January 19, 2017
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that almost 65 percent of voters said President-Elect Donald Trump should close his personal Twitter account once he takes office on Friday (Jan. 20).
Good luck with that, says one Texas Tech University professor.
Brian L. Ott, the chairman of the Department of Communication Studies in the College of Media & Communication, recently published an essay examining the evolving negative tone of public discourse in the United States and the central role that Twitter has played in its de-evolution. Turns out, Twitter and Trump were made for each other.
The essay, “The age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the politics of debasement,” shows that the defining characteristics of Twitter – simplicity, impulsiveness and incivility – fall right in line with the discourse and language used by the incoming president.
Brian L. Ott
“What my analysis shows is a powerful structural similarity between Twitter as a mode of communication and the kind of speech Donald Trump uses regardless of whether or not he is communicating Twitter,” Ott said. “In many ways, the medium was made for him. It conforms to all the things he already does in his discourse, so there is this really nice fit between the platform of Twitter and the way he naturally speaks.
“If you’d asked me immediately following the election, I would have given you an optimistic answer and said he would reel in his use of Twitter. Right now, my best guess is we’re going to see a Twitter presidency because he seems incapable of even the most basic personal restraint.”
As Ott explains in the essay, what makes Twitter so popular fits perfectly with the kind of speaking style and thought process Trump has shown the American public for well over a year now.
Because tweets are limited to 140 characters, it is impossible, Ott said, to convey complex thoughts on Twitter. Hyperlinks only demonstrate that point further because they take you away from Twitter to a different platform that can handle complex material. Thus the first component of Twitter – simplicity.
Ott cites a book by Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” where Postman talks about the simplicity of smoke signals as a mode of communication. Smoke signals do not allow for complex messages to be sent.
“You’re not going to do philosophy using smoke signals,” Ott said. “It’s just not possible. Twitter is the same way. While ‘clever’ or ‘witty’ things may get said on Twitter, ‘complex’ things do not. The prevalence of links is evidence that the platform of Twitter insists upon a simple message.”
The second feature of Twitter, Ott says, could not be more unlike smoke signals and that is its impulsive nature. Building smoke signals constitutes quite a bit of effort in gathering the wood, forming the pile, finding a way to light it and then harnessing the smoke to form the signal.
Twitter, on the other hand, has almost no barrier at all other than being old enough to know how to use a smart phone. If you can text, you can tweet.
Twitter also invites impulsiveness in that it allows the user to attack anyone through direct tweets or the use of hashtags. This is where the danger comes into play when Trump is mentioned by name or his handle. Just recently, Trump made known his objections to actress Meryl Streep’s commentary during an acceptance speech at the Golden Globes by calling her overrated.
“Anybody that wants to send the President-Elect a message can do so, and what we’ve seen is the President-Elect is more than happy to respond,” Ott said. “That low barrier creates a situation where there is not a lot of thoughtful communication, and the President-Elect has demonstrated this better than anybody. There’s something about the platform of Twitter, the ease of access, the lack of time it requires and the simplicity of creating the message that encourages impulsiveness.”
The simplicity and impulsiveness of Twitter lead naturally to the third characteristic – incivility. Because Twitter use is relatively impersonal, it is easy to spout off about anything that comes to mind without the fear of immediate repercussions. Twitter users are emboldened by not having to face their foes directly.
That incivility can lead to something Twitter has struggled with, Ott said, in that it wants to promote and maintain free speech, but often the speech that appears on the platform is hate speech. That, Ott said, has made several companies who might have been interested in purchasing Twitter back away, because the platform has no consistent or transparent practices for dealing with hate speech.
While some of Trump’s tweets have been ugly or disrespectful, they have not reached the realm of hate speech. But Ott contends Trump’s use of the medium to circulate his message may have just saved Twitter from disappearing.
Ott also said Trump was boosted by not only the mainstream media’s coverage of everything he said on Twitter, but also by the estimate that one-third to one-half of his followers on Twitter are fake accounts set up specifically to circulate his message through retweets and links. This also contributed to the spread of fake news.
“I think he’s gotten some help here and is not alone,” Ott said. “A big piece of the help he has received is from the mainstream media which is perfectly willing – and this is the big mistake the news media is making – to cover his Twitter account. This just encourages him to do it more. With the fake accounts, it looks like a lot of people are retweeting him and that support for what he is saying is broader in many areas than it actually is.”
Discourse is defined as written or spoken communication or debate, or the ability to speak or write with authority about a topic. It’s safe to say the level of public debate in the United States has undergone a dramatic decline in the last few years.
Now, the ability to disagree with another person’s views or ideas has morphed into the requirement to then severely dislike that person. The ability to separate the idea from the person has grown increasingly difficult.
Nowhere has that been displayed more than in the realm of national politics. Liberals and conservatives have always disagreed on the way to govern, but now those terms have been linked to a lack of patriotism, racism, bigotry and general hatred without ever knowing the actual person.
