Analysis: We've read all President Trump's tweets, so you don't have to
Since Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, he has continued his prolific and bold use of Twitter that has long been his signature style. His tweets garner worldwide headlines, rock stock markets and send diplomats scrambling. CTVNews.ca asked five experts: a political strategist, a social media consultant, a developmental scientist, a media studies professor, and a linguist to weigh in on Trump’s extraordinary use of the 140-character message service during his first 100 days.
FACT: Since his inauguration 99 days ago, U.S. President Donald Trump has tweeted on his personal account (@realDonaldTrump) 473 times (as of 1 p.m. ET Friday, April 28).
Michael Diamond is a veteran political strategist for conservative candidates, including Rob Ford’s 2010 mayoral campaign in Toronto.
Q: Does Trump’s tweeting hurt him or help him?
Diamond: He’s got a large following built on many years of celebrity and he’s been controversial on social media for a long time. That got the media talking about him. He used Twitter to ramp up his run for president and to explode his brand. There is no denying the traction he gets from Twitter or that it’s worked politically for him.
Q: Can you discern a strategy in Trump’s use of Twitter?
Diamond: He is driving home a simple message and being repetitive with it. The thing with Trump is that there is never any questioning what he is trying to say. When Fidel Castro died, Trump tweeted: “Castro dead!” Justin Trudeau tweeted this very long-winded statement that ended up getting him in a lot of hot water.
FACT: On the apparently more managed @POTUS account, Trump signs the tweets he’s written. Of 494 tweets (as of 1 p.m. ET, Friday, April 28), 11 were written by Trump, with most coming before Feb. 15. Perhaps more tellingly, @POTUS retweeted @realdonaldtrump 78 times, but only five times since Feb. 15. Those earlier RTs included some controversial issues, such as anti-abortion rallies, the Muslim travel ban, fake news, and court independence.
My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person -- always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2017
Q: Have you seen a shift in strategy on the @POTUS account?
Diamond: There has definitely been a shift away from using @POTUS for the most politically charged stuff. It’s more managed by staff, while @realDonaldTrump is really about him and his brand.
Q: What does it say to you that Trump refused to stop using his pre-presidential handle (@realDonaldTrump)?
Diamond: It’s no surprise, but perhaps it should be. It’s similar to the First Lady not living at the White House. No one is going to hold Donald Trump to the standards of previous presidents. He has more reach with his own account and he knows he can get away with controversial stuff on @realDonaldTrump. He can delete everything from that account one day, but the @POTUS tweets will be left to the National Archives and his presidential library. He cannot delete anything in @POTUS because it’s considered an official communications channel.
FACT: Trump has retweeted on his personal account just 25 times. Sixteen of those have been of right-wing media sources friendly to him; most frequently Fox News and the Drudge Report. He’s retweeted @POTUS once, @WhiteHouse or senior communications staff three times, his wife’s @FLOTUS account once and his daughter Ivanka Trump once.
Q: What does that tell you about his use of Twitter?
Diamond: It’s funny to watch that he’s much more inclined to retweet an infographic from Fox News than something out of his own departments. He’s definitely using Twitter as a political tool, not a governmental tool. It's like the rallies he’s holding. They aren’t about the accomplishments of his government but about his re-election. He is really only interested in talking to his supporters and that’s how he uses Twitter.
FACT: @realDonaldTrump has got about 28 million followers but follows just 45 accounts; @POTUS follows 41. Former president Barack Obama, with 87 million followers on his account, follows more than 633,000 accounts.
Q: What does that tell you?
Diamond: Trump definitely doesn’t use Twitter as a listening post. For him, Twitter drives media coverage. The morning TV shows are reading out his tweets and posting screenshots. People who aren’t on Twitter know what he’s tweeting about. Is it an orchestrated end-run around the media? He certainly thinks it is. But it’s hard to know if it’s more about his personality or if it’s a tactic. He’s an aggressive, thin-skinned guy, we know that. He’s bold in confronting his opposition on Twitter. His use of Twitter has worked for him but was it intentional? That’s not clear.
