS: How the social media transition of power unfolded

Donald Trump has been kicked off of most major social media platforms. What effect does deplatforming tend to have on the spread of misinformation?

Posted: Jan 21, 2021 6:20 AM
Updated: Jan 21, 2021 6:20 AM

As Joe Biden was sworn in as the president of the United States, another transition of power took place on social media.

On Wednesday, Biden and his team gained access to a long list of official government accounts across the major social media platforms, including the @POTUS account on Twitter. With the tap of a button, the Biden administration inherited a digital megaphone with the potential to make news and shape the public image of the US government.

The transfer of these official accounts, which include not just those representing Biden and the White House but nearly every arm of government, has emerged as an important aspect of the broader transition of power, especially after Twitter became the favored online platform of former President Donald Trump.

"It certainly has a big symbolic value," said David Lazer, a political science and computer sciences professor at Northeastern University. "The centrality of Twitter to Trump's brand and identity has made the moment a lot more significant."

Trump used his personal Twitter account, @realdonaldtrump, to make major policy announcements, fire staffers, attack critics and spread misinformation. His account was permanently suspended earlier this month following the deadly insurrection at the Capitol.

In addition to the @POTUS account, which was created during the Obama administration, Twitter transferred @WhiteHouse, @VP, @FLOTUS, and @PressSec to the new administration. Twitter also created a new account, @SecondGentleman, for Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris' husband Doug Emhoff.

It marks only the second such transition between US presidential administrations for Twitter, which launched in 2006. But unlike the transition four years ago, the Biden administration didn't inherit the tens of millions of followers on each account. Instead, people on Twitter who previously followed official White House Twitter accounts or who currently follow "relevant" Biden or Harris Twitter accounts, are receiving in-app alerts and other notifications about the archival process and the option to follow the new accounts, the company said in a blog post.

The decision prompted criticism from the Biden camp, which said it "unnecessarily politicizes what otherwise should be a routine transfer of communication from one administration to the next." As of Tuesday night, the @POTUS account had about 33 million followers, while the @FLOTUS and @VP accounts had 16 million and 10 million, respectively.

Twitter's approach stands in contrast to other social networks such as Snapchat and YouTube, which said the Biden administration would keep the current followers on the respective White House accounts.

Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram transferred accounts on both platforms, such as the POTUS and FLOTUS Facebook pages and the White House Instagram account, to Biden's team. These platforms also duplicated the followers on Joe Biden's Facebook page and Instagram account to the official POTUS page and account.

While the Biden team may not inherit all of the Twitter followers, it won't be starting totally from scratch. Biden's @Transition46 account on Twitter became @WhiteHouse, the @PresElectBiden became @POTUS, @SenKamalaHarris became @VP, @FLOTUSBiden became @FLOTUS, and @PressSecPsaki became @PressSec.

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