Reading Trump through Twitter II

In the first part of this essay we pointed out that Trump has used Twitter to create an influential and loud digital presence which shaped a successful campaign for the American Presidency. It seems likely that having used Twitter to win a campaign and an election, he will continue to use Twitter as a primary tool of his Presidential communications. The theory of digital institutions outlined in my Following Searle on Twitter: How words create digital institutions helps us to understand some aspects of the successful use of Twitter in digital political discourse. This theory posits that Twitter as an institution should be understood in terms of the fundamental actions, technically speech acts, from which members of Twitter construct their own world in Twitter. And at the same time they collectively construct the Twitter institution. Twitter is a digital system which facilitates these new forms of digital communication.

The two forms of basic action in Twitter are: first, following — whereby one member subscribes to the content or messages produced by another member of Twitter; and, second, tweeting — the process whereby any member of Twitter can contribute short bursts of content to the common pool of content available in Twitter. Following and tweeting are the basic building blocks of Twitter, and the way in which these basic actions work, contributes in a fundamental way to the success of Twitter as a forum for political dialogue, discussion and controversy. Twitter is by no means the only digital institution which has a key role to play in contemporary political dialogue and discussion, all the major arms of Social Media play a part: Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Google, YouTube, email, the blogosphere et al are all now tools for political campaigning. However, Twitter has a role which is remarkably prominent. Indeed Barrack Obama, through his @BarrackObama account, proved the relevance and political importance of Twitter as a digital campaigning platform in his 2008 and 2012 elections. Trump’s use of Twitter in the 2016 was more intense and more controversial, partly because he used Twitter in a very direct way to target his opponents and simultaneously but often indirectly to vilify them. Much of this comes through in the way that @realDonaldTrump used Twitter’s naming conventions to identify his competitors or indeed to call them names, and at the same time to avoid addressing them. To see how this works we need to reference Twitter’s basic actions: following and tweeting.

First, Twitter makes it easy for a supporter to express allegiance. Following is one of Twitter’s basic actions and it is very easy for one member of Twitter to follow another. A simple click on a button does the trick. Following in Twitter is an action that is user initiated and completed by the Twitter system (only the user can do it, and any user can do it to any other, but the Twitter system executes the action and makes sure that the following relationship stays in place) and it is asymmetrical. So a follower can support someone prominent without seeking or requiring their permission or agreement.The simplicity and availability of this basic action means that it is extremely easy for any politician or leader who uses Twitter to build up her own crowd of allegiance, and the reliable permanence of the relationship which is held in place by the Twitter software means that the leader can send messages in the direction of his or her followers. Trump certainly understands very well that his followers are a key part of his political support, and he crafts his tweets partly for their benefit.

Second, Twitter makes it very easy for supporters or members of Twitter to voice or proclaim their support for any politician or political idea.This they can do through the basic action of tweeting (producing a message of less than 141 characters) or retweeting, which is in effect to amplify, the original comment. The availability and the simplicity of the tweeting action, or the even simpler action of retweeting (ie repeating what has already been said), means that Twitter is an ideal medium for democratic discussion, but also for propaganda and the distribution of political slogans and propositions. Messages that are tweeted are not only free, they are instant and universally available, even it they are only immediately registered by accounts following the tweeter.

One might think that Twitter’s suitability and importance for democratic politics is a straightforward result of the prevalence and universal availability of these two basic actions. After all, following is pretty much a form of voting and tweeting is a way of expressing an opinion, so successful politicians in a digital democratic age where Twitter is a well established institution will create campaigns in which their supporters can become persistent and marked ‘voters’ in the way that they follow their candidates and the democratic discourse will be carried out in the way that the supporters of rival campaigns tweet and retweet their political opinions, perhaps solving political arguments and settling campaign issues through Twitter conversations and discussion. Well, we know that this is not always the way that democratic elections work, and reading the results or progress of political campaigns straight from the tea leaves of Twitter statistics would be a very naive approach. The point is that Twitter can be used in different ways and its use can be directed to discussion and dispute but equally towards sloganeering and invective.

Let us take first the matter of following. We noted in the first part of this essay Trump’s account follows only 41 others, quite probably a few more by the time you read this. These followers are principally members of his family, hotels in his chain, and a few close colleagues and friendly journalists. Trump does not see Twitter as a useful way of gathering the opinions of others. In fact, Trump broadly neglects one of the key resources that Twitter provides to all its members. He does not follow very much on Twitter because he does not need to, and he has no interest in accepting and recognising the position of potential critics or competitors. Trump does not bother to follow others on Twitter because he has a highly competitive and authoritarian view of the role of a political leader. He is even so confident of his leadership role that he does not feel the need to ‘follow’ many of his key supporters and backers. Trump is not a collegial politician and he does not see the need to ally or even to compare his position with that of his many competitors and peers. Indeed his competitors are not peers and we can see this in the way that Trump uses his speech in Twitter to talk about his opponents. For he certainly talks about them, but he will not follow them, and he may choose to avoid them by ignoring their Twitter names or handles, or by inventing for them an alternative name or epithet. For his opponents or competitors are either beneath notice or they may become targets for persistent criticism and insult. We can see this straightforwardly in the way that @realDonaldTrump either addresses his opponents directly through their Twitter name; or alternatively he favours an indirect mention, using the last name or some form of hashtag; and finally when the messages are particularly angry and confrontational through the use of a derogatory description or epithet.

