THE PRESIDENTIAL FOG MACHINE
BY Angelo Fernando
President Donald Trump’s tweets fall like rain. Acid rain, mostly. In just 15 months since taking office, he has deployed his Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump to blame, insult, insinuate and brag in ways that make us all cringe. With the challenges of governing, how he finds time to tweet opinions on the Oscars, global warming, China, the UK, Pakistan, and a host of actors, media people and minorities beats me.
As unusual as it is for a head of state to take charge of his communications, ‘Trumpian tweets’ have become as normal as press briefings. It’s where we hear about policy shifts, as well as internal altercations and petty brawls. The White House press conference appears limp by comparison.
The big question is whether this amounts to a brilliant strategy – a way to set agendas and deflect attention by broadcasting his thoughts in microbursts. Or is it just impulse?
Granted, most often there’s no focus, developing theme or factual basis and several contradictions. And despite being called out by fact checkers, there appears to be a cumulative effect of such in presidential petulance.
POST-TRUTH EXPERIMENT The phenomenon of dropping misleading statements – a euphemism for ‘bald lies’ – into the bloodstream of the media is nothing new. It’s called the ‘illusion of truth’ effect.
That quote attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels – “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” – is quite right. To put this in a social media context, retweet a lie often enough and it acquires the veneer of truth that gets picked up by the news cycle.
Perhaps Trump knows that few people seem to pay attention to fact checkers. In 2015, there were approximately 29 fact checking organisations in the US but a Rasmussen survey of likely voters revealed that only 29 percent trusted the media, which was fact checking candidates before the election.
Even now, fact checkers are outpaced by algorithms that feed off unverified information filling the crevices of digital channels.
NO FILTER PRESIDENT There is a price to pay however, when a government runs on the fumes of Twitter. It creates a semblance of policy albeit grandiose and erratic. Some White House announcements have been made exclusively on Twitter rather than at press conferences, and have caught the Pentagon and State Department off guard. John Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff, appears to insulate himself from the noise by admitting that he doesn’t even read his boss’ tweets.
Trump’s legendary twitter storms aren’t only directed at his opponents but anyone who he believes isn’t up to the job at that moment. So one moment it could be the FBI or Pakistan. The next it could be the NFL, Bette Midler or even his own Republican Party senators. And that’s not even taking into account his calling people bimbos, ugly, frumpy, neurotic and flunkies among other unprintable epithets.
His lack of online decorum – something we teach youth embarking on social media – is often explained this way: ‘The president has no filter.’ It’s a charitable euphemism for his self-declared political incorrectness.
DAMAGE CONTROL The permanency of these online rants must keep his lawyers awake at night. Deleting a tweet doesn’t work because followers grab screenshots and archive them (there is a Trump Twitter archive at www.trumptwitterarchive.com).
Oddly enough, in the early days of Twitter, microblogging (as we then called it) was considered a great damage control tool in an organisation’s digital marketing arsenal. It could move a controversy from heated broadcast mode to a one-on-one chat; a way to diffuse a time bomb.
The opposite is true of Trump’s use of Twitter. He often escalates a personal or local issue to a national debate, leaving damage control to his staff and party apologists.
Indeed, the no filter president is prone to being provoked. Others find his Twitter style governance a way to get into his mind, making it both convenient and dangerous. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer put it this way: “Ronald Reagan was so self-contained and impenetrable that his official biographer was practically driven mad trying to figure him out. Donald Trump is penetrable, hourly.”
This begs the question: Why doesn’t Twitter shut down the account of someone who uses the platform to insult and bully? Perhaps Twitter doesn’t want to lose such a high profile user. Or perhaps it assumes we the people are smart enough to turn off the fog machine.