Texas Tech University

Communications Professor Outlines Factors Behind President Trump's Success in Using Twitter as Main Form of Communication

George Watson

February 11, 2019

Twitter Presidency Cover

Brian Ott’s new book stems from a journal article he wrote on this subject prior to the president’s inauguration.

When Brian Ott published his essay, "The Age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of Debasement" in 2017, it was just a preliminary study of the then-president-elect's rhetoric and his use of the social media platform Twitter.

Little did he know how much it would resonate with academics and media across the country. Since it was published in January 2017, Ott said the article has been cited more than 100 times and is the second-most downloaded article in the history of Critical Studies in Media Communication, a Routledge journal that publishes humanities and social science research on media and communication.

The article's success led Ott, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the Texas Tech University College of Media & Communication, to begin working on a follow up article, especially given that President Trump's use of Twitter did not decrease, but instead increased exponentially following the election. In the midst of that research, however, the National Communication Association, an organization for communication scholars in the U.S., reached out to Ott about turning his original journal article and ongoing research into a book.

"I jumped at the chance when they offered," Ott said.

Book Cover
The Twitter Presidency

A little over two years after the original article was published, Ott's book, "The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage," is available through Amazon. The book examines what made Trump's rhetorical style of communication appealing and why it continues to be so, and it examines his use of Twitter over three separate time periods – the two years prior to his presidential run, the two years of his candidacy, and the first two years of his presidency.

"There is some consistency across those three periods, and there also are some subtle, but I would argue important, differences," said Ott, who co-authored the book with colleague Greg Dickinson, a professor of communication studies at Colorado State University.

Three key characteristics

In examining Twitter in general, Ott has developed three key characteristics that define the communication medium – simplicity, impulsivity and incivility.

The medium is easy to use, originally limiting users to 140 characters per tweet but expanding that to 280 in the last year. The medium allows users to post thoughts when they have them – whether that's good or bad is still debatable – without much hindrance. Finally, the medium allows users to be as complimentary or harsh as possible without threat of retribution, mainly due to freedom of speech and the blanket of anonymity for many users.

The president, however, rarely worries about whether or not his tweets are civil, nor does he hide behind a pseudonym. In fact, he's taken to attacking pretty much anyone who criticizes him, from political opponents and the mainstream news media to the FBI and his own Justice Department.

He also has gone through numerous senior staff who have disagreed with him, from Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Chief of Staff John Kelly, and even vocal critic and former FBI Director James Comey.

"Following the election, I was hopeful that the institution of the presidency would, in fact, place some constraints on him and that he would moderate his rhetoric," Ott said. "I also thought other people in the administration might serve to contain his worst impulses. But everyone who thought they could do that has been shown the door. So, what we've learned is that people who push back on the president's habits don't have a very long shelf life in the administration, and the more aggressively they push back, the more likely they are to be ousted from the administration."

And, for sure, don't point out his false statements.

"I think even the president himself has been surprised at the level of critique he's received in the mainstream news media," Ott said. "So, in an effort to create a counter narrative to what's being reported in the news, he aggressively manufactures his own reality, much of it rooted in conspiracy theories that he peddles on Twitter."

The rhetoric espoused on Twitter by Trump, Ott said, has changed subtly depending on the time period studied, and it was done in a calculated manner depending on the message he was trying to get out at the time, all aligning with the aspects of simplicity, impulsivity and incivility.

As a citizen, before announcing his candidacy, Trump used Twitter for three primary purposes, Ott said – branding (simplicity), boasting (impulsivity) and bullying (incivility). As a candidate, Trump used Twitter for defining (simplicity), disrupting (impulsivity) and demeaning (incivility). Finally, as president, Trump's rhetoric has been defined by dissembling (simplicity), distracting (impulsivity) and discrediting (incivility).

Brian Ott
Brian Ott

"Trump is a master of simple messages," Ott said. "And he repeats those simple messages endlessly on Twitter, a platform that lends itself well to that type of communication. Initially, his use of Twitter was about branding his products, his properties and himself. When he became a candidate, it was about conveying his vision, about promoting his Make America Great Again campaign message. Today, it's about dissembling, about creating a fictional reality, one rooted in blatant and easily disprovable lies, and at this point, I just don't think there's another good word to use to talk about the president's rhetoric."

