Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
POTUS tweets. Or does he?
The President of the United States has again caused a ruckus with his tweeting. On Saturday morning, March 4, at 5:35 AM, he tweeted that former President Obama had tapped his phones before the election.
But notice something about this tweet—and in fact I think all the tweets that have been most controversial
The President of the United States did not tweet it. Donald Trump did. Two different Twitter handles (the identity or address a tweet is sent from)--@POTUS and @realDonaldTrump.
Two different sets of messages, and two different personas, two different images of the person tweeting. On Twitter, he seems to have separated into the two characters he’s playing—one the man in the office of US President, the other the guy who campaigned for the office.
Check out these differences I could trace between the two versions of the man on Twitter.
@realDonaldTrump tweets unsupported inflammatory accusations, like Obama tapping his phones, based sometimes on TV and radio shows (apparently Rush Limbaugh made the wire tapping claim on a radio show Friday, and his statements about terrorism in Sweden he said came from Fox News). And he tweets a string of them. The Obama wiretapping accusation continued across four tweets before he shifted to a tweet about Arnold Schwarzenegger leaving the Apprentice. It’s @realDonaldTrump who tweeted often about security leaks that the FBI couldn’t stop, a mess in the White House he inherited, and fake news media making up stories.
@realDonalTrump does sometimes tweet reminders of upcoming talks and rallies, photos of his presidential activities (like greeting the Israeli Prime Minister or signing an executive order), and congratulations to confirmed cabinet secretaries. Those tweets represent him as much more typically presidential, though not as consistently presidential as he will appear as @POTUS.
But those more presidential tweets are nowhere near as common, and they may not even be written by the real Donald Trump. A data analyst David Robinson compared the messages from the @realDonaldTrump account that came from an Android, Trump's phone, with those that came from an iPhone. His data confirmed speculation that only the Android tweets were posted by Donald Trump. The others were likely posted by his staff. The Android tweets “were for the most part angrier and more negative than his staff’s iPhone messages, which generally featured benign announcements and images.” Salon reported, “Robinson found that Trump himself uses nearly double the number of words related to disgust, sadness, fear, anger and other negative sentiments than tweets posted to his feed via iPhone.”
So the less common, more presidential tweets from @realDonaldTrump probably come from Trump’s staff (who may also write the strongly presidential tweets from @POTUS), where the more emotional and inflammatory ones probably come from the man himself.
His staff may know what seems more presidential, but the man himself knows what people like.
Take a look at a day's tweets from @realDonaldTrump that included some more presidential and some more emotional tweets, March 3. (I'm not using March 4 because all 7 tweets from @realDonaldTrump were the emotional kind, making claims about wire tapping and Jeff Sessions' contact with Russians.) On March 3, his 7 tweets had more of a mix and included (from more presidential to less) a link to his weekly address, a photo of his visit to a school with a statement that we must fix our educational system, a link to a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” video, a recommendation of a book about immigration featured on @foxandfriends, and three complaints about Democrats, including two demanding an investigation and one calling Senator Schumer “a total hypocrite.”
Guess which tweets got the most likes and retweets? Glad you asked. Here are the numbers, ordered again by my judgment of more or less presidential (these were the numbers as of 12:30 PM, March 5):
The three tweets complaining about Democrats received well more than twice the likes of the presidential weekly address. The weekly address, school visit, and book recommendation combined received a total of 37.6 thousand retweets (a sign of what people thought worth sharing with others)—fewer retweets for the three combined than for just one of the demands for an investigation. And highest of all? The tweet calling a US senator “a total hypocrite.” The numbers make me rethink my placement of the Make American Great Again video. Even though it shows video of presidential acts, especially surrounding his address to Congress, the voiceover sounds like any other campaign ad. Still, that video received fewer likes and fewer retweets than either of the demands for investigations.
If the criteria for a successful tweet is the attention it gets, certainly the evidence for @realDonaldTrump is clear. Keep the controversy going. That’s what grabs your followers.
It’s also what grabs the media’s attention, and that’s what I’d argue should stop. Since when did the news media become retweeters of social media? Who should matter to them—the realDonaldTrump? Or the President of the United States?
