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Trump sets the media agenda

Donald Trump mostly tweets in the morning, where he tweets with a rather distinct voice, which allows him to manage and disrupt the media coverage, according to new research from Roskilde University.
Ib Tunby Gulbrandsen - Rubrik
Photo: Uffe Weng


“How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick)guy!“

The US President, Donald Trump, is known for a number of sensational tweets. But according to Associate Professor Ib T. Gulbrandsen, he is very adept at using Twitter, which may seem paradoxical:

"He is successful in setting the media agenda, and he has an ability to generate and sustain near constant interest from the media. I mean, if we think that much of what he tweets is absurd, why are we continuing to report it and concern ourselves with it?”, asks the researcher.

Since Trump’s inauguration, Ib T. Gulbrandsen and Research Assistant Katrin Rickmeier have logged and coded all of his tweets from his private twitter account @RealDonaldTrump during the first 100 days of the presidency. They have analysed the tweets based on several different parameters, such as who he tweets to, what he tweets about, and when he tweets about what?

The objective is to map how Trump uses a social media such as Twitter to influence political discourse, and to obtain a better understanding of which strategic communication initiatives succeed, and which fail. The project will culminate in a number of scientific articles.

"It has turned out that one of his most widely used strategies is to launch thoughts, ideas and conspiracies that have not yet reached a level where they are being broadly talked about. An example is the idea that Obama wiretapped him, which received a great deal of attention", says Ib T. Gulbrandsen, adding:  

"But not all conspiracies and ideas succeed in capturing the attention of the press. He simply tweets more than the media actually follows up on. What we are interested in, is to figure out if there's something special about the tweets that succeed, or if it's the sheer number of tweets that make him successful on social media", says Ib T. Gulbrandsen.

Tweets himself in the morning
Trump is most active on Twitter between 05:00-10:00 in the morning, when more than 50% of his tweets are sent out.

"We can see that there is a linguistic difference between his tweets, depending on the time of day they are posted. In the morning, it is quite clear that it is he himself who is writing them. The language in these messages is rather direct, abrupt and often contain grammatical errors - and usually he tweets about something he thinks is absolutely terrible or absolutely fantastic. 50% of his tweets are either: "I am brilliant," or "You are idiots". Our analysis suggests that there are others who tweet for him later in the day, because the tone is noticeably more formal and correct", he says.

An example of this is 15 February, when Donald Trump made several accusations early in the morning. For example, this:

“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”

Later in the day the tone became very different and more formal:

“Welcome to the United States, @IsraeliPM Benjamin & Sara!“

The style changes a lot. Of course, it could be because his mood changes, but our best bet is that it is because there are others tweeting for him during the day. Many politicians have social media managers, but the distinctive thing in Trump's case is that there is no attempt to disguise the enormous difference in tone between his own tweets and those that are probably posted by others” says Ib T. Gulbrandsen.

In this way, Trump’s strategy differs from that employed by other politicians.

"We see this very rarely with other politicians, who have personal Twitter profiles. They either try to create the most linguistic and stylistic coherence as possible to ensure that the tweets seem authentic, or they clearly mark when they are tweeting themselves in order to clarify that the communication is personal. For Trump, this transparency is obviously not so important", says Ib T. Gulbrandsen.

Surprises and shocks
In Trump's first 100 days as president, he has influenced the media flow with a strategy that breaks with the conventions of strategic communication. He has influenced it despite the fact that he sometimes acts out of character, and as such counteracts his own agenda by directing attention away from his own political programme, according to Ib T. Gulbrandsen.

"At first glance, his strategy appears to be a non-strategy. He communicates in all directions, and the communication is primarily guided by his feelings. He rarely follows up if he has been opposed and he constantly manages to obstruct the progress of his administration by making new mistakes. But by constantly changing the focus, and not least by being surprising and sometimes chocking, he is able to dictate the media’s agenda", says Ib T. Gulbrandsen, and explains:

"According to theory and established practice, it is important to avoid appearing unpresidential and lacking focus on the overall purpose of communication. But the paradox is that it is precisely the perceived aimlessness and the unpresidential behaviour that is his trademark. Therefore, it must also be his strategy, if he is to appear credible and authentic", he says.

This approach means that the consequences are simply unavoidable, says the researcher.

"Trump often manages to avoid the deadly media mill that politicians can experience, because he constantly offers new issues the media can grapple with. However, the strategy has the weakness that when he gives a press conference, he struggles to do well because the questions concern an agenda that has been set by the media" says Ib T. Gulbrandsen.

The president's activities on Twitter contradicts how politicians would normally behave on social media, the researcher points out.  

"In any other strategic communication context, one would expect that an organization or politician who constantly experiences as much criticism as Donald Trump does, would review their strategy. It is crisis communication 101 that you should not reproduce the crisis you are in by repeating what created the crisis. But that is what he does. That’s because what may seem absurd to us, seems to have been successful for him. At least so far", says Ib T. Gulbrandsen.

According to Ib T. Gulbrandsen, Trump's style on Twitter has been the same both before and after he became president.

"He cannot change. If he suddenly changed style on Twitter, the entire Republican political class would probably rejoice, while all his supporters would perceive him as untrustworthy” he explains.

Unique use of social media
He believes that Trump's use of Twitter is unique, because there has never been a president who has used social media in this way before.  

"Barack Obama was a pioneer, for better or worse, in circumventing the traditional media corporations and their agenda, by communicating directly to voters through social media. But with Trump we get a special insight into the presidency, which is not really something we have seen before. Not everything is equally relevant, one might think, but this is an insight that we usually only achieved in connection with the publication of a memoir or the opening of presidential archives.  This insight is unique” says Ib T. Gulbrandsen.

Another way in which Trump's use of Twitter is unique is his constant discrediting of the news media. One example is:

“Don't let the fake media tell you that I have changed my position on the WALL. It will get built and help stop drugs, human trafficking etc.”

When Trump circumvents the established media and accuses them of producing fake news, it affects the democratic debate, says the researcher.

"From a democratic perspective, this is liberating on the one hand, since he obviously criticizes the media's agenda and interpretation, which we should all do. But on the other hand, this is also deeply problematic, because his criticism is not based on a desire to engage in a dialogue. Rather, it is based solely on his dissatisfaction with the fact that the media do not report what he wants them to report”, concludes Ib T. Gulbrandsen.

Ib T. Gulbrandsen, Associate Professor in Communication at the Department of Communication and Arts. Head of Studies for Communication (Master’s programme), and teacher on the course Strategic Communication.