This is where public discourse has been taken, and Ott can clearly see how Twitter influenced public discourse and, in turn, how that discourse led to Trump’s election.
“When we look at Donald Trump’s speeches – put aside his Twitter posts and look at the content of his speeches – you can see he does not use the traditional persuasive appeals typically seen in presidential discourse,” Ott said. “Turns out, the mere fact of him speaking and the actual performance of his anger may have been more compelling than any of the words that came out of his mouth.
“We know his rallies were these intensely emotional affairs. We know his policy speeches were mostly devoid of policy. What appears to animate Donald Trump’s discourse is emotion, specifically anger.”
It was an anger that touched a particular sect of American society, but not in a way that led some pundits to label his supporters as racists. While it could be called ‘white anger’ or ‘white frustration,’ it cannon simplistically be reduced to skin color; it’s about the ever-changing nature of society in an increasingly globalized world.
Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” touched a nerve with a class of society that is nostalgic for a return to a time when their class was privileged and their ideas went unchallenged. But as the world evolved into a more globalized society, with different ideas and beliefs permeating every corner of the world and, especially, the United States, control of society’s norms, its values, its beliefs slowly changed to be more inclusive of various races, creeds, sexual orientations and religions.
Trump voters fought back at the ballot box behind the promise of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and making Mexico pay for it, renegotiating trade deals in favor of protectionism and just the general hateful tone from both candidates during the debate.
“The world has altered the nature of power relationships in the U.S. in such a way there is anger and frustration among certain groups of people,” Ott said. “The world doesn’t look the way is used to, some groups don’t have the power they used to, and just as importantly, they are exposed to contrasting points of view and challenged by those views in a way they never had to be before, and this is perceived as a threat.
“And then Donald Trump unapologetically performed that anger. Did he apologize? No, he would say it again. There was never any attempt to walk back the messages. It was that anger that was resonating so powerfully.”
It was not surprising to Ott, he said, that the alt-right or white supremacy groups latched on to Trump’s message because he advocated a set of policies and practices that are highly attractive to them. Ott also said Trump is not blind to this, either.
“I think he knows what he is doing and he has tapped into this message that has been there for some time with the alt-right that also appeals to some people in middle America who feel frustrated by the ways globalization has impacted them,” Ott said. “But what I also think we’ll see in the coming years is the realization that there is no way to go back to that world. The forces of globalization cannot simply be reversed or undone.”
Public discourse has been going down this road for so long – it did not start just with Trump or the recent presidential election – that many feel there is also no going back to the civil tones discourse once enjoyed.
But there may be a way, now that Trump will become president, to at least counter the rhetoric he is so fond of using, and that way was on display just last week in the President-Elect’s first news conference since the summer when he had a contentious exchange with CNN reporter Jim Acosta.
It may well be up to the mainstream news media itself – and Ott has seen encouraging signs of this – to do something it was unwilling to do during the campaign, and that is stand up to Trump and negate his rhetoric by calling him out on blatant mistruths at every opportunity. But this would also require the public to understand and the media to embrace the notion that the media can ethically report the news without treating all statements, positions and ideas as equal.
On some issues, there aren’t two equal sides. On some issues, the facts are clear. Framing an issue as a debate when there is no debate as to the veracity of the facts is a mistake made all too often, and that allows political candidates to present their dissenting opinion as facts with equal weight when there is no argument to be made.
“There’s a big difference between being fair in reporting and suggesting that there are two equal sides to every issue,” Ott said. “Some positions are simply better than others just as some arguments are simply better than other arguments. During the campaign Trump would say all these things that were false, and the news media refused to say they were untrue. They created the presumption there was a counter narrative and that there are two sides to this and you can form your own opinion.
“The news media is now realizing that we are in for a very dangerous period in the history of the United States of continuing to do that. Donald Trump’s antagonistic relationship with the mainstream press may be the best thing that has happened to the mainstream press in the last 50 or 60 years.”
So, if the President-Elect doesn’t appear willing to change anytime soon, how can the American public push the discourse back toward a more civil tone? Well, Ott said, the first thing to do would be to put down the smart phone and actually talk to people.
“Personally I would like to see people limit their use of social media,” Ott said. “We as a society need to step back from social media. There is research to suggest that social media doesn’t make us any happier. There is increasing data to suggest people who spend the most time on social media are the unhappiest people. It’s simply not enriching our lives. It’s creating political and ideological silos where we fail to engage with people who are different from ourselves.”
For Trump, it would appear, Ott said, that not even being elected President of the United States can provide the level of affirmation he so desires, but there’s really no higher level of affirmation that can be obtained.
“What will happen is he will continue to use Twitter to strike out against people who he believes have crossed him in some way or slighted him in any way at all,” Ott said. “He should already be too busy to do all this, but that’s not happening, so I hold out very little hope that will change.
“I don’t think he’s going to be involved in the daily administration of government the way previous presidents have been. I think he’s going to be more of a showman.”
College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech offers undergraduate degrees in various communications-related disciplines including:
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