Twitter’s role in the rise of Donald Trump

Researcher reflects on how tweets formed ‘mini press releases’ for media to spread president-elect’s message

December 5, 2016
Donald Trump Twitter feed viewed on smartphone
Source: Alamy

One of Donald Trump’s favourite words on Twitter is “loser” (used on 170 occasions). Since the election, the president-elect has not altered his Twitter style, lashing out at various critics including the cast of the musical Hamilton, the comedy show Saturday Night Live and the “failing” New York Times.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts recently published a study of Mr Trump’s use of negative campaigning on Twitter during the Republican primaries, finding that it raised questions about the role the social media network played in his rise and the platform’s potential to “democratise” politics.

Their research found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that of the 17 candidates in the primaries, Mr Trump “sends and receives the most negative tweets and is more likely than his opponents to strike out against even those opponents who are polling poorly”.

“Better performers avoid ‘punching downwards’, though Trump flouts this norm with brutal remarks aimed at even low-polling candidates,” says the paper, “Twitter taunts and tirades: negative campaigning in the age of Trump”, which was published in the October edition of Political Science and Politics.

Justin Gross, assistant professor of political science, who co-authored the paper with doctoral student Kaylee Johnson, said that Mr Trump had challenged the idea that negative campaigning is used by candidates only as a last resort.

Twitter, he noted, “benefits” from people “saying something outrageous”.

Professor Gross added: “There’s millions of tweets. Just saying ‘you were a bad Congressman’ isn’t going to really get the attention of people as much as ‘loser’ or ‘idiot’.”

In Mr Trump’s hands, “Twitter became news.”

“He knew that he would get attention and it would go beyond Twitter – it would be reported on the news and in late-night comedy [shows],” said Professor Gross.

Those 140-character messages, which could be pulled up on screen by news programmes, served as “a mini press release”, he added. The medium “made it easier to spread whatever he was thinking very quickly”.

Professor Gross argued that it would be to “underestimate” Mr Trump to say that he would not have been as successful without Twitter – and that he would still have gained attention for outrageous comments made at rallies and in television appearances.

But “in some sense Twitter made it easier to digest these and push them through the bloodstream of the American public”, he added.

Academic study of the political use of Twitter has tended to focus on events such as the Arab Spring “and how groups of activists use it to organise”, said Professor Gross.

He put the Trump Twitter paper in the context of “an underlying theoretical discussion in political communication about the democratisation of media – to what extent it’s not happening, to what extent it might be happening and has potential”.

Those with fringe political views, or conspiracy theorists, would once have been “relegated to standing on a street corner with a hand-printed newsletter and handing it out and screaming on a soapbox”, Professor Gross said, but now on Twitter “there is some chance someone will pick up on it who has a louder voice”.

Mr Trump “was clearly listening” to those with similar views to his on Twitter and thus some fringe ideas “found [their] way into the mainstream”, said Professor Gross.

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