The method behind Donald Trump’s social media madness
For some time I’ve been pondering a seemingly simple question: would it be good or bad for Donald Trump if his Twitter account vanished?
I oscillate on my answer to this, but I generally think it would be bad, because it would take away the most direct way in which he speaks to his supporters. In an interview with the Financial Times today, President Trump, in his usual humble style seems to subscribe to this worldview: “I have over 100m followers between Facebook, Twitter [and] Instagram. Over 100m. I don’t have to go to the fake media.”
At the time of writing, Trump has 27.3 million followers on his personal @realDonaldTrump account, supplemented by an additional 16.4 million followers on the rental @POTUS account that presidents get for the duration of their term in office. His Facebook account has nearly 22 million followers, and there are 6.3 million more on Instagram. Even including the 60,000 people who follow the @donaldtrump Twitter account (which bizarrely seems to exist purely to redirect people to @realDonaldTrump), that still comes to 72 million, but my alternative facts are beside the point – and there’s a good chance I’m missing another account somewhere. What I’m really curious about is the breakdown of where Trump delivers his unfiltered message directly, and the chart comes out looking like this:
So if Twitter closed down tomorrow, Trump would lose well over half his online audience instantly. Now, you could make a very strong case that this wouldn’t be a very big deal, given Twitter’s relatively puny size. In January this year, Facebook had 1.87 billion active users, while Twitter had a teeny-tiny 317 million. Instagram has almost double that, and on paper he’d even be better off getting a GIF-filled Tumblr.
“Journalists love Twitter – it’s why we talk about it so much when the population as a whole is demonstrably disinterested.”
But what those raw numbers don’t tell you is how effectively Twitter punches above its weight. You’ll notice that everyone talks about the president’s tweets, while nobody mentions his Facebook account – even though a quick skim brings up broadly the same themes, albeit with a touch more nuance. There are a couple of reasons for this: the first is that while Facebook and Instagram have adopted non-chronological feeds, Twitter still shows everything as it happens. That’s important, because it’s questionable how many of Donald Trump’s Facebook fans actually see what he’s saying. Think of the number of brands you like on Facebook, and now consider how often you actually see any of their posts. Unless they’re paying Zuckerberg for the privilege, the chances are it’s not very often.
The second is down to who uses Twitter. There may only be 317 million of us, but if you were to take a big handful of accounts like grabbing M&Ms from a bowl, there would be a higher chance of pulling out a journalist than you’d expect from a sample of the general population. Journalists love Twitter – it’s why we talk about it so much when the population as a whole is demonstrably disinterested. Why do we love it so much? It’s a great source for stories and breaking news, and Twitter has made it ridiculously easy to embed tweets neatly into articles. Now remember what Trump said earlier in this piece? “I don’t have to go to the fake media.” Technically he’s right – he doesn’t have to go to the media: the media will come to him. Ironically, Twitter is Trump’s most effective way of controlling the news agenda: real, fake and everything in between.
But then again, there are plenty of people who believe that the content of Trump’s tweets is damning, and it must be infuriating for his spokespeople to spend so much of their time explaining the thinking behind messages that were likely dashed off without much thought in the first place. Everything down to the use of speech marks is scrutinised to the nth degree.
“It must be infuriating for his spokespeople to spend so much of their time explaining the thinking behind messages that were likely dashed off without much thought in the first place.”
Others suggest that’s the whole point. Twitter is the best possible method of distraction for humans’ notoriously short attention span, and is a far better delivery platform than Facebook or Instagram. This strategy is best summed up by political strategist Lynton Crosby, who masterminded four successful campaigns for the Australian Liberal party before doing the same trick for the Conservative party in the UK. Boris Johnson, who benefited from Crosby’s services in the 2012 London mayoral vote describes Crosby’s “Dead Cat Strategy” in a Telegraph column:
“The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.
That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
Whether by design or blind luck, that’s definitely what happens with Trump. Whether the dead cat people are talking about is more damaging than the original topic is debatable, of course. Plus there’s probably a theoretical maximum of kitty cadavers that a table can support, but we certainly haven’t hit that ceiling just yet.
So all in all, I do think that Trump’s Twitter use is good for him personally, even if it’s awful for the people around him and the long-term health of the Republican party. If his Twitter account were to vanish tomorrow, I think he’d be in a weaker position overall – although I should caveat that by saying it depends how it vanished. If Twitter were to find a reason to ban him, he’d probably get a brief bounce in his ratings on grounds of free speech – and those that think that a shadowy elite is out to get him would have more ammunition for their conspiracy theories. If Twitter were to go bankrupt, however, and just close… he’d be out with a whimper, rather than a bang.
“If Twitter were to find a reason to ban him, he’d probably get a brief bounce in his ratings on grounds of free speech.”
Despite a desperate search for a buyer, that doesn’t look like happening anytime soon. So I’ll leave you with another gem of a quote from that Financial Times interview. When asked whether he regrets any of his tweets, Trump apparently paused for a moment before replying: “I don’t regret anything, because there is nothing you can do about it.”
“You know if you issue hundreds of tweets, and every once in a while you have a clinker, that’s not so bad.” At the time of writing, he has nearly 35,000 tweets. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how many of those are clinkers, but at least 53 of them deny the basic science of climate change.