Reading Trump through Twitter I

Twitter is an institution largely built through the speech acts of its members once they have joined. Everything that happens on Twitter after the joining is a matter of using the language that Twitter offers to its members. Twitter has a very precise rule-governed grammar and a programmed digital rhetoric shapes the form of its members usage: instantaneity, connectivity and permanence are features of every digital move. People who belong to Twitter generate speech acts, they are doing things with words and gestures, most commonly typed, swiped, clicked or pressed on their smart phones or computers. In the case of Twitter it is useful to distinguish between the speech acts that are primarily social and relationship making (following, blocking, muting and so on) and the speech acts that are primarily about messaging and editing content (tweeting, replying, retweeting and so on). For example, every member who joins Twitter creates her own social space in Twitter by following — perhaps unfollowing, blocking, etc. — other members of Twitter. At the same time all the other members of Twitter gradually adjust their social space in a similar reciprocal way, through this ongoing activity Twitter has a very large and complex social shape made by the relationship-making decisions of its members. In much the same way each member who joins Twitter can increase the volume of content in Twitter by tweeting in all the ways that one can tweet. These messages then flow within the Twitter system according to various rules about the distribution of messages. One of the basic rules being that whenever a tweet is emitted it will be posted to the accounts of all those who follow the person who emitted the tweet. So messaging in quite a simple way flows through the structure of Twitter and precisely maps to the social structure of Twitter. The content flowing through, and the relationship making in, Twitter is however highly unpredictable as at every stage human action and choice is required and human users are notoriously inattentive, lazy, bored, forgetful and also creative and imaginatively inspired. The networks of content from messaging and of social connectedness through following are two complementary and closely meshed networks of digital language. The human interaction is all done with words, words and gestures input through various computer systems and apps to the Twitter programs and databases.

This is a brief summary of the theory of Twitter as an institution created by the digital language of its users, a theory that is explained at some length by Following Searle on Twitter: How words create digital institutions. How might this theory help us to understand the way in which President Trump has used Twitter? A theoretical understanding of Twitter may be able to help us in at least two distinct way. First it may give us insights into the reasons why Trump has been able to use Twitter effectively to build, support and run a successful electoral campaign, in spite of the plain fact that he is not an especially skilled or knowledgeable user of Twitter. Second the theory may give us insights into the reasons why President Trump has continued to use Twitter, perhaps more aggressively and surprisingly, even after he assumed the Presidential office. Many observers thought that he would put Twitter away when he was in power, or even that his aides would lock away his smart phone and control his ability to use Twitter directly. This has not happened and is in my view quite unlikely to happen.

Journalists and critics of Trump tend to focus on specific tweets that he has produced. Each new tweet calls for a new bout of analysis, sometimes derision and counter-argument. This close examination of what an American President is saying in any particular utterance is clearly appropriate and necessary. However as we examine particular tweets we need to understand the background and the context within which he is tweeting. In particular let us take stock of the fact that @realDonaldTrump has produced over 30,000 tweets in 8 years of membership of Twitter. Trump is not a skilled writer, nor is he a regular user of personal computers, but this is a lot of digital writing. Barrack Obama was a very early adopter of Twitter and the first politician to use Twitter to build his reputation in a major way, but his account only has 15,000 tweets and most of Obama’s tweets were produced by professional aides; very few carry the adrenalin rush that is often visible in Trump’s messages. Some of Trumps tweets will have been produced by assistants, but most of them carry his personal stamp. This is a sizeable body of content and they represent a good deal of thought, emotional momentum and personal history. Biographers of Trump, and political analysts in Peking, Berlin and Tokyo are spending time reading and analysing all these tweets. We all know that tweets are short, not more than 140 characters, but in looking at individual tweets and analysing them it can be a mistake to interpret them as though they were unique and atomic thoughts. Each one to be taken as a proposition of self-contained meaning. Tweets have context and a key part of their context is the stuff that has been said before from the same Twitter account.

Since Trump has written a great deal in Twitter it is not easy to summarise or confidently assess his output. It would take the best part of a week to read his 30,000 tweets. The corpus has perhaps 300,000 words — which makes it about as long as 5 or 6 typical novels. It might not be an entirely pleasurable activity. Fortunately, Brendan Brown, a programmer and concerned citizen, has set up and maintains an online, updated and searchable archive of all the tweets from @realDonaldTrump. The archive also collects some of the tweets of other key players in the Trump administration at Trump Twitter Archive. This is an invaluable help to Trump analysis.

Trump’s use of Twitter is aggressively effective but also error-strewn and as many critics have noted highly narcissistic and self-confident. His tweets show strong, repetitive, direct, responsive, often negative patterns of thought — 230+ are about ‘losers’ and 52 use ‘moron’ — but his tweets should be read in this context of an extended and repetitive corpus, as well as each one in the precise circumstance in which they were produced. To take two simple examples, taken from the Trump Twitter Archive, Trump’s language remains aggressively insulting but he has pulled back from the use of the ‘moron’ insult, the most recent occurrence being in December 2015, so the language used on the account may have been slightly moderated through the election. Further the ideas expressed have shifted — and not simply as the result of public ridicule — as in the case of claims about Obama’s citizenship. The last (of over 100) tweets implying that global warning is fake was in October 2015, so it is possible that his position on this key issue has moderated. The immediacy and the currency of the Trump tweets is however very telling given that he is now President and still tweeting from the hip in an authentic and direct fashion.

