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NULab Faculty John Wihbey Analyzes DeSantis’ Campaign Twitter Announcement

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Reposted from Northeastern Global News

By Cody Mello-Klein

Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, officially launched his presidential campaign Wednesday night, but, in an unconventional move, he did so on Twitter with Elon Musk at his (virtual) side.

Widely expected to join the 2024 Republican primary race for months, DeSantis made the announcement in an audio-only Twitter Spaces chat with Elon Musk, moderated by tech entrepreneur and DeSantis supporter David Sacks. 

The decision to kickstart his campaign with Musk by his side on a social media platform like Twitter is a strategic move in keeping with the “high velocity public relations approach” DeSantis has cultivated in Florida, says John Wihbey, associate professor of media innovation and technology at Northeastern University.

“The way they’re going to try to battle against Trump is to try to flood the zone themselves,” Wihbey says. “They think he’s probably a higher energy candidate capable of much more engagement in public debate. He’s a governor, so he has a platform; they’re going to take advantage of that.”

Leaping on social media for a live question-and-answer session with one of the most well-known figures in the world is the kind of quick, non-traditional messaging DeSantis will likely use to distinguish himself from Trump, Wihbey says.

Hosting his announcement on Twitter is also “a bit of a dig against Trump.” The former president was banned from the platform in 2021 before Musk recently un-suspended his account. 

DeSantis, widely seen as Donald Trump’s primary challenger for the Republican nomination, has dipped behind the former president in preliminary polling recently. Ahead of his official entrance into the race, he’s faced growing political attacks from Trump and is waging an ongoing war against Disney in his own state.

Aligning himself with Musk––one of the “Silicon Valley elites” DeSantis has previously criticized––is an open attempt to court the tech businessman’s massive audience and potential donor pool, Wihbey says. In the past, Musk has expressed his support for DeSantis, should he run for president.

“He knows he needs to be close to Silicon Valley, close to Wall Street, he needs to raise a ton of money,” Wihbey says. “Elon, obviously, in liberal media communities has become quite toxic, but there’s a huge fanbase out there that loves him. He’s also very credible with the capitalist, entrepreneurial class that wants somebody in the White House who’s pro-business.”

As a public figure, Musk “has carried a lot of water in the culture war recently,” Wihbey says, which plays to DeSantis’ focus on “anti-woke” policies. But the Twitter CEO’s reputation in the world of business also could help smooth over DeSantis’ ongoing struggle with Disney, one of the biggest economic forces in Florida, which has become an open wound for his opponents to poke at

“Do you fight your own businesses?” Wihbey says. “I think that [fight with Disney] will hurt him over time. … Maybe the Elon thing is, in part, an attempt to rehabilitate his credentials as someone who is business friendly and who’s not off the rails with his policy around business.”

DeSantis’ campaign announcement is also a huge boon for Twitter, which has struggled since Musk’s takeover last year. If anything, DeSantis choosing the platform to shoulder the weight of his campaign announcement is a testament to “how sticky these platforms are, how embedded they are in the communications apparatus in the United States and globally,” Wihbey says. 

However, Twitter’s ongoing importance in politics and campaigning provides cause for concern, he says. Given how much Musk has changed the platform’s content moderation system, Wihbey foresees Twitter potentially becoming “a cesspool of all kinds of vitriol” that could harm constructive forms of political and social engagement.

Whether DeSantis’ campaign launch is a strategic boldstroke or blunder, Wihbey says he’s accomplished the most important thing in the world of politics in 2023.

“Where attention is the chief commodity that everyone is chasing after, he’s gotten attention,” Wihbey says.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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