Because the President of the United States has a quite different image on Twitter and is much more likely to tweet news events. Not completely presidential, but moreso.
On January 20, inauguration day, the Twitter handle @POTUS became the handle for the 45th president and no longer the handle for the 44th President, Barack Obama. (You can find a historical archive of President Obama’s tweets as @POTUS on Twitter @POTUS44.) The first tweet that day, from “President Trump,” was a photo and link to his inaugural speech—very presidential and noncontroversial.
From January 20-February 6, @POTUS (or his staff) tweets 48 times with nothing more controversial than one campaign-style video and a congratulations to the Super Bowl winners. On February 7, he tweets about DeVos and the Democrats’ “protest to keep the failed status quo.” Then he returns to a series of 29 informative and congratulatory tweets about his meetings, nominations and confirmations, and speeches and addresses, in relatively staid tones of links, invitations, and congratulations. No insults, claims without evidence, or Democrat bashing. February 24 @POTUS complains about the FBI not stopping leaks, followed by strong statements from his address to the American Conservative Union PAC. And February 28 is full of tweets from his address to Congress. But then it’s back to some congratulatory tweets about his cabinet appointments.
On March 3, @POTUS linked not only to his weekly address but also to a photo of the president on the USS Gerald R Ford. But he messes up my easy conclusions about two distinct personas by also tweeting the same @realDonaldTrump tweets of the Make America Great Again campaign video and the demand for an investigation of Pelosi. But unlike @realDonaldTrump, @POTUS did not call Senator Schumer a hypocrite nor cite Fox and Friends. And so far @POTUS has tweeted no accusations of a former president being part of a wiretapping conspiracy.
Overall, since his taking over as @POTUS, he has issued a long stretch of presidential tweets creating a presidential persona, with just a few outbursts more befitting the @realDonaldTrump persona.
Perhaps not surprisingly, @POTUS is not as popular on social media as @realDonaldTrump is. His Make American Great video gets only 46K likes and 13K retweets coming from @POTUS, and even his call for an investigation into Pelosi gets @POTUS only 40K likes and 12K retweets, compared to the same tweet’s 114K likes and 38K retweets coming from @realDonaldTrump. Still, those two controversial tweets get @POTUS more response than any of his presidential tweets. You have to go to the February 28 address to Congress to find more popular tweets from @POTUS.
So what Trump's followers on Twitter appear to like and want are tweets with strong, controversial, even unfounded claims. The less traditionally presidential the better.
But people in the Twittersphere do not make the news unless the news media turn them into news. Entertainment reporters certainly report on what actors, recording stars, athletes, and other celebrities post on Twitter, whether Chris Brown or Lebron James or Amanda Bynes or Donald Trump.
And news reporters certainly report on the actions of the president. Maybe today those actions include actions on social media. Since Obama created the official @POTUS account and tweeted the first presidential tweet on May 18, 2015, Twitter has become a platform for the president and might at times be newsworthy. But that goes for tweets from the President of the United States, not from the celebrity Donald Trump.
Since the man himself is aware of the difference, the news media should be, too. What @POTUS says or does might be news. What @realDonaldTrump says or does is entertainment. Let the entertainment reporters report on the celebrity gossip, if they want to. But let the news media stick to the news about @POTUS when it’s worth reporting.
What do you think? Is such a distinction for the news desirable, or even possible? Or has the line between news and entertainment blurred past repair?
3/6/2017 02:48:58 pm
Fascinating analysis--and I agree with most of your analysis. But I don't see how the media could ignore Saturday's tweets since the Republicans in general say that they will investigate. Or am I missing something?
3/6/2017 03:37:02 pm
Thanks for commenting, Lisa. It does seem clear that the media have to report, but I'd like to say that the news they must report is that Trump and the Republicans are calling for an investigation, that Comey asked for a denial, that those who would know are denying any wire tapping--NOT that Trump tweeted a wild accusation. When I wrote this post, that was the only news so far, Trump's accusations on Twitter. That's what I'm wishing the media would ignore as non-news. I also realize that he is still the president, even when tweeting as realDT, and what he says becomes news because he says it. I just wish the media would make some distinctions between, perhaps, gossip and news. Just call me Pollyanna. Or a resister.
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