Federal Opinion

Did Twitter Make Trump the President?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — January 23, 2017 5 min read
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As the nation inaugurated its first Twitter President, I traveled to San Diego to meet with Alan Daly, who is studying the impact of how the little 140-character messages are bending big politics.

Daly chairs the Department of Educational Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Along with Jonathan Supovitz at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and Miguel del Fresno, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Madrid, Spain, Daly analyzed more than 200,000 tweets about the Common Core of State Standards. The battle over the Common Core, played out at #CommonCore, has heated up again with the Trump campaign and the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be education secretary (see #DumpDeVos). But I’m talking with Daly about bigger things: Did Twitter just elect a President?

Changed Political Communication

Daly isn’t ready to attribute the election to Twitter, but he clearly sees that it has changed political communication. “Twitter’s use by Trump allows him to bypass the professional media, those elites that controlled the messages for decades,” he said. My generation was raised on the belief that influential newspaper columnists and editorials influenced opinion leaders, who then influenced their followers. That didn’t happen in this election. Only 2 of the largest 100 newspapers in the country endorsed Trump.

The opinion leadership of major newspapers has been in decline for a long time as more people relied on television as their primary news source. Still, leadership fell to the three major networks, and some TV icons, such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were counted as the most trusted people in the country.

Cable news created both a dispersion of opinion leadership and the beginning of the extreme polarization we see now, as Fox News became a conservative mouthpiece and MSNBC a comfort zone for liberals. (In the locker room of the gym where I work out, grown men enact a daily game of picking the political channel they like and then hiding the remote control.)

But cable television is still unidirectional: elites of whatever stripe talking to the masses. Twitter and other social media both splinter the audience and allow it to interact. The original message can be amplified, built on, and often distorted.

Tweets in the Millions

The volume of traffic is stunning. In Daly’s research on the Common Core, the research group found more than 190,000 tweets sent over a six-month period. New research, to be published soon, tracks nearly 1-million tweets. Analysis reveals distinct groups, who mostly interact with one another: a group largely composed of educators who supported the Common Core, another group of educators who opposed it, and a much larger group of non-educators who both opposed the Common Core and linked it to broader social issues, such as government intrusion.

What amounts to a new media elite sits at the core of these three groups: about 150 people who both transmit large numbers of messages and whose messages are mentioned in others’ tweets. The research report calls them “transceivers,” and their opinions and ideas are “often considered worthy of mentions by others, giving them ‘prestige’ in a network sense.”

Now, let’s apply the same logic to Trump tweets. Candidate Trump sent more than 34,000 Twitter messages to his 20.4-million followers. CNN published an annotated list. That makes him a significant message sender, in the same league as the Kardashians.

Outflanked Mainstream Media

Without question, he has outflanked the establishment media, an effect that they are just starting to counter. “The American media are terrified of Trump. They are freaked out by his ability to talk directly to the American public,” a commentator wrote on the Fox News web site. The New York Times, which has 32-million Twitter followers, wrote, “Mr. Trump’s Twitter account—a bully pulpit, propaganda weapon and attention magnet all rolled into one—has quickly emerged as a fresh journalistic challenge and a source of lively debate.”

He has also been successful in getting the mainstream media to repeat his messages, essentially acting as his transceivers. “Trump has unleased another tweet. When he does, the media—especially cable news outlets—goes into overdrive, with experts trying to decipher what Trump meant by his latest 140-character musing. Next come the political pundits who speculate over the political potential fallout from the tweet. And before we can ever figure out if Trump is actually signaling a strategic policy change or if he was just bored and felt like tweeting, then he is on to the next series of tweets prompting an identical media reaction all over again,” said a CNN writer.

But because Twitter is two-way communication, it is also a two-edged political sword. The MIT Media Lab examined 2016 campaign tweets, just as Daly and his colleagues examined those concerning the Common Core. A story by VICE News-Canada shows “Trump supporters formed a particularly insular group.” They had few connections to Clinton supporters or the mainstream media. Clinton supporters were more splintered and tended to include overlapping networks of journalists. (As VICE reports, the journalist bubble probably contributed to the inaccuracy of pre-election polls.)

But the tight boundaries in the Trump network will certainly create future political problems for him. It’s hard to be a populist President when you have lost the popular vote by 3-million votes. It’s even harder when your supporters create their own echo chamber.

Trump Messages Seed Doubt

While Trump’s campaign tweets were successful in rallying loyalists, his Presidential messages already seed doubt and pushback. At #POTUSTrump a day after the inauguration, there are already tweets about impeachment and about international disillusionment over the possibility of U.S. protectionism.

So what of the power of Twitter in politics? Tweets didn’t swing the election for Donald Trump. In a contest where a swing of 100,000 votes in three states would have created a different outcome, almost anything can be taken as the cause for Trump’s victory. The feckless FBI, Russian espionage, Clinton campaign errors, and unmotivated Democrats; these are all on my list.

But Twitter has changed the face of politics in ways that go well beyond the 2016 election. As Daly and his team said in their research report: “The growth of a social media-savvy network of activists has given rise to a new and influential faction in the struggle for political influence.”

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Future columns in this series will examine Twitter and Common Core politics and the use of network analysis to build stronger school and district leadership.

[Thanks to Marquisha Spencer, a Claremont Graduate University doctoral student, for her assistance with this column.]

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