The power of a tweet


It can reach out where other media can’t, highlight whatever one wants and anticipate what the public is looking for

Social media is a weapon of war, at least in the eyes of two psychologists from the United States, P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Booking, who in 2018 published their book titled LikeWar. The Weaponization of Social Media. While for many, such claims seem unacceptable or hard to swallow there is no doubt about the growing role that social media is acquiring in every sphere and, in particular, its importance in relation to political institutions. Nevertheless, the superficiality with which many opinion leaders and journalists evaluate posts by some individuals, mainly politicians, remains incomprehensible.

The most emblematic case, of course, is that of Donald Trump, who uses his Tweets as highly effective tools in his communications strategy. His first Tweet dates back to 4 May 2009 when in an attempt to boost the viewing figures for one of his television appearances (an episode of Late Night with David Letterman) he Tweeted “Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!”. A simple message, direct and without any attempt to manipulate the media, but in the two years that followed, a change occurred. Trump began to Tweet more often and the content of his messages became more political, a mixture of undisputable truths, real events and his various reflections on them. Trump’s presence in the virtual world went viral. His credibility increased to such an extent that Singer and Brooking claim that from 2015 onwards, the Trump presidential campaign benefited from the equivalent of 5 billion dollars’ worth of free publicity. In an article in January 2018, the British daily newspaper The Independent observed “Yet, Mr Trump’s tweets are also remarkably effective…For Mr Trump, social media is a battleground and he has weaponised Twitter in a number of ways.”

The US president’s Twitter feed has 46.7 million followers, many of whom believe it to offer a real window onto his thoughts and psyche, few perhaps have understood that it represents a persuasive tool capable of generating messages that contain elements of psychological conditioning. Numerous experts agree that the 71-year-old has used Twitter in a way that has not been rivalled by any other political leader. George Lakoff, emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant, is an expert in cognitive and linguistic science. Having analysed Trump’s Tweets he reached the conclusion that “Trump uses social media as a weapon to control the news cycle. It works like a charm. His Tweets are tactical rather than substantive.”

Any good salesman knows how to condition the potential purchaser in order to get them to buy what is being sold. Thought uses neural circuits and every idea is made up of neural circuits. However, we do not have conscious access to those circuits. Consequently, the majority of our thought (around 98%) is unconscious. Conscious thought is just the tip of the iceberg. Unconscious thought works according to some basic mechanisms that Trump uses instinctively in order to direct the brains of his public towards what he wants them to see: absolute authority, money, power and celebrity.

Lakoff posits that the mechanisms used by Trump fall into the following four categories: 

  1. Pre-emptive Framing (Being the first to frame an idea). Introducing a topic before anyone else and thus being able to infuse within it a message that is deliberately structured.
  2. Diversion (Distracting attention from real problems). Paying greater attention to a news item of lesser importance, in order to distract attention from news that he wants to minimise.
  3. Deflection (Attacking the messenger, changing direction). For example, attacking the media in an attempt to erode public trust. Later reformulating the story as “fake news” and establishing that the Trump administration is the real source of truth.
  4. Trial Balloon. Testing the public reaction. This enables the structuring of messages in order to understand in advance what the reaction of the public could be to a particular problem for the country.

For example, when there is a dramatic event that receives a lot of publicity, a structured communication repeats and represents images of the event, reinforcing and increasing amongst the masses the conviction that there is a high probability of a similar event occurring in the future. If videos of firearms incidents involving Muslims, Afro-Americans and Latin Americans are presented repeatedly, then the fear of such an event occurring in the viewer’s own community increases exponentially, in spite of the scarce probability of such an eventuality. Another example is the term “radical Islamic terrorists”, which on a psychological level is establishing a direct connection between Muslims and “terrorists”, suggesting that terrorism is inherent to the religion itself. Fear represents the real weak point of a people and a frightened population will increasingly want to be protected by a patriarchal figure that is strong and strict.

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