Did Twitter Make Donald Trump President?

President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter first became a hot topic during his campaign. The buzz has only increased since then. This week, Trump told Fox News, “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you.” The president, who also called his tweets “well crafted,” said he uses Twitter to speak directly to his audience.

“Tweeting is like a typewriter,” he said. “When I put it out, you put it immediately on your show. I mean, the other day I put something out. Two seconds later I’m watching your show — it is up.”

The president has a point — his use of social media has a lot to do with how he made it where he is. It indicates not only how the nation uses the medium, but also how willing we are to accept what he says on it. First, Trump pointed to Twitter and other social media platforms as helpful for bypassing the traditional media.

Twitter lets Trump get right to his audience

Donald Trump tweeting one of his daily rants
This is just one example of our president’s Twitter rants. | Donald J. Trump via Twitter

According to The Economic Times, Twitter, as well as Facebook and Instagram, lets the president bypass media outlets that he says treat him “unfairly.”

“When somebody says something about me, I’m able to take care of it,” he said. “The other way I wouldn’t be able to get the word out.”

That “other way” refers to the traditional avenues previous presidents — and almost all other politicians — use.

As New York Magazine reports, Barack Obama sometimes put his message out through non-journalistic outlets like YouTube and Reddit. He often gave long speeches and relied on his supporters on Facebook and Twitter for distribution. While his use of the platform seems more obtuse than Trump’s, it played a large role in his presidency, as well.

That said, Obama rarely tweeted. The tweets he did send read more like short press releases than Trump’s off-the-cuff rants. He also continued to regularly speak with the press via traditional means. That contrasts sharply with how Trump uses the media.

The president needs the media, just not the way you think

Trump in a dark suit on a tan chair with his hands up
Trump has been called “the most media-obsessed president in history” — yikes. | Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

The Fox News interview does not represent the first time Trump has credited Twitter with his rise to the presidency. In April he said as much to the Financial Times, as well.

“I have my own form of media,” he told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson in March. “There’s been nobody in history that got more dishonest media than I’ve gotten. … Twitter is a wonderful thing for me because I can get the word out.”

While campaigning, Trump also described his Twitter following as a means to get even with his enemies.

“Someone said I’m the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “If someone says something badly about you: Bing, bing, bing! I say something really bad.”

Many of Trump’s tweets, for all of his demonization of the institution, center around “the media.” Without it, Americans who do not use the platform or do not follow the president would not see his messages. His “tremendous platform” only gets him so far — often onto the conservative talk shows that help propagate his statements.

The Atlantic calls Trump “the most media-obsessed president in history,” with that obsession probably stemming from his reality TV background. While he has long criticized outlets that report negative news about him, he also attacks the industry, as a whole. 

Can Trump call for censorship online?

One of Trump's tweets about fake news
Trump frequently tweets about fake news. | Donald J. Trump via Twitter

On Oct. 5, Trump seemed to suggest censorship in yet another “fake news” tweet. He tweeted, “Why Isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!” As The Atlantic points out, “Trump’s focus on a few outlets, especially NBC News, CNN, and The New York Times, suggests he is interested not in across-the-board censorship so much as targeted persecution of those organizations that he feels are making his life difficult.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee remains unlikely to heed Trump’s suggestion. Fortunately, the press enjoys many protections against the very type of censorship the president seems to want. But his continued anti-media campaign has had an effect.

Americans don’t trust the press, and it might be Trump’s fault

Donald Trump's wife Melania Trump (R) and daughter Ivanka look at a smartphone
Even Ivanka and Melania keep up with Trump’s online antics. | Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

In March, a third of respondents told Gallup they trust the press, and six in 10 Americans called the press biased. In April, respondents from both sides of the aisle told YouGov that the media abuse First Amendment rights. A full 40% of Millennials also support censoring hate speech, Pew Research found. A Newseum poll reported that three quarters of responders thought “fake news” should not be protected by the First Amendment.

When it comes to Trump himself, the reports are even more telling. According to a Politico poll, nearly half of voters, 46%, believe the press fabricates news stories about Trump and his administration. Only 37% believe it does not, and 17% remain undecided. Moreover, 76% of Republican voters think the media invent stories about Trump and his administration, compared with 11% who don’t. Among Democrats, 65% think the media do not make up stories. In addition, 44% of independent voters think the media fabricate stories about Trump, and 31% think they do not.

According to Trump himself, the media should have become “more favorable” after his election. “Actually, dishonesty in the media is one of the things that surprised me the most,” the president told radio host Chris Plante. “I thought after I won, the media would become much more stable and much more honest. They’ve gone crazy. CNN is a joke. NBC is a total joke. You watch what they report, it bears no relationship to what I’m doing. But the media is absolutely dishonest — and frankly, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

The public’s attitude toward the traditional press — and the president — have root in Trump’s social media presence.