Naming and Name-calling

Trump’s Twitter account formally mentioned @BarackObama by his Twitter handle over 700 times until September 21st, 2015; there are two uses of the formal handle on that day. Thereafter there is only one use of ‘@BarackObama’ — and even that single occurrence was perhaps an accident from Trump’s team as the tweet does not come from a device that he uses. As in the first part of this essay, I draw attention to the invaluable reference site: Trump Twitter Archive — an extremely useful resource for those who want to analyse Trump’s use of Twitter. ‘President Obama’ or ‘Obama’ is still frequently referenced, but the formal handle is not used. How are we to interpret this change in practice? Trump was already fully and publicly committed to running for President by the time he stopped using the Obama account’s name. And it is not as though Trump stops talking about Obama — there are over 40 uses of the mostly respectful ‘President Obama’ in tweets in the next year and hundreds of mentions of ‘Obama’ or ‘Obamacare’. Perhaps, one explanation is that at about that time he decided that Obama should no longer be singled out formally as his adversary, since it would be more urgent to target his rivals for the Republican nomination, and if he secured that nomination his rival from the Democratic side? Or perhaps he decided that there was no longer an advantage in appearing to be addressing the President (Obama was paying scant attention to Trump’s Twitter account). Or it may have been that he, or his team, realised that leaving ‘@BarackObama’ out of his tweets would have the result that there would be fewer direct responses from those who follow Obama’s account — so less contrary chaff cluttering up the timelines of Trump followers. Or, even more subtly, and shrewdly, perhaps the team realised that @RealDonaldTrump’s tweets would travel further and be more likely to be retweeted if “@BarackObama” is never directly cited in the original tweet: because Trump’s core supporters would be less likely to retweet a message where Obama was directly linked (since they would get more flak from Obama followers). So it was OK to mention the President in the text but not by his twitter handle.

We may also consider the obvious explanation that a bully, who initially has no standing, may try to attract attention by addressing a source of power, but at the next stage will try not to too directly target an opponent who is both politically and, in terms of his Twitter following, a stronger player. That explanation from playground politics may also carry some weight. I think it is quite probable that several of these explanations apply, and that for a variety of reasons, avoiding explicitly mentioning Obama’s Twitter handle, once Trump’s own Twitter project had achieved a certain momentum, was a successful policy,.

We see a similar but more extreme shift in the way that @realDonaldTrump identifies and then targets and finally moves to explicitly denigrating Hillary Clinton. ‘Hillary’, or ‘Hillary Clinton’ is mentioned occasionally in 2012 and 2013 (10). The pace soon heats up and there are 750+ of mentions of ‘Hillary’ in the whole archive so that in August 2015 we see the first use of the explicit ‘@HillaryClinton’, but by April 2016, Trump shifts to more commonly using the derogatory ‘Crooked Hillary’ which is used 209 times between April 17 and November 2016. So it is used heavily and repetitively once it is clear that Hillary Clinton will be his opponent (Clinton won the Democratic Primary in New York on April 19). Tellingly, 153 of these tweets and the first 4 all come from the Android phone that is normally Trump’s personal Twitter instrument, so it is probable that this gear change was Trump’s personal decision and policy. There is no use at all of the epithet after the election. This shift in the way that the Trump Twitter account identifies his opponent shows the rough but explicitly targeted way in which he conducted his campaign, and targeting rather than answering Hillary may have been his principal motive. The repetitive use of the ‘crooked Hillary’ epithet moves his tweets away from being straightforward, controversial political speech. It makes it unlikely that committed democrats will respond or engage in discussion and it also makes it less likely that his own supporters will pay serious attention to the Democratic candidate and her platform. Trump did not cease to address the @HillaryClinton account once he had started calling her crooked Hillary — he even sometimes referred to her as “crooked@HillaryClinton” but the plain insulting epithet was for most of the time his preferred handle. By focussing on her implied incompetence and portraying her as dishonest, he moved the discussion away from her policies or principles, but it is also at least a by-product of this shift in nomenclature that Twitter becomes much less of a forum for debate or discussion of Trump’s own ideas. Trump’s followers are hearing his opponent repeatedly characterised as crooked, and this repetitive, exaggerated and rather mythic way of demonising her, is discouraging his followers from looking dispassionately at the political issues that may be at stake.

These gradually shifting naming practice give us clues to Trump’s evolving use of Twitter as a communications tool and as a propaganda platform in the course of his campaign.

  1. As Trump’s tweets become less directly engaged with his opponents and more insulting they may have less impact on his opponents, perhaps also on the undecided, but they help to confirm his support base.
  2. Because Twitter demands brief content and allows regular and even repetitive communication, the force of Trump’s messages is easily reinforced and noted. The ‘crooked Hillary’ meme gets rapid currency and recognition. Twitter’s episodic and intermittent quality makes Twitter insults rather potent — more so, than the epithets used on the bigger but stickier Facebook platform.
  3. Twitter’s relative openness — all public tweets can be viewed and linked to by those who are not members or users of Twitter — means that mass media, print and broadcast, regularly and rapidly take stock of Trump’s often aggressive name-calling. To the extent that name-calling is a way of diverting attention from serious political choices, this distracts mainstream media from explaining these choices and the underlying issues.
  4. Twitter is only a part of an overall electoral campaign, and some aspects of the Trump campaign are even angrier and more aggressive than the tweets. For example, his public meetings, where shouts of “Crooked Hillary” were accompanied by chants of “Lock her up”, that latter phrase is not used at all on the Twitter account. However, Donald Trump was directly responsible for a large proportion of the tweets that were issued in his name — 43% of the tweets in 2016 and 70% of the “Crooked Hillary” tweets come from the Android device which is his personal phone — so it seems reasonable both to study his use of Twitter seriously and to hold him to account for all that is said in his name. Digital speech can be very personal, both in its target and in its author.

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