Dennis Pang is principal and agency director of social media and branding firm Popcorn in Vancouver.
FACT: Trump has averaged about 4.7 tweets a day since inauguration. On his busiest day, he tweeted 11 times and has missed only two days in that time.
Q: Is Trump’s frequency of use of Twitter surprising to you? Is it noteworthy for a world leader?
Pang: The quantity of his tweets puts him on the high end of the spectrum in terms of platform usage. It makes you wonder how much time is spent on Twitter and consuming "fake news" versus how much time is spent doing leader of the free world things.
Q: Do you think he uses the platform effectively? What, if anything, would you advise him to do differently?
Pang: Twitter is most effective when it’s used as a conversation platform, to build communities, and to have meaningful conversations. Trump uses it as a one-way communications channel in which he voices his opinions and then runs away. I would advise him to engage with his followers and even his detractors, to stand behind his opinions, and be ready and willing to defend his words and actions. But we all know how that would end.
Q: What does it tell you that he follows only 45 accounts (mostly favourable media, his kids and his own Trump properties)?
Pang: It shows a real disinterest in wanting to engage with the general public, and it shows that he only wants to see what he wants to see, and hear what he wants to hear.
Q: Why do you think Twitter appeals to him?
Pang: It's one of the few channels out there where he can truly be himself, where the content that he shares doesn't have to flow through a publicist, press secretary, or speech writer. He'll look at his follower count grow (for better or worse, it really doesn't matter), and he'll seek validation in his retweets and likes count.
FACT: Just 21 per cent of American adults use Twitter and those that do tend to be younger and better educated than users of Facebook.
Q: Is Twitter an effective platform for Trump?
Pang: I think that number might be deceiving because it's been reported that nearly two-thirds of people who have Twitter accounts never post any content of their own. And while Twitter's user growth has really plateaued in recent years, I'd be willing to bet that it has experienced a recent resurgence (especially with passive users) with him being elected into office. The question then becomes, which will last longer, Twitter or Trump?
Tony Volk is an associate professor in child and youth studies at Brock University, who studies the development of aggressive behaviour and personality.
Q: Is Trump’s personality and behaviour on the campaign trail fully on display on Twitter?
Volk: Yes, he may not present his taxes but his personality is on full display. He likes presenting himself to as large an audience as possible. Twitter allows a direct and unfiltered and uncensored connection with his audience. There are no fact-checkers, no opposition, no reporters. It’s a direct line to his audience.
Q: In March, Trump said he would personally tweet less, but there has been little to no slowdown in frequency. Why do you think that might be?
Volk: One of the few things Democrats and Republicans have agreed upon is that he needed to stop tweeting and get working. The fact he persists means it really means a lot to him. He has made a career out of manipulating the media and being outrageous. That’s how he operated as a real estate tycoon and then a Republican candidate and now as president. He values having a direct line to getting his message out and getting attention.
Q: There is so much discussion about Trump being narcissistic. Is that apparent in his use of Twitter? Are there particular tweets or themes in his tweets that you find particularly telling?
Yes it is apparent, but it’s important to differentiate between narcissism as a psychiatric disorder, which requires that it interfere with successful living, and narcissism as a personality trait. He clearly has had a successful life but he certainly has traits of narcissism. Everything he does or has is the “best”, he craves social attention, he lacks humility and he lacks honesty when it comes to assessing himself. His use of Twitter is about presenting himself in the best light and he’s highly motivated to get attention. He also seeks revenge against those who go against him. You don’t see him apologize or reflect on personal errors. He tweeted several times about the New York Times photo of the Patriots at the White House. Does it matter whether 40 or 60 players were there? No, it’s a trivial matter but it’s important to him.
Failing @nytimes, which has been calling me wrong for two years, just got caught in a big lie concerning New England Patriots visit to W.H.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 20, 2017
Megan Boler teaches media studies, cultural studies and educational theory at the University of Toronto.
