10 November 2020


'Using the president’s tweets to understand political diversion in the age of social media' by Stephan Lewandowsky, Michael Jetter and Ullrich K. H. Ecker in (2020) 11 Nature Communications 5764 comments 

Social media has arguably shifted political agenda-setting power away from mainstream media onto politicians. Current U.S. President Trump’s reliance on Twitter is unprecedented, but the underlying implications for agenda setting are poorly understood. Using the president as a case study, we present evidence suggesting that President Trump’s use of Twitter diverts crucial media (The New York Times and ABC News) from topics that are potentially harmful to him. We find that increased media coverage of the Mueller investigation is immediately followed by Trump tweeting increasingly about unrelated issues. This increased activity, in turn, is followed by a reduction in coverage of the Mueller investigation—a finding that is consistent with the hypothesis that President Trump’s tweets may also successfully divert the media from topics that he considers threatening. The pattern is absent in placebo analyses involving Brexit coverage and several other topics that do not present a political risk to the president. Our results are robust to the inclusion of numerous control variables and examination of several alternative explanations, although the generality of the successful diversion must be established by further investigation.

The authors argue 

On August 4, 2014, a devastating earthquake maimed and killed thousands in China’s Yunnan province. Within hours, Chinese media were saturated with stories about the apparent confession by an Internet celebrity to have engaged in gambling and prostitution. News about the earthquake was marginalized, to the point that the Chinese Red Cross implored the public to ignore the celebrity scandal. The flooding of the media with stories about a minor scandal appeared to have been no accident, but represented a concerted effort of the Chinese government to distract the public’s attention from the earthquake and the government’s inadequate disaster preparedness. This organized distraction was not an isolated incident. It has been estimated that the Chinese government posts around 450 million social media comments per year, using a 50-cent army of operatives to disseminate messages. Unlike traditional censorship of print or broadcast media, which interfered with writers and speakers to control the source of information, this new form of Internet-based censorship interferes with consumers by diverting attention from controversial issues. Inconvenient speech is drowned out rather than being banned outright. 

In Western democracies, by contrast, politicians cannot orchestrate coverage in social and conventional media to their liking. The power of democratic politicians to set the political agenda is therefore limited, and it is conventionally assumed that it is primarily the media, not politicians, that determine the agenda of public discourse in liberal democracies. Several lines of evidence support this assumption. For example, coverage of terrorist attacks in the New York Times has been causally linked to further terrorist attacks, with one additional article producing 1.4 attacks over the following week. Coverage of al-Qaeda in premier US broadcast and print media has been causally linked to additional terrorist attacks and increased popularity of the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Similarly, media coverage has been identified as a driver—rather than an echo—of public support for right-wing populist parties in the UK. Further support for the power of the media emerges from two quasi-experimental field studies in the UK. In one case, when the Sun tabloid switched its explicit endorsement from the Conservative party to Labour in 1997, and back again to the Conservatives in 2010, each switch translated into an estimated additional 500,000 votes for the favored party at the next election. In another case, the long-standing boycott of the anti-European Sun tabloid in the city of Liverpool (arising from its untruthful coverage of a tragic stadium incident in 1989 with multiple fatalities among Liverpool soccer fans), rendered attitudes towards the European Union in Liverpool more positive than in comparable areas that did not boycott the Sun. In the United States, the gradual introduction of Fox News coverage in communities around the country has been directly linked to an increase in Republican vote share. Finally, a randomized field experiment in the US that controlled media coverage of local papers by syndicating selected topics on randomly chosen days, identified strong flow-on effects into public discourse. The intervention increased public discussion of an issue by more than 60%. 

This conventional view is, however, under scrutiny. More nuanced recent analyses have invoked a market in which the elites, mass media, and citizens seek to establish an equilibrium. In particular, the rapid rise of social media, including the micro-blogging platform Twitter, has provided new avenues for political agenda setting that have increasingly discernible impact. For example, the content of Twitter discussions of the HPV vaccine explains differences in vaccine uptake beyond those explainable by other socioeconomic variables. Greater spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories on Twitter are associated with lower vaccination rates. Similarly, fake news (fabricated stories that are presented as news on social media) have controlled the popularity of many issues in US politics, mainly owing to the responsiveness of partisan media outlets. The entanglement of partisan media and social media is of considerable generality and can sometimes override the agenda-setting power of leading outlets such as the New York Times

One important characteristic of Twitter is that it allows politicians to directly influence the public’s political agenda. For example, as early as 2012, a sample of journalists acknowledged their reliance on Twitter to generate stories and obtain quotes from politicians. With the appearance of Donald Trump on the political scene, Twitter has been elevated to a central role in global politics. President Trump has posted around 49,000 tweets as of February 2020. To date, research has focused primarily on the content of Donald Trump’s tweets. Relatively less attention has been devoted to the agenda-setting role of the tweets. Some research has identified the number of retweets Trump receives as a frequent positive predictor of news stories (Though see16 for a somewhat contrary position.). During the 2016 election campaign, Trump’s tweets on average received three times as much attention than those of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, suggesting that he was more successful at commanding public attention. 

Here we focus on one aspect of agenda-setting, namely Donald Trump’s presumed strategic deployment of tweets to divert attention away from issues that are potentially threatening or harmful to the president. Unlike the Chinese government, which has a 50-cent army at its disposal, diversion can only work for President Trump if he can directly move the media’s or the public’s attention away from harmful issues. Anecdotally, there are instances in which this diversion appears to have been successful. For example, in late 2016, President-elect Trump repeatedly criticized the cast of a Broadway play via Twitter after the actors publically pleaded for a “diverse America.” This Twitter event coincided with the revelation that Trump had agreed to a $25 million settlement (including a $1 million penalty) of lawsuits against his (now defunct) Trump University. An analysis of people’s internet search behavior using Google Trends confirmed that the public showed far greater interest in the Broadway controversy than the Trump University settlement, attesting to the success of the presumed diversion. However, to date evidence for diversion has remained anecdotal. 

This article provides the first empirical test of the hypothesis that President Trump’s use of Twitter diverts attention from news that is politically harmful to him. In particular, we posit that any increase in harmful media coverage may be followed by increased diversionary Twitter activity. In turn, if this diversion is successful, it should depress subsequent media coverage of the harmful topic. To operationalize the analysis, we focused on the Mueller investigation as a source of potentially threatening or harmful media coverage.