Weapons of Mass Distraction –

J.D. Crowe Trump Twitter Fireballs


In 2015, as Malcolm Turnbull ascended to the Prime Ministership of Australia, he addressed the nation and informed it that “…there’s never been a more exciting time to be alive…” One could argue that this is very true. Over the last three and a half years, we as a society have laid witness to a series of gripping, and often unexpected events that have often dominated our mediasphere for extended periods of time. For the general public, this often makes for great entertainment (Bolin, 2014). The 24-hour news cycle is an insatiable beast – always looking for the next ‘gotcha!’ moment to keep audience’s eyes intensely focused on, if not fleetingly and for but a moment. As noted by Kreiss, (2014), Twitter and other digital media sources have been hugely influential in the ever-shortening of the 24-hour news cycle, and this has invariably altered the shape of our democratic process. For the purpose of this essay, digital media is defined as any electronic source of consumable content that is distributed predominantly online/ through the cloud. This content can have varying levels of influence on the public sphere, and this influence will then in turn determine whether or not it triggers a change in our collective social conscience or national policy. It should also be noted that the line between traditional and digital media is becoming increasingly blurred.

No politician has quite so mastered the art of manipulating these gotcha moments quite like US President Donald Trump. As a master salesman and TV star, Trump has had decades to perfect the way he uses language and media to point an audience’s attention in one way or another. Like the sleight of a magician’s hand, Trump uses Twitter and other digital media sources to distract and convey carefully crafted messages to his constituents. Whether these messages incite moral outrage or allow the President to reframe an issue, there is always some sort of agenda behind them. Of course, it could be argued that many of the tactics the ‘Magician in Chief’ uses would not be nearly so effective were it not for his trusty Twitter feed. As Trump’s main point of contact with the rest of the world, this digital media apparatus played, and continues to play a pivotal role in his presidency and political machinations. Therefore, this essay will dissect, and discuss, how and why digital media can be used to distract and direct us, and shape our political sphere.

On Sunday, November 27th of 2016, the New York Times published a major op-ed detailing country by country, where the incumbent President Trump may have conflicts of interest between his business dealings, and his capacity as President of the United States (Paddock, et al., 2016). Several hours later, Trump tweeted “in addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” (Trump, 2016). Soon after this, every major news outlet in the country (America) began reporting as to why this was categorically false. The op-ed by the New York Times was buried in the hysteria around such a ridiculous claim, rather than being highlighted as it should have been. If we are to entertain the idea that Trump is in actuality, a reasonable person, then we are left with the question as to why he would tweet such a ridiculous and easily refutable statement on the public record. In his article on The Age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the politics of Debasement, Ott (2017) states that “Twitter promotes public discourse that is simple, impetuous, and frequently denigrating and dehumanizing”. While it would be easy to apply this statement to both Twitter greater as well as @RealDonaldTrump, this would be no more than an overly simplistic view of the situation that does little other than feed into the game that Trump so expertly plays. Instead, the case should be made that Trump was, and is, well aware of what he is doing. In a world of ever-rapidly increasing news cycles, there is no time, no opportunity for backtracking. If one can create a big enough fuss, then this will distract and refocus the public just long enough that something more important, if not often less titillating, will skate through largely unnoticed. This is effectively summed up by Freudenburg & Alario (2007) wherein they note that “Professional magicians have long realized that the key to success is not to exert force on the audience, but to entice the audience to focus on something else…similarly, politician’s versions of disappearing acts are best understood not by asking about what it is we see—whether the rabbit or hat—but by learning more about what it is we fail to see.” (Freudenburg & Alario, 2007).

Of course, not all of the credit can be placed upon Trump and his fellow right-wing populists. Tanner (2011) expresses that “that there has been a significant decline in the past 20 or so years in the quality and tenor of political reporting and of journalism in general, as the raison d’être of newspapers and of electronic media more broadly, has shifted from a focus on straight reporting to a reframing of news as entertainment.” In other words, the media, and by extension, the public, are in part responsible for this reactionary style of reporting. The recent case of the extensive coverage on Frasier Anning and ‘Eggboy’ (Will Connolly); wherein the far-right senator was egged by a young 17-year-old during a press conference following a widely criticised press release, is a perfect example of just how the media plays into this game. Days of press coverage were dedicated to discussing the merits of egging a member of parliament rather than far more pressing issues such as the rise of right-wing extremism, and the role that sentiments such as those expressed by politicians like Anning and Trump play in its facilitation. To that point, there appeared to be more fierce debate around this 17-year-old getting his five minutes of fame, than there was about the massacre in Christchurch that started it all.

This suited the ‘victim’ of this story (Anning) just fine. Yes, by and large the rhetoric being expressed by the mainstream (and ever increasingly digital) media was that Anning was nonetheless in the wrong for his comment and should be appropriately shamed (FitzSimons, 2019). However, this play of events nonetheless gave the Senator coverage that he should not receive. After being elected to the senate with just 19 votes (Beaumont, 2019), Anning has spent as much time as possible in the media saying as many inflammatory things as possible, hoping that at least some of them will stick, be reported on, and resonate with his base. What this suggests is that both Anning and Trump have opted to go against the traditional advice given to politicians everywhere, expressed by (Tanner, 2011) as “Duck and cover, apologise, and say that you’ll never do it again… Not doing this will make the story drag on for a few days, rather than one or two news cycles.” Politicians such as these feed on moral outrage, and digital media, particularly in the social form, is particularly adept at feeding into this hysteria.