Ott said it is remarkable just how regularly and egregiously the president is willing to ignore verifiable facts, accepted science, and the consensus of experts, and in that sense, Trump's rhetorical style is at odds with that of previous presidents.

"Because he is the president, everything he does and says is under the microscope of the media. So, it's pretty easy to fact-check the president, and what has become clear is that the president lies with reckless abandon," Ott said. "Since being elected, one of the greatest predictors of truth is that the president has asserted its opposite. In fact, as sort of a general rule, we can say with a pretty high degree of certainty that if the president tweets something, and especially if he tweets it forcefully and repeatedly, then the inverse is likely true."

Threat to democracy

Simply put, Ott said, rhetoric matters. Scholars of communication have been studying how leaders use rhetoric to persuade, mobilize, and, yes, sometimes manipulate audiences for more than 2,000 years. So, we have a pretty good idea what makes rhetoric compelling in particular instances. With Trump, his central rhetorical appeal involves performing a sense of aggrieved whiteness and masculinity, which Ott says stirs feelings of anger in his supporters, who feel similarly aggrieved at the perceived decentering of whiteness and masculinity.

White supremacist groups and individuals have praised Trump on Twitter and other mediums for some of his statements. He was surrounded in controversy early in his presidency for remarks that seemed to give cover to actions of white supremacists during clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia. He seems to have opened the door for those who have felt aggrieved in the past and are angry about it, and that anger lends itself well to a medium like Twitter.

Several studies have shown, Ott said, that negative emotions or affects are more easily and quickly transmitted on Twitter. Messages with negative emotions also tend to circulate more widely on the medium. That all plays in Trump's favor.

"All of his stylistic rhetorical elements, things like anger, like self-aggrandizement, and authoritarianism, are well suited to the medium of Twitter," Ott said, "which means there is this really powerful homology between the way he speaks naturally and his preferred mode of communication."

The fact that Trump's language and rhetoric on Twitter has led to more uncivil public discourse is nothing new. Twitter today is filled with people of all affiliations going back and forth at each other.

However, what Ott sees as more dangerous regarding Trump's rhetoric on Twitter is a threat to democracy itself. He said that the rhetoric used by the president not only undermines civility, but also threatens democratic norms, weakens the rule of law, fuels racial hatred, promotes political violence, threatens a free and independent press, and deliberately misleads the public.

As an example, Ott cites Trump's personal attacks on judges who rule against him, his repeated attacks on the FBI and Robert Mueller, as well as his own Justice Department. These rhetorical attacks call into the question the separation of powers, the line between the executive and judiciary branches, as does Trump's willingness to install an acting director of the FBI who many see as someone sympathetic to Trump's positions.

"It's not out of the realm of historical precedent for a sitting president to say they disagree with a court ruling," Ott said. "But Trump goes well beyond disagreeing with a ruling by attacking the source, often in very personal and demeaning ways."

Another example Ott pointed to in showing how Trump's rhetoric has undermined stability involves newly elected U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib's use of an expletive when calling for the President's impeachment. While apologizing for the distraction the comment made – which drew ire from her own party – she did not back down from the sentiment of the statement.

One defense offered by some on the left for her statement was that it was no worse than some of the things Trump has said – that it is the president who has set the bar so low. Ott warns, however, about descending to Trump's level. Rhetoric that is uncivil, but especially rhetoric that denigrates others or that is intended to divide us, is potentially dangerous and threating to our democratic system, which depends upon meaningful debate, on a healthy and free exchange of ideas, and on a willingness to listen to differing perspectives. Luckily, he said, we're not there yet.

"It concerns me that the president is lowering the bar, and I think we need to resist the temptation to meet him there," Ott said. "One of the arguments we make at the end of the book is that we, in fact, do need to resist that temptation to lower ourselves to the president's level. A large segment of the public is, I think, disgusted with the president and his rhetoric, and when you're disgusted by something, there is a tendency to want to respond in kind. Our suggestion is to resist that temptation, especially if we want to try to renew the institutions and principles of democracy that are under attack right now."