The philosopher J L Austin who first developed the modern theory of speech acts, made a distinction between the ‘locution’ and the ‘illocution’ involved in a particular communicative act. Roughly speaking, the idea is that a sentence has a particular locutionary meaning as a result of the words of which it is composed and the order in which they are occur and this locution may occur in various different speech acts, and these different speech acts, whilst they may look and even sound the same, can have strikingly different illocutionary force. So in a hierarchical situation an apparent request such as “Please shut the door” becomes a command (from teacher to student, manager to assistant, officer to enlisted sailor). The illocutionary force of tweets is dramatically influenced by the position of the tweeter, and in general increased by a large audience. Similarly, Trump’s tweets predictably acquired greater illocutionary force when he became the Republican candidate, and again they became more influential and effective once he won the election, and moved up yet another notch when it appeared that his tweets would now be an aspect or a tool of Presidential diplomacy. But the illocutionary force of the tweets may also be increased by the volume and repetitive pattern of the tweeting. Once Twitter had a few million users, celebrities and attention seekers realised that its immediate, brief and simple terrain gave a kind of megaphone, handheld, power to the self-publicist. This handheld digital megaphone not only enhances the illocutionary force of a simple message, it can have unanticipated and perhaps undesirable effects — Austin, in his donnish style, called them perlocutionary effects — many celebrities have found this to their cost. For this reason there has been widespread speculation that President Trump would need to adopt a more careful and restrained style of tweeting once he became President. We shall see. So far there has not been an obvious and marked change.

Twitter’s institutional structure as a generator, repository and cascade of content requires that we study and analyse individual tweets in their context, especially with regard to the pattern and history of any particularly prominent member of Twitter. The need for a holistic view of the Twitter institution is even more apparent when one looks at the pattern of networks of affiliation in Twitter: the links between members who are following, blocking, muting, unblocking, replying, retweeting each other. Each and every member of Twitter has a unique and distinct shape for their social graph within Twitter. Twitter is a massively multi-threaded institution, and it is a microphone as well as a megaphone. It is a microphone that can pick up voices from far and wide, so that users can catch sounds from distant contexts, rumours from conversations happening elsewhere and at earlier times. Some Twitter users spend more effort on listening and collecting opinions from far and wide: many accounts followed or subscribed to, but with few listeners following. Such Twitter users have a ‘quiet’ profile entirely unlike that of the 45th President. Between the extremes we note that many users will have a more balanced approach with accounts following roughly in balance with accounts followed. Inevitably celebrities tend to have unbalanced profiles, so Trump has many millions of followers but follows very few accounts (only 41, as I write this, mainly Trump family, some Trump hotels, and friendly journalists). His Twitter profile is lopsided but not exceptionally so for a celebrity. In his relationship-making Trump exhibits a high degree of egocentricity just as much as in formulating his tweets. He probably picks up most of his news from other sources. But he may even so collect a lot of information from using Twitter, because his followers and others direct many messages at him. Such a prominent and aggressive Twitter account will be subject to barrages of incoming messages, far more than he can personally monitor.

The following relationship in Twitter often, perhaps even normally, indicates approval, but by no means always so. A proportion of the accounts following Trump come from his critics or those opposed to his policies. Trump has a large audience of followers on Twitter, much larger now than when he won the election. These followers are subscribers to his tweets, but we should recognise that the role of the follower/subscriber in Twitter is very different either from the role of the subscriber to a newspaper or magazine, and from the follower of a typical political party or religion. Trump’s digital followers are both potentially more fickle and inattentive and more invested and connected than would have been the case with the followers of Mussolini or Roosevelt or the subscribers to the New York Times or the New Statesman in the 1930s. Followers in Twitter are fickle because it is both very easy to unfollow and, more importantly, attention and focus can be withdrawn or fade away. Twitter followers do not pay attention to much, or even most, of the content in their timelines and celebrity turnover can be rapid. Twitter, through rejection by his Twitter audience, might even become a part of a Trump nemesis, hard though it may be, at this stage in his presidency to envisage a collapse in Trump’s Twitter credibility. The instantaneity, connectivity and permanence of digital media can work against its practitioners just as these features may work positively in the building of power and reputation. One more important point about Trump’s audience in Twitter (or the audience of any very prominent leader or cultural icon) is that the audience is to a large degree self-invested. Just as the subscribers to a magazine or the members of a formal political party buy their subscriptions or pay their dues, the followers of a prominent Twitter account, ‘pay their dues’. The follower invests, initially by selecting an account to be followed, but thereafter by paying attention to the stream of tweets, and if she lessens her attention, the power of the prominent leader may begin to seep away.

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