If anything is to be learned from Trump’s success, and the victories of other right-wing populists in recent years, it’s that democracies are the product of voter behaviour that hardly comports with rational choice (Victoroff, 2009 ). To this point, a political manoeuvre with the right framing can fundamentally alter how it is perceived by the general public. In the 1960’s when anti-Vietnam War protests were gripping the country, pro-war politicians and elites realised that they could sway public opinion on the matter not by addressing the concerns of the protestors directly, but rather by reframing the anti-war protests, as anti-troop protests (Kleykamp, Hipes, & MacLean, 2017). This tactic was, and continues to be so effective, that Mazur (2010) argues that “the most effective conversation stopper ever invented in contemporary American dialogue is the charge that someone doesn’t respect the military or those who serve in the military” (p. 3).
Routinely this same phenomenon is used on conservative social media profiles (predominantly Facebook) wherein connected individuals are prompted to “Share if you support our troops” image macros. What this inevitably leads to is a suppression of any degree of criticism or malcontent with wars, weaponry, or the military machine. This is noted in Kleykamp, Hipes, & MacLean, (2017) where they state, “The pressure to publicly express support for military-connected populations may influence individuals to respond to even private questions about military populations and veterans in socially desirable ways by overstating their support and respect for them.”  No one on either side of the political spectrum wants to be seen as ‘anti-troop’, and this can often lead to the stifling of open dialogue during debates about the merits of some military intervention; arguably to the detriment of greater society.

Trump, however, has successfully managed to take this concept of repositioning to a whole new level; not just in the case of a particular issue, as he did with instances like the New York Times article, but also in the way he uses affect. Platitudes of researchers have found that the language Trump uses is “highly emotive, and simplistic in nature” (Kayam, 2018). “It is clear his is an emotional (pathos) rhetorical style, but more important is his epideictic delivery. His speeches are dramatic; he makes bold yet unrepentant claims about his abilities, and is particularly forceful about the failings of his opponents.” (Crines & Dolowitz, 2018). Richardson (2017) notes that “Trump marshalled what Richard Hofstadter, writing in 1964, famously called the ‘paranoid style’ in American politics, ‘the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’ that is an ‘old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life’ (Hofstadter 1964, 77).”  Further to this, Richardson (2017) notes that Trump also draws heavily from “negative bodily affectivity” or in other words, disgust. Disgust is more than just contempt for an individual, disgust invokes a visceral feeling, a recoiling of oneself away from that which is repulsive. The nicknames that Trump coined for his opponents – “Lying Ted”, “Crooked Hillary”; the idea that he was going to #DrainTheSwamp, tapped into inner workings of his Conservative base’s brains like few other politicians have managed to do. Feinberg & Willer, (2013) state that perceptions of moral violations (such as being a liar or otherwise crooked) within the purity/sanctity domain tend to elicit a disgust response, especially in conservatives; because disgust plays an important role in conservative moral judgments. This, tied with the incredible ease in which supporters could like, share, and retweet these sentiments to their own followers, helped to spread and infect Trump’s affect like a contagion. A 2016 study by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of adults in the US receive some-to-most, of their news via Facebook or other social media sources (Gottfried & Shearer, 2016). Given the extreme ease of shareability between social media networks, what this meant was that almost half of the eligible voting public in the US were, in effect, open slather for Trump’s rhetoric.  “The man who became nationally famous by saying “You’re fired” understood the power of a direct personal attack, and the value of a slogan that could be boiled down to fit on a hat. Throughout his candidacy and well into his presidency, he wielded Twitter in just that way.” (Weiss, 2019). The Republican base, and indeed, even some Democrats, were less concerned about Trump’s own failings, because they were too busy thinking about those of his opponents.

It would not be unreasonable to say that Donald J. Trump would not be the leader of the free world were it not for social media. His campaign, the facilitation of misdirection and fake news, his speaking style, and the rhetoric he spouted; none of this would have been possible several decades ago. At least, certainly not in the same way. We live in exciting times, in the 21st Century; historically we are the safest we have ever been, as we are the most connected we’ve ever been. Despite this, the rumblings of discontent that infect and plague digital media channels continue to tell us otherwise. There are “people coming into our country that are looking to do us tremendous harm” and similarly, “people are dead, other people are going to die.” (Trump, 2016).However, this is only true if we as a society choose to accept it. Trump’s rhetoric will always resonate with a certain demographic of people, just as it will itself repulse another. For the rest of society however, those which can be swayed to either side, it’s important that academics and professional journalists continue to discuss and expose Trump and friends for what they are – frauds and magicians. The more society understands the way digital media can be used to influence them, the more likely they will be to use critical thought when engaging with information. Trump is certainly an impressive individual, but not for the reasons he likes to think. That said, the tricks that he and his fellow magicians use become far less mystical when you know how they do it.



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