Liar liar, Twitter fingers on fire

Twitter logo
Trump has made many false claims on Twitter. | Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

Trump’s continued finger-pointing at the media seems intent on distracting the public from his own misinformation, According to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog, Trump made 1,145 false or misleading claims in his first 232 days in office. That works out to 4.9 false or misleading statements per day. While he jumps on incorrect reports in the media as evidence of his “fake news” claims, one stark difference exists between incorrect news reports and Trump’s own social presence.

As a CNN commentator pointed out, “Yes, the media — including me — do occasionally get things wrong. But, in virtually every case, those mistakes are honest ones — slip-ups made in an honest pursuit of the truth. And, when an error is found, steps are made to publicly remedy the mistake to keep misinformation from seeping into the public’s consciousness.”

Trump, by contrast, knows when he lies. “He not only spreads falsehoods but does so long after it’s become clear that what he is saying is simply not true,” CNN explains. The president lies so often, The New York Times keeps a running list.

Psychologists say Trump’s lies have a significant — and terrifying — effect. 

Bombarded with enough lies, the human brain accepts some

Donald Trump squinting and pinching his fingers together
Eventually, you might even start to believe some of Trump’s lies. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Nation reports Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert proposed how humans process lies more than 20 years ago. Gilbert says that people see the world in two steps. First, we must accept something in order to understand it. Once the brain processes the new bit of information, it consciously accepts or rejects it. That second part can get easily derailed, however.

As Gilbert explains, human brains, “when faced with shortages of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, may fail to unaccept the ideas that they involuntarily accept during comprehension.” That means a constant barrage of false statements eventually overloads even the most discerning minds.

That cognitive load — the amount of information a person has to process — can overburden the brain. Trump takes it even further, by repeating the same lies over and over. That’s called illusory truth. A 2012 study found that participants rated repeated statements as true the second and third time they appeared—regardless of their actual validity. That means the more times Trump trumpets “fake news,” or any of the other repeated falsehoods he spreads on social media, the more we believe it.

When false statements also align with previously held beliefs, they become even more entrenched. 

When lies align with our beliefs, we go all in

Trump supporters holding signs in Georgia
Trump knows how to appeal to his audience, even if it means he’s not being truthful. | Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Dartmouth University researcher Brendan Nyhan found that people will believe misconceptions that align with their own previously-held beliefs, even in the face of contrary evidence. The study presented four ideological groups with corrective information that disputed their own preconceptions. Researchers found that, in several cases, corrections actually strengthened their original ideas. By contrast, when presented with corrections on facts the participant has no ideological connection to, they more readily accepted the truth.

Nyhan told The Nation that Trump appeals to his base because he affirms their already-held fears. Trump’s declaration that Mexico sends “rapists” across the border resonated deeply with a certain audience. That resonance “may make people less willing or able to evaluate the statement empirically,” Nyhan explained. That explains a lot about how he made it to the White House, and why he continues to tweet demonstrable lies.

His volatile Twitter points to another underlying fact, one that should make us all nervous. 

Why does Trump lie?

Donald Trump in a dark suit pointing at Mike Pence, also in a dark suit
Trump repeatedly lies to cover up the fact that he’s unsure of what he’s doing. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When presented unedited, Trump’s speech shows itself as even more frightening than his tweets. He routinely lies to cover up what he does not know or to redirect attention from his shortcomings. By reading — or listening to, in the case of live interviews — Trump speak for himself, that much becomes clear. As CNN puts it, “Trump has, at best, an extremely thin understanding of every major policy issue, from health care to tax reform. When pressed for any details, Trump retreats to empty platitudes and deflects by saying ‘We’ll see what happens.’” His attempts to speak on policy itself demonstrates his ineptitude. In a response to The Wall Street Journal’s question about his tax plan, his response rambles.

“I want to achieve growth. We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world, essentially, you know, of the size. But we’re the highest taxed nation in the world [sic]. We have — nobody knows what the number is. I mean, it used to be, when we talked during the debate, $2.5 trillion, right, when the most elegant person — right? I call him Mr. Elegant. I mean, that was a great debate. We did such a great job. …”

More recently, Trump lied about his predecessor’s call to fallen veteran’s families. When that lie revealed itself, he doubled down on Twitter, attacking Congresswoman Frederica Wilson’s character. Those lies show he cannot handle even the most basic requirements of his office.

Twitter may have essentially put him there, as Americans believed his campaign falsehoods. But as researchers found, we believe lies less when they don’t hit close to home. Eventually, his continual lack of trustworthiness will reveal its consequences.

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