Trump's itchy Twitter thumbs have redefined politics

In the year since his election, Donald Trump has used Twitter as an official White House channel for everything from policies and praise to bullying and brinksmanship.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
9 min read
President Trump Announces Nominee For Chair Of The Federal Reserve

US President Donald Trump's prolific tweeting makes the world take notice.

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Editor's note: In November, CNET wrote an in-depth look at how Donald Trump has remade the presidency with one tool in particular: Twitter. 

Now, on the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, we're republishing that story to look back at how social media has impacted modern day politics.

He hates being criticized, challenged or even cautioned by his own advisers. When they do speak up, President Donald Trump retaliates by doubling down on his virtual megaphone: Twitter.

To his base, which led the way to his 46.1 percent of the popular vote, Trump's provocative tweets are a daily reminder they backed a Washington outsider who revels in using a "tremendous platform" to bypass what he calls the "fake media." It doesn't matter if  his comments are true -- and multiple fact-checking sites like PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and the Washington Post's Fact Checker blog have shown that many of the assertions he tweets are false. Trump's 140-character outbursts are just what many among his 41.5 million online followers want to hear.

To his critics, the tweets sent from his personal handle -- @realDonaldTrump -- rather than the official @POTUS account are proof he's a narcissistic "bully" they consider misogynistic, ill-informed and racist. They say his tweetstorms, while protected by the First Amendment and even by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, often create false controversies aimed at switching attention away from things like his failed health-care reform efforts and the ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And that he seeks to undermine the free press.

"Regardless of whether you support or oppose Trump, he is a dramatic demonstration of the platform's impact in that space," said Adam Sharp, Twitter's former head of news, government and elections.

Watch this: Trump's tweets: A year in review


How dramatic? Two-thirds of Americans now get some of their news from social media, a Pew Research Center study found in September. And nearly 75 percent of Twitter subscribers now get their news from the service, 15 percent more than a year ago, Pew said. That translates to 11 percent of all US adults getting their news on Twitter. Dorsey has repeatedly boasted that Twitter is the first place where news breaks globally.

A year after Trump became US president in one of the biggest political upsets in modern history, candidates for any public office now understand that social media has changed the political landscape, said longtime Republican political strategist Rick Wilson, who's now one of Trump's most outspoken critics. Not so long ago, cozying up to reporters on TV and radio was  "the most powerful weapon" in a candidate's arsenal, Wilson said. Trump has shown that may not be necessary anymore.

 'Bing, bing, bing'

Initially claiming his Twitter use would be "very restrained" once in office, Trump, 71, relies on the platform more than ever to say what's on his mind, often firing off tweetstorms in the predawn hours. His tweets drive headlines, and they're hard to ignore -- in June, the White House told the world to consider them official presidential statements. Those tweets cover just about anything, from the National Anthem,  disaster response and criticisms of his former rival Hillary Clinton to his belittling of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Between June 1, 2016, and Nov. 1, 2017, he pumped out about 5,300 tweets.

Donald Donald Trump's Twitter timeline is seen on a smartphone against a backdrop with the CNN log

Donald Trump doesn't hesitate to use Twitter to take on news organizations or news personalities.

Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

"I doubt I'd be here without social media, to be honest with you," Trump told Fox News in October. "When somebody says something about me, I'm able to go 'bing, bing, bing,' and I take care of it."

Like on Tuesday when the president took advantage of Twitter's new 280-character limit and tweeted about an upcoming speech in his trip to  South Korea, and later plans to meet with China's leader.

Trump uses "unconventional methods and communication tools," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CNN on Oct. 15. Tillerson said it's because the president is pushing against the status quo. "Oftentimes, the tweets and the decisions [Trump] makes are intended to cause this forcing action," Tillerson said. "The American people elected him to change the status quo, and that's what he's doing."

Still, about 69 percent of American voters think Trump should stop tweeting, according to a Quinnipiac University poll in late September. That sentiment got turned into reality briefly last week, when a departing contract worker at Twitter suspended Trump's account for 11 minutes.  

"There's a harsh reality that voters don't see him fit to be the commander-in-chief," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll. Previous polls, he added, show a similar pattern.

Two weeks ago, Trump had a 33 percent job approval rating, the lowest of any president since 1938, according to the most recent Gallup Poll.

Trump has such a bullying presence on the platform that many of his fellow Republicans refuse to challenge him publicly because of the "FOMT -- Fear of Mean Tweets" he may unleash on them, strategist Wilson said.

That may be deliberate.

"My use of social media is not presidential," Trump tweeted in July.  "It's MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL."

It's complicated

Twitter's Dorsey has described Trump's use of the platform as "complicated," saying it's "really important to hear directly" from those in charge. Twitter won't ban Trump because of its policy regarding the "newsworthiness" of those tweets, even if they may violate the company's rules of conduct.  

In fact, Trump's use of Twitter is unmatched in politics. Yes, former President Barack Obama may have been the first to embrace Facebook and Twitter for his 2008 and 2012 election campaigns. But Trump had mastered social media even before he declared his candidacy for president in June 2105.

"Whereas most candidates wind up getting on Twitter for the sake of the campaign, he was already active there," said Sharp, who was Twitter's head of news, government and elections from 2010 through 2016. "He'd already discovered the effectiveness of the platform in promoting 'The Apprentice." 

