Trump, Twitter, and the Norms of Political Communication

By Daniel Tippens

On September 23rd 1952, Richard Nixon, after being accused of misusing money in his political expense fund, delivered his famous “Checkers” speech directly to the American people by, for the first time in history, purchasing a 30 minute slot of prime time television. 60 million people watched as Nixon explained all of the details of his personal finances until he ultimately just flat-out stated exactly what his family had in their possession, and what they owed. The level of detail and appeal to emotion was so strong that one columnist said “Tuesday night the nation saw a little man, squirming his way out of a dilemma, and laying bare his most private hopes, fears, and liabilities.”

This was the first time that a major political actor had addressed the public directly via prime time television, and is considered to be the point in which politicians began pivoting from using radio to using television. Ever since Nixon’s speech, televised speeches have been the primary form of direct communication between the President and the public.

Until Donald Trump.

Ever since he announced that he would run for President on June 16, 2015, Trump has been tirelessly using Twitter to communicate with the public. While I don’t have data, I would wager that at least a third of Trump’s media coverage was a reaction to his tweets, as is evinced by the fact that he has 28 million followers — only slightly less than half of the total number of people who watched Nixon’s speech. In addition, Trump gains an average of 48,000 followers per day. These things are interesting to consider alongside other facts, like how before television, Woodrow Wilson had to endure a month of traveling on the railroad to promote the League of Nations, and Eisenhower later would reach millions of people or so through 15 minute TV broadcasts every now and then. Today, Trump can reach 28 million people (and counting) every day, every minute, while on his phone on the way to the White house.

This suggests an historic shift in the type of communication technology that the President uses to interact with the public, rivaling the transition from the radio to the television. In 1959, then Senator John F. Kennedy wrote an article in TV guide discussing the potential benefits and harms of the television medium. He prophetically warned about the cost of ads and competitive television airtime which would inevitably infect politics, driving up the cost of a political candidacy to the point we see today, where the election processes cost billions of dollars (the last election cycle cost was about $2.65 billion). However, one of his most relevant insights for the modern age was his recognition of how the norms of communication differ in television as opposed to in-person.

The slick or bombastic orator, pounding the table and ringing the rafters, is not as welcome in the family living room as he was in the town square or party hail. In the old days, many a seasoned politician counted among his most highly developed and useful talents his ability to dodge a reporter’s question, evade a “hot” Issue and avoid a definite stand. But today a vast viewing public is able to detect such deception and, in my opinion, willing to respect political honesty.

JFK recognized that, depending on the context in which one speaks, the expectations and attitudes people have toward what you say and how you say it will differ dramatically. Of particular note is his observation that, while a politician can manage to dodge a question from a reporter, he cannot dodge a question from a reporter as easily, when millions of people are watching his every move. If nothing else, his communication behavior will be affected by his knowledge that so many people are dissecting him with their eyes and ears. JFK believed, it would seem, that one possible benefit of television would be increased accountability and transparency from the government. A natural question to ask, then, is whether the same is true of Twitter. What are the norms of Twitter, how are they created, and will they benefit or harm our political discourse? Here, I’ll focus on the influence Twitter norms have on the communication between the President and the public, but they could apply just as well to other political actors.

140 Characters or Fewer

Sometimes norms are created by the constraints of the platform itself. If I am texting someone, there is no expectation that I provide detailed, essay-length responses, because texting is a slow and inefficient way to do such a thing, and I don’t want to get arthritis. Tweets contain a maximum of 140 characters. Not words, characters. This creates an important norm which results in a decreased amount of detail and argumentative support for claims made by the president.

Obviously, 140 characters is simply not enough space to provide detailed factual content. Consequently, there is an expectation that tweets will contain more expressive content instead. Looking over Trump’s Twitter, this is easy to spot. Almost every tweet that he shoots off contains something expressive, like “Sad!” or “Failing!” or even “Fake news!” But even more pervasive are hashtags, which function like body-language.  You’re basically just digitally shrugging your shoulders, smiling, or pointing your finger toward something with an enthusiastic or scornful look. This should be obvious if one recognizes that hashtags almost never even contain full propositions. Just picking some of the trending hashtags today, we find #videolove #worldpenguinday #news and #trumprussia. Clearly, there are no propositions here, and they are nothing more than people pointing to various things on the internet, or signaling their approval or disapproval.

Of course, expressions are among the most informationally impoverished forms of communication in political discourse. They may be useful for indicating the very broad positions and attitudes that somebody holds, and perhaps revealing someone’s character, but only in the most minimal sense. So there is a problem here. If Twitter becomes the primary mode of communication between the public and the President, there will be a public expectation, generated by the nature of the platform, for more expressive content than factual. And of course if everyone expects this, then we will tolerate this kind of communication and administer less, if any, public censure when a President informs the public of what’s going on through digital scornful looks or, in Trump’s case, perhaps a middle-finger emoji. This was not present with televised Presidential speeches, and means we may become more complacent with a President who gives us only the thinnest information possible.

