As was the case in his 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump conducts much of the visible part of his presidency via Twitter. But what can his pre-2016 tweets tell us about the President? Paromita Pain and Gina Chen analyzed over 30,000 of Donald Trump’s tweets from the eight years before Trump’s inauguration. They find that even before his presidential run, Trump used Twitter to engage with supporters and that his often racist, misogynistic and confrontational style left no room for discussion or discourse.
In 2008, when the Obama presidential campaign invested heavily in social media, few realized that this marked the beginnings of how much the presidential office would rely on using Twitter as a means to interact with the public. The presidential use of social media has come a long way since then. While some studies may have shown that the presidential use of Twitter has little influence on the ways the public votes, the use of social media by the highest office in the country has once again come into the lime light, with Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, extensively, using the social network to connect with supporters, respond to opposition and even conduct government business online.
Trump was a prolific user of the social media platform even before he became president. Our study analyzed more than 30,000 of Donald Trump’s tweets from May 2009 till he assumed office on January 2017. Today, his tweets are under much public scrutiny and reviled by many for their racist and combative nature and tone. Our purpose was to understand the characteristics and essence of his tweets before he became the president. Using interpretative qualitative analysis and through the lens of deliberative democracy and technological populism as performance, we aimed to reveal the different themes in his discourse and go beyond highlighting the specific attributes of his tweets. Prior studies have looked at Trump’s Twitter use as an integral part of his campaign, but our analysis seeks to extend our understanding of his Twitter discourses as a private citizen. The theory of deliberative democracy emphasizes that democracy is strengthened when citizens and politicians have a forum for open communication while the idea of technological performance of populism puts the common citizen in the center of political conversations on public forums.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, we saw both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Trump use Twitter, but Trump used Twitter as vehicle of his views, unmediated by campaign staff or advisers. His unorthodox use was present even before he ran for office. We find that long before Trump had announced his bid for office, he used Twitter extensively to put forth his views and engage with his supporters. Like former Texas representative, Ron Paul, Trump uses “I” or the first person to either support or refute viewpoints. Clinton’s use of Twitter focused on her use of the platform to showcase her views on public policy whereas Trump’s tweets were more personal and words like good,” “bad,” and “sad” were very common in his tweets. He also extensively used capital letters and exclamation marks.
From the beginning of his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump cast himself as a Washington outsider who would change the way government functions:
He built his image as a savior, and as one who would come in to save the country and build it up again. His style is confrontational and does nor brook any debate or opposition. His engagement with his supporters is deep. He retweets their tweets posted in his support and ignores those voices that dare contradict him. Unlike Obama, who mostly put forth his views and posted announcements about visits and dates and times of debates, Trump conducts diplomacy and puts forth opinions on important issues, both domestics and global. His feuds with the media have always been an important aspect of his Twitter rants and he does not hesitate to name and call out journalists who he feels don’t understand him or respect his views enough. He avoids diplomatic language and focuses on issues that he knows will strike a chord with his followers. He highlights his supposed business acumen as key to building America’s economy. For example, he tweeted in 2013 that “We should be concerned about the American worker & invest here. Not grant amnesty to illegals or waste $7B in Africa.” Terms like “thugs” abound in his tweets and immigrants are often called, “disgusting.”
Examining over 30,000 of Trump’s over the eight years leading up to his inauguration, we find that Trump’s tweets are extremely racist and that he unabashedly uses sexist language. Combined with his confrontational style, this leaves no room for deliberative discourse. Yet an important theme for his tweets is a focus on women; it is notable that misogynistic comments were generally missing from tweets between 2009 and 2014. For example, “I have so much admiration and respect for the 2.4 million men and women of our Armed Forces” Trump tweeted in 2012. Women were merely mentioned in passing or focused on his female supporters. But a video from 2005 where Trump talked about grabbing women seems to have left his supporters unperturbed. Issues of fake news were an important issue as well as were his confrontations with the media, especially The New York Times, whom he accused of “virtual treason.” His supporters thank him for his “use of Twitter to keep us informed and maintain transparency. Very dishonest media!”; Trump retweets such messages, thus, showing a very populist bent in his Twitter usage. Our analysis highlights the image of a leader who revels in conflict and self-promotion but does not like criticism.
- This article is based on the paper, ‘The President Is in: Public Opinion and the Presidential Use of Twitter’, in Social Media + Society.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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About the authors
Paromita Pain – The University of Nevada, Reno
Dr. Paromita Pain is an Assistant Professor in Global Media Studies at The University of Nevada, Reno.
Gina Chen – University of Texas at Austin
Dr. Gina Chen is an Assistant Professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Chen is also the Assistant Director of the Center for Media Engagement at UT Austin. The granted-funded center conducts original research to help news organizations engage more meaningfully with the news audience.