Donald Trump one year on: How the Twitter President changed social media and the country's top office

Mr Trump has weaponised Twitter, using it not just to reach the masses but to control the news agenda through bluster and distraction

Andrew Buncombe
New York
Wednesday 17 January 2018 21:43
Selfie-importance: Mr Trump has posted around 36,800 tweets since 2009
Selfie-importance: Mr Trump has posted around 36,800 tweets since 2009

Frequently, they appear before it is even light. During the week, they drop as people are making their way to work, and elbowing their way to the office. At the weekend, they pop up before they have switched on their coffee machines. And coffee helps.

Often the early morning tweets are about something that President Donald Trump has had on his mind all night, though there’s increasing evidence he is often inspired to post after tuning in to his favourite, fawning Fox News morning show and getting angry or feeling persecuted.

And they follow a pattern of both subject matter and style – Crooked Hillary Clinton (83 tweets since he entered the White House), “fake news” (183) or the vow to Make America Great Again (104). They are brash, petulant, and aggressive. They contain claims that are often untrue. They’re petty, mean-spirited. They are like nothing we’ve previously seen from an elected politician.

Yet, Mr Trump’s tweets are also remarkably effective. He joined Twitter in March 2009 and immediately became a shrill presence, whom people could ignore if they chose to. But since he declared his intention to run for the White House, and then won the Republican nomination and the presidency, it is difficult, and perhaps even irresponsible, to do so.

The media is frequently criticised for focusing too little on what Mr Trump does and too much on his tweets. But his Twitter feed, which has 46.7m followers, is a window not only into his thoughts and psyche, but into the kind of messages he wants to communicate to his supporters.

He often says it is the most effective way to connect with the country, without the filter of a traditional media he claims not to trust. The White House was obliged to clarify that his tweets also represent presidential statements, and should carry the same imprimatur as a comment issued by his press office.

“My use of social media is not presidential,” Mr Trump said last summer amid controversy triggered when he claimed a woman television anchor had been “bleeding badly from a face-lift” when he had seen her six months earlier. “It’s modern day presidential.”

For Mr Trump, social media is a battleground and he has weaponised Twitter in a number of ways.

An effective force

Experts say the 71-year-old has made use of Twitter in a way that has no equal among other political leaders.

George Lakoff, Professor Emeritus of University of California, Berkeley and the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant, is an expert on cognitive science and linguistics. He has analysed Mr Trump’s tweets and concluded: “Trump uses social media as a weapon to control the news cycle. It works like a charm. His tweets are tactical rather than substantive.”

Mr Lakoff has even created a template in which he places the President’s tweets into one of four categories – pre-emptive framing, diversion, deflection, or else launching a trial balloon.

“He is as good as it gets [at using social media],” said Mr Lakoff.

“He is not ranting, that is strategic. Even when he is ranting, it’s strategic.”

Mr Lakoff said the media had allowed the President to dominate the news agenda by failing to point out what he is trying to divert attention from. He said Mr Trump was also good for ratings, which meant his ubiquitousness suited not only the White House but the CEOs of media companies.

Richard Perloff, professor of communication and political science at Cleveland State University, said Mr Trump’s use of Twitter marked the culmination of two decades of change in the way politicians communicated with the public. That style has become more personal, more instantaneous and frequently less verifiable.

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“There is no question he has changed the nature of communication and been effective at reaching his supporters,” he said. “But he has been doubly effective because he not only tweets, but the media then writes about those tweets. And the mainstream media – despite his criticism of it – gives him a degree of legitimacy.”

Mr Perloff said Mr Trump was not an elegant tweeter. Indeed, we know the President sometimes has to delete comments or words he has misspelled. Last spring, he left the sentence “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” sitting hanging on his feed for a delicious six hours, during which some people became almost hysterical trying to come up with the best joke or retort.

The next morning, he deleted the tweet, and wrote: “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’ ???. Enjoy!”

Mr Perloff said most of the President’s messages were short and emotive. He said they were unlikely to win over people who did not agree with him. He added: “But they do strengthen pre-existing attitudes.”

A bullying presence

Even Mr Trump’s most ardent supporters often say they they wish he would tweet a little less often and a little less impetuously.