More resistance

As much as Ott thought Trump might ratchet down the use of Twitter as president, he also feels that having to battle a Democrat-led House of Representatives, and particularly a politically savvy Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who is willing to go toe-to-toe with him, will increase his social media attacks.

The recent partial government shutdown certainly has proven that true, as Trump has gone after Pelosi, Senate minority leader "Cryin'" Chuck Schumer, as Trump calls him, and other prominent Democrats, laying blame for the shutdown at their feet despite video of him telling Schumer he would take the blame.

Then, of course, the probe led by special prosecutor Robert Mueller into Trump and his organization's knowledge of election interference by the Russian government appears to be winding down, and that could bring about a whole new round of attacks far and above his continued "No collusion" claims.

"I think we're likely to see the president's rhetoric become even more unhinged if people in his inner circle – I'm talking about people like Jared Kushner – are indicted for crimes," Ott said. "I think we've only seen the beginning of it."

In addition to Democrats, another institution that seems to be pushing back harder is the mainstream news media, and they are doing so in a way that seems to infuriate the president – calling him out on his lies and misleading statements.

CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other center to center-left leaning news organizations have often drawn the president's ire, even for things that had nothing to do with him. Trump recently attacked Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, who also owns Amazon, upon the recent announcement of his divorce.

And it's not even the mainstream media that is checking up on him. Ott said there are websites out now that track politically motivated violence in the U.S. and found there is an uptick in hate crimes and school violence. It also is a well-known fact that Trump's rhetoric while on the campaign trail contributed to violence at his rallies; he even stated his willingness to pay legal fees for people who roughed up protestors.

Most of all, though, Trump has given the term "fake news" mainstream acceptance. Ott says there is legitimacy to the term, but not at all in the way Trump uses it. Fake news is propaganda, the intentional use of disinformation for the purpose of affecting public opinion. The U.S. intelligence community has said the Russian government engaged in just such a campaign during the 2016 election through social media.

But the president has corrupted that term to mean any news that is unfavorable to him or that he doesn't like, whether it's the size of the crowd at his inauguration or any news involving the Mueller investigation.

"This is causing all kinds of serious problems because his base has adopted this rhetoric," Ott said. "So now you have chants of CNN being fake news. But nothing that CNN has reported, none of the journalism that comes out of CNN, actually qualifies as fake news. On occasion, CNN—like all news outlets—makes mistakes, but there's a difference between information that is intentionally deceptive (like Russian efforts on social media during the campaign) and unintentional errors in reporting, which CNN happily corrects. Nothing that comes out of CNN or The New York Times or The Washington Post can meaningfully be classified as fake news."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ott said, is Fox News, which increasingly looks like state-sponsored television. He notes that personalities like Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and Laura Ingraham are not journalists, they are entertainers and commentators, and shows like "Fox and Friends" and others are not news shows, but rather political commentary and opinion programs.

"There are, of course, right-leaning journalistic outlets and left-leaning journalistic outlets," Ott said. "Yes, The New York Times probably does lean slightly to the left, and there are, in fact, a few real news programs on Fox News and they lean to the right. These legitimate news sources, regardless of their political slant, are not the problem. The problem is political opinion programs that masquerade as news. And much of what airs on Fox News is not actually news programming, its political commentary. The unfortunate thing is that the vast array of political opinion and commentary programs on Fox News are what the president watches, where he gets his information, and how he forms his opinions."

Style and substance

Above everything Trump has tweeted, Ott said, the key is looking at how he says it, i.e., his style, and the characteristics of Twitter in order to understand his rhetoric and how it works. It is a style is rooted in anger, anger at the perceived decentering of white masculinity and white privilege.

"What is behind this anger is frustration and fear that the privileged position of power and authority that white men have long held in this country is declining. Trump and many of his followers resent that. They feel tremendous anger about it, which they project in a wide range of ways," Ott said.

"Second, he's going around mainstream media by using a form of communication that demonstrates a particularly high degree of resonance with the message itself. He likes simple messages that he can repeat over and over again because has found that simple messages, especially angry simple messages, resonate with his base."

For more on the book, go to its website.