In March of 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the radio to address the people of the United States about the state of the U.S. banking system. In doing so, he taught many about the basics of banking while reassuring them that those banks were safe to use, which, at the height of the Great Depression, meant a lot. This address was the beginning of a series of addresses known as the Fireside Chats.
Fast forward 90 years to March of 2023, when another elected official — at the outset of what some argue could be the beginning of an economic recession — used one of his era’s communications methods to inform the public about the banking system and reassure them that it was safe. That government official was U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson, D-N.C., and the medium he used was TikTok, alongside other social media outlets. This connection was initially made in a video by TikTok user @antisocialstudies. More than a connection, it could be the beginning of a new form of political speech.
Jackson’s videos do more than just explain issues his constituents face. They focus on the day-to-day of being a congressman-elect and, later, his viewpoint as a member of Congress. Unlike most other members of Congress, Jackson offers a better understanding of what elected officials do, all while educating the public about some of the policies Congress is currently considering.
U.S. politicians have gone from using radio to TV and now social media to communicate with the public. Each of these changes comes as a result of the rapidly evolving technology of the time. But when it comes to the videos Jackson — and, as a result, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. — produces, the transition becomes less about the technology used and more about a change in the overall communication style our representatives use.
This change is seen primarily in two facets: first, education on policy and events within Congress, and second, greater transparency about congressional actions.
Starting with education, Jackson’s videos typically serve as a learning tool. He isn’t as much looking to sell himself as a politician to gain votes, but rather using his platform as a learning experience for both himself and his constituents. By using his videos in this context, Jackson enables his audience to be more focused on the subject matter of his video rather than what his political affiliation is or what he believes in.
Alongside education, Jackson focuses on transparency. Jackson expresses throughout his videos that he wants his audiences to know what exactly happens within Congress. He’s done this and shown transparency by talking about how committees are assigned, how he gets an office and the issue of insider trading among members of Congress as well. While some of these subjects are far more grave than others, Jackson promotes transparency even on small subjects some might not even think to ask about, displaying his dedication to being transparent where he can.
While this style of video provides greater context and insight into what elected officials do, it does come with some caveats. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Joyojeet Pal, an associate professor in the School of Information, said videos like Jackson’s can serve motives other than the promotion of transparency or education.
Pal said TikTok videos can benefit the politicians who use them by letting them strip down complex subjects into short videos.
“This is very valuable for lawmakers since they are rarely engaging issues in a truly deep sense, but just talking about them to the extent necessary for their political motives,” Pal said. “Jeff Jackson does this well, his videos are short but informative, his style is formal but not stuffy, and he comes across as an expert rather than a marketer.”
As Pal noted, politicians possess the ability to choose what exactly is shown to the public as well as simplify topics to fit a narrative. While this occurs (and has occurred) with other politicians’ media, from writing speeches to choosing which reporters’ questions will get answered, we should still look at Jackson’s videos as a template for how elected officials should speak to their constituents.
When FDR gave his Fireside Chats during his presidency, there was no precedent for him to give speeches on the radio to the American people. Rather, it was rather an effort to garner support for New Deal policies that soon turned into more of a source of hope rather than just a promotion of policy. It is with this same idea that we should treat videos such as Jackson’s.
While there may be some politicians who would willingly use this format just for the promotion of their own political motives, it is this greater pursuit of instilling hope, education about our governmental systems and transparency within our political system that should take precedence. Jackson’s video style and use of social media give elected officials a unique opportunity, more so now than ever before. They have the chance to truly inform their constituents and give insight that is rarely seen, all from the palm of their hand.
Tom Muha writes about issues relating to social media and the internet. He is an Opinion Columnist, and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.