While those who voted for him like that he “speaks his mind”, people are also often concerned his hurriedly thumbed-out words could inflame or worsen sensitive situations, such as his verbal assault on the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in the aftermath of a terror attack in London last summer that killed seven and injured almost 50.

Mr Trump took Mr Khan’s comments that Londoners should not alarmed by an increased police presence in the city out of context, to declare: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed’.”

Frequently, he adopts the tone of of a schoolyard bully, whether it is the launching of a strange, personal attack on a former beauty queen for her “disgusting” sexual past, or else by targeting people in remarks he knows his supporters will leap on and follow up themselves.

In her memoir Settle for More, former Fox News Megyn Kelly, whom Mr Trump once claimed was having her period when she asked him a blunt question during a Republican debate, said the billionaire had once told her that – angered by a segment about him on her show – “I almost unleashed my beautiful Twitter account against you”.

The question of a ban

A question frequently asked by students of the President’s tweets is why he is not suspended. If Twitter can ban the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos for inciting harassment, George Zimmerman for posting revenge porn and investor Martin Shkreli for the sexual harassment of a journalist, why doesn’t it suspend Donald Trump?

Minnesota Congressman and Democratic National Committee Deputy Chair Keith Ellison has said the President is a “social media bully” and that his account should be deleted – something Hillary Clinton’s campaign memorably tweeted during the campaign. It appears one of the reason Mr Trump remains is because of the “newsworthiness” of his tweets.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told Wired: “We’re not taking something down that people should be able to report on and actually show that this is what the source said. It’s really important to make sure that we provide that source for the right reporting, and to minimise bias in articles.”

Mary Anne Franks, Professor of Law at the University of Miami and a member of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, said the debate about free speech on social media was complicated by the fact that Twitter was a private company.

She said she could not now imagine circumstances in which it would ban Mr Trump, given the apparent number of “red lines” he had already crossed. “If they do ban him, they’d immediately to explain what tweet had led them to, and people would ask why that was worse than others,” she said. “I think they believe not banning him is the path of least resistance.”

Ms Franks said despite the expectations some had that Mr Trump would moderate his heavier and language once he entered the Oval Office because of the pressure of convention, he had not done so. “If anything, he seems worse,” she said.

The concern was that Mr Trump, as the President, was using Twitter in such a manner, it encouraged and emboldened others to do the same. “You have children seeing the President of the US talking like this then they will think that is the way to talk. I don’t think we’ll see the full impact of this for many decades.”

Volume key to spreading his message

As the President marks his first year in office, he has posted around 36,800 tweets, has liked 24 tweets, has had six Twitter moments and is following 45 people, mostly members of his family, his senior staff, his hotels and Fox News presenters. He also follows Piers Morgan. Since entering the White House, he had posted – as of January 17, 2018 – 2,601 tweets.

Brendan Brown curates and runs the Trump Twitter Archive, a website that contains many of the President’s tweets, including those he decides to delete. He believes he is missing approximately 4,000 tweets and those that Mr Trump deleted before September 2016.

Mr Brown has used the site to create data on the topics the President most frequently comments on and has created lists containing some of his favourites, whether it is Mr Trump bragging about his own abilities or his largely unshifting thoughts about global warming – “an expensive hoax”, a HOAX, a “total, and very expensive, hoax” and “a con”.

Mr Brown said he wanted to create the database so that people could search for the President’s tweeted views on any topic. It has also provided him with the opportunity to develop his own opinions about Mr Trump’s use of social media.

“He is narcissistic, petty, and malicious. He never admits fault or blame, but is quick to cast it,” he said.

“He has been denigrating journalists for years – long before the campaign – for stories that paint him in an unfavourable light. He commits every logical fallacy in the book. He is prone to unintentionally comical hyperbole.”

He said he has not been a Twitter user before building the archive in 2016 so did not feel qualified to comment on the President’s broader impact on the Twitter or people’s use of social media.

“He’s definitely made Twitter an indispensable resource,” he added. “The world’s most powerful man regularly shares his innermost thoughts, thoughts which all other world leaders keep private.”

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