But there is an additional worry that arises from the fact that tweets are dyed in expressive content. Since expressive content is inherently ambiguous, tweets are also drenched in ambiguity. As such, people expect tweets to be vague and unclear. This provides the President with a convenient excuse, when someone calls into question something he tweeted. Just take the somewhat recent tweet Trump wrote, accusing Obama of wiretapping him during the election process:

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Sean Spicer was asked to substantiate this claim, and his response was that the President was “very clear in his tweet” that there was evidence for “wiretapping.” Of course, he followed these remarks by saying, essentially, that wiretapping is a very unclear term, in that it encompasses a number of different things. In other words, Trump was clear about being unclear. And, of course, since few people expect tweets to be precise, when Sean Spicer excused the President’s remarks by pointing out that they were ambiguous, the excuse passed muster. Additionally, even if this kind of ambiguity-pleading happened repeatedly in the future, nobody would question it because, after all, tweets are only 140 characters. So, since Trump has made himself a cushy space for excuses, he has also made it possible to make all sorts of wild, ambiguous claims that can rarely be “proven” to be found wrong, and never be held accountable for being serially ambiguous.

On the go

Twitter was developed as a medium through which people could shoot off what they were doing, feeling, or thinking at any given time and place, which makes sense given the 140 character limit. A natural corollary to this is that people do not expect you to follow up a tweet. If you tweet that you are at a dinner party, there is no expectation that you will later provide extensive details or tweets documenting all of the events that transpired. Or if you tweeted that you find capitalism abhorrent, a comment storm might ensue, but nobody expects you to rigorously engage with the comment thread, or tweet later with extensive arguments.

The result is that Trump can make assertions — clothed in expressive content — without there being any expectation that he provide argumentative support or detail for his claims. Again, this is not a norm that takes holds with respect to televised speeches, because the President has a lengthy window of time to talk, a lengthy period of time to prepare, and knows that millions of people will be on the lookout for controversial assertions. The result of this is that the public expects for the President to provide evidence and arguments, at least minimally, for his claims. If he doesn’t, there will be a backlash.

There is something else that results from the public not expecting further details and arguments to be given: the illusion that it is always possible that the President would have an answer to questions for details, were he to give them. When I read an essay by someone in a position of authority, call him Dave, and then I read a seemingly damning critique of Dave’s work, I always have, lodged in the back of my mind, the thought that Dave would have a response were he to see the critique and write a reply. As such, it is easy for me to suspend Dave’s view in mental space as at least plausibly true.

This is an illusion that one finds in in written arguments, but not in face-to-face arguments. Part of the reason for this is that, like with tweets, there isn’t as strong of an expectation for an author to reply to a critique of his work when it is in writing, while there is an expectation for someone to reply to an in-person critique.

Take the debate between Shelly Kagan and William Lane Craig about whether God is necessary for there to be objective moral facts. (1) Kagan essentially mopped the floor with Craig, because Craig was forced to attempt to respond to Kagan’s powerful objections right then and there, in front of a large viewing audience. At one point, the crowd even laughed at Craig’s attempt to respond to a point that Kagan made. When viewing two people in dialogue, an interlocutor must try to reply to a clear and pressing objection. So, one can tell when someone has no good answers, and thus, his position can more plausibly be considered untenable.

Since there is no expectation for someone to follow up on criticisms of a tweet, controversial assertions can be made, and when articles appear, explaining why the content of the tweet was foolish, wrong, heartless, etc., the illusion that Trump would have a reply were he to actually provide it can still loom in people’s minds, especially his supporters.

This problem might seem mitigated by the fact that, as we have all been witnessing the bizarre quasi-reality TV show that is Sean Spicer’s press conferences, journalists do in fact follow up with tweets that Trump makes, asking Spicer for evidence and support for the claims he makes, like in the wiretapping incidence mentioned above. Perhaps this can mitigate the problem I’ve just mentioned about people believing Trump would have something to say were he given the chance to reply. Unfortunately, this won’t help, because it isn’t Trump who is being asked for details, it is his press secretary. So, the illusion remains entrenched.

Sincerity and user-control

The interesting thing about television is that the person on the screen has minimal control over the norms surrounding the medium. The public, and the nature of the platform, determine most, if not all, of the norms. If you are delivering a Presidential speech, it will be much more difficult for you to claim insincerity as an excuse, because when speaking on such a formal platform, after having had plenty of time to prepare, the public expects sincerity. But with Twitter this isn’t the case. The user has considerable control over many of the norms that surround his particular page, the most important of which, I think, is his ability to determine the viewer’s expectations of how sincerely to take his tweets.

Suppose that my tweets frequently look as though they are being fired off while I am in an emotionally charged state, or people notice that I never follow through on what I say, with my actions. In such a scenario, people will expect my tweets to be made insincerely, in one way or another. What this means is that if I send off an inflammatory or false tweet, and someone calls me out on it, I can always seek refuge in the excuse of, “don’t take it so seriously, it was only a tweet.” Indeed, when asked by the Financial Times if he regretted his tweets, he said, “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.” This gives the President the ability to say anything he wants, taking praise for the things that turn out to be true and claiming insincerity for any tweet that turns out to be false or offensive.

If one takes all of these norms and their consequences together, it seems clear that the transition from television to Twitter will bring with it expectations for only the thinnest of possible information and a decreased level of accountability. I unfortunately don’t have any prescriptions to provide here, for there seem to be only two obvious ones: change the norms or give up the platform. The former is a naive and impotent thing to say, and the latter simply may not be possible. So, I’ll end this essay with more of John F. Kennedy’s words, “this is not the place to discuss alternative remedies.”

(This article was originally published on The Electric Agora)

Notes

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiJnCQuPiuo&t

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