Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.
A session at the New Yorker Festival this past weekend discussing how history will judge Trump got me thinking again about media, tweeting, and Donald J. Trump.
Media play a huge role in politics. Here are some examples. In the medium of a large enclosed space filled with people, Adolf Hitler was able to whip crowds to a frenzy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his radio fireside chats reassured Americans that they could and would survive the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Winston Churchill’s stirring oratory during World War II lifted the spirits of people in Great Britain despite the Germans’ intense aerial bombardment. John F Kennedy‘s photogenic and relaxed television manner when contrasted with Richard Nixon’s swarthy scowling played a huge role in his victory in the 1960 US presidential election. Finally, Ronald Reagan’s commanding performances in televised addresses and his style of speaking to Americans in ways that they could understand and could trust justified his being called “the great communicator“.
Politics is now in the age of social media. There are of course perversions, such as Russian election hacking and the occurrence of fake news, but there is also the day-to-day business of political communications via social media. Despite all the evidence that Donald J. Trump is incompetent, evil, and corrupt, and that he is racist and misogynist, he continues to command the allegiance of upwards of 40% of the population.
Trump’s use of social media, and, in particular, his tweeting, has sometimes earned his government the monicker of a tweetocracy. Despite a minimal command of the English language, and poor judgement as to what he should tweet and when he should do it, analysis of his tweeting suggests that it is working for him.
Trump has issued an average of more than 10 tweets a day for many years now. Analyses of the resulting rich dataset are in their infancy. There are numerous attacks directed at his enemies, accusing them of weakness, stupidity, or failure, or of being illegitimate (“fake” is a favorite word) or corrupt. Yet even more tweets are positive (“great” is a favorite word), beating the drum for his agenda or for himself. A linguistic analysis has characterized Trump’s tweets as comprising advice, critique, opinion, prediction, and promotion.
Although some analysts argue that Trump’s tweets are reducing in effectiveness, based on the number of retweets and likes he gets divided by the size of his audience, he still commands an audience of 66 million followers, trailing only Barack Obama in the size of a politician’s following.
Here is my conjecture about why his tweets help him continue to command the absolute loyalty of his followers. Almost once every waking hour, they receive messages — propaganda and misinformation — exhorting them to believe in the one true Trump, inciting them to hate their enemies. Neither Hitler not Roosevelt not Churchill nor Kennedy nor Reagan could get into the heads of their publics so frequently and so completely. I do not know how to prove this conjecture; hopefully others more skilled in social and personality psychology will do so.
FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION
How should the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 use social media to best advantage to help him or her defeat Trump in the election?