Trump is also good for Twitter's business. Earlier this year, the company acknowledged a "Trump bump" that boosted the platform to 328 million monthly users (it's now at 330 million). In August, James Cakmak, an analyst with Monness, Crespi & Hardt, told Bloomberg Twitter would lose about $2 billion in market value simply if Trump stopped tweeting.

But while Twitter is Trump's preferred soapbox, his campaign turned to additional social platforms to get his message out. Last month, Trump digital campaign director Brad Parscale told CBS' 60 Minutes that the low-cost microtargeted ads that ran on Facebook, Twitter and Google helped get the real estate mogul and reality TV personality elected.

"I understood early that Facebook was how Donald Trump was going to win," Parscale said. "Twitter is how [Trump]  talked to the people. Facebook was going to be how he won."

Social media effect

Since the election, it's become clear how much influence the internet in general, and social networks in particular, have in shaping US public opinion. That influence took center stage on Capitol Hill last week, when the legal counsels from Facebook, Twitter and Google testified about Russian meddling in the 2016 election via false news, online ads and bot accounts to stir up divisiveness.

Twitter said more than 2,700 accounts appeared to be tied to the same Russian accounts that purchased thousands of ads on  Facebook, a sharp spike from the 201 accounts it originally announced in September.  As for Facebook, about 126 million Americans, or roughly one-third of the nation's population, were exposed to Russian-backed content on Facebook during the 2016 presidential election.  Facebook also said Russia-backed operatives published about 80,000 posts that were delivered to approximately 29 million people on the social network during a two-year period.  

Altogether, those trolls have spread propaganda and fake news that's garnered more than 414 million impressions on Facebook and Twitter.  "We had a foreign government apparently buying thousands of dollars of advertising to create discontent and discord," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Oct. 31 at the start of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

After the testimony from Facebook, Twitter and Google's top lawyers, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week the companies "showed a lack of resources, commitment and a lack of genuine effort" to rid their platforms of propaganda.

"Congress isn't going to let this issue go away, and the tech companies are going to fight to make sure they don't get excessive government oversight," said Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and professor at Syracuse University. "It's going to be an uphill battle."

For his part, Trump dismissed last week's hearings as just "Russia' talk" intended to distract from the Republican tax overhaul.

Who's in, who's out

While Trump's tweets reach millions, the president follows just 45 people on Twitter.

Seventeen of them either have the last name Trump or work for one of his companies. That includes First Lady Melania, daughters Ivanka and Tiffany, and sons Donald Jr. and Eric. (But not Barron, his youngest.)

The rest of Trump's followers include his social media director Dan Scavino Jr., golfer Gary Player, WWE chairman Vince McMahon and reality TV magnate Mark Burnett. There are also Fox News commentators Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Geraldo Rivera and Tucker Carlson, and ex-Fox anchor Bill O'Reilly.

Trump, who is the most followed world leader on Twitter, ironically "doesn't follow other world leaders," said Matthias Luefkens, founder of Twitplomacy, a Switzerland-based social media tracker that's created a list of 890 accounts of international leaders or heads of state.

And Trump is on a short list of world leaders who manage their own Twitter accounts, including European Council President Donald Tusk, Denmark's prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Latvia's foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics and Norway's prime minister Erna Solberg, who has dyslexia and admits to the occasional misspelling when tweeting.

But Trump is the leader the world watches. "Trump's tweets are must-see during lunchtime over here," said Luefkens, who lives in Geneva.

Given his role on the global stage, there's been backlash against Trump's decision to block an estimated 100 Twitter users from following his account because, well, they probably tweeted something he didn't like. Some critics have called the blocking unconstitutional.

Those blocked include seven people represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute, a nonprofit at Columbia University. The institute is suing Trump, claiming he's violating the US Constitution by illegally limiting their ability to view and comment on his tweets.

The seven say they should be reinstated because Trump's Twitter account represents a "designated public forum" and is an official form of communication because he's the president.

The White House admitted in a legal stipulation in late September that the president does block Twitter users who don't agree with him or his policies. While the Knight team sees that admission as a small victory, Trump's camp argues that @realDonaldTrump, despite all of the global attention it receives, is just one man's personal account.

A man who just happens to be the leader of the free world.

"I think it's weird and unsettling. None of our plaintiffs are famous or celebrities," said Katie Fowler, a senior staff attorney at the Knight Institute. "There's something about this that seems un-American."

That's what Twitter user Laura Packard believes. While she's not suing Trump, the stage 4 cancer patient woke up on Sept. 20 shocked to see Trump blocked her from his Twitter account after she posted several tweets criticizing Trump's proposed Obamacare repeal plan.

Packard, 41, a Las Vegas-based consultant who has Hodgkin's lymphoma, said Obamacare helps her afford health insurance. She said Trump's plan would leave 32 million Americans at risk and there's no way she could've paid a $140,000 surcharge.

She calls getting blocked childish.  

"He can be mad at his constituents all he wants," she said, "but it's a part of his job to represent all of us, not just those he agrees with."

Former Twitter executive Sharp said he hopes Trump will use Twitter for more meaningful dialogue with the American public, not just for breaking news and taking shots at his opponents.

"While I do wish he would use it as a force for good, I think he's motivated very much by the mainstream media attention he gets," he said. "On the other hand, I'm not so sure the media would cover him as intensely if he was much more tame."

First published Nov. 6, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, Nov. 8 at 9:55 a.m.: Adds details about Twitter's new 280-character limit, and Trump's first tweet with it.

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