FACT: Trump has mentioned Fox News or one of its programs 44 times, all in praise. On the flip side, he’s used “fake news” or “fake media” 35 times, 19 times in all caps and 17 times attacking the New York Times directly.
Q: What does that mean about today’s media landscape?
Boler: Fox developed alongside the George W. Bush administration and is recognized by most media scholars as an ideological propaganda arm for threads of the far right. Trump is building on the already existing partisan divide with his use of social media. It has been a brilliant strategy.
There is already massive mistrust in the media. He is building on that through what is known by scholars as the myth of the liberal media. When people talk about the liberal media, to those in the heartland that means socialist or leftist. It’s now become commonplace to talk about the liberal media but it doesn’t really exist. When Trump says fake news, he’s playing to that mistrust. He goes after the New York Times the most because it has long been understood to be the agenda-setting medium, the newspaper of record, the grey lady. Trump is now setting the agenda with his tweets.
Q: Why does Trump’s Twitter war with the media matter?
Boler: Media organizations provide expertise, curating, double sourcing and balance. It’s recognized in history that when dictators rise, they do it through direct communications with the masses (rallies, propaganda pamphlets)… and by castigating and discrediting institutions. We see Trump presenting an alternative truth in social media and him discrediting traditional media, the voting process, the judiciary. He’s sowing that mistrust and it works with people who feel they’ve been left out of the American dream. When one compares this historical moment with the rise of dictators in the past, there is this emotional, zealous righteousness and anger that is a common thread.
Q: Why is he so effective on Twitter?
Boler: His tweets are amplified by the mainstream media who repeat them. It is very concerning because it can normalize what he’s saying. There is disturbing information warfare happening in a much-fragmented media world. His overall communication strategy has been very effective and rather disturbingly brilliant at shaping public opinion. And if he hasn’t done what he’s promised, he’s been able to blame that on Congress and the courts.
Shana Poplack is Distinguished Professor at the University of Ottawa, a Canada Research Chair in linguistics, and Director of the Sociolinguistics Laboratory.
FACT: Sixty per cent of Trump’s 473 tweets since inauguration include exclamation marks and 18 per cent use all caps.
Q: What does a linguist think of that?
Poplack: Let’s think about how he talks. His speech is characterized by hyperbole, exaggeration, intensifiers, such as “very, very” or “many, many” and superlatives, such as “great”, “amazing”, “terrible.” In speech, he can shout or whisper or use voice modulation or grimaces or hand gestures. He uses all of that to push a very strong message. None of that is available in a tweet, plus the medium requires very limited character counts. There are few elements in writing to add emphasis and grab attention. Exclamation marks and all caps allow for that bombastic element of his speaking style. He is obviously very effective at getting across his manner of speech in his tweets, especially when he is being threatening or insulting.
Q: He frequently uses single words or short phrases at the ends of his tweets, such as: Bad! Terrible! Win! Sad! Weak! Fake news! Watch! and Enjoy! (when he’s promoting an upcoming interview or appearance.) Why?
Poplack: A linguist calls those evaluative words. That ties in with his penchant to use emotional persuasion. Rather than relying on facts, he uses phrases like “believe me.” He doesn’t use neutral adjectives, he uses persuasive ones. It seems clear to me he’s ending his tweets with exhortations to the reader. He’s saying, “Just in case you didn’t understand my message, I will tell you what you should believe.” It’s part of his style. And his Twitter style closely mirrors his spoken style.
Canada has made business for our dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other border states very difficult. We will not stand for this. Watch!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2017
Q: Can you explain his use of quotation marks?
Poplack: That’s the one mystery to me. We use quotation marks to quote others or to indicate sarcasm. He uses them for sarcasm sometimes, such as this tweet: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by "intelligence" like candy. Very un-American!” But then other times, it’s very unclear what he’s implying, such as: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”