This week, President-elect Donald Trump pilloried Indiana union leader Chuck Jones on Twitter. The offense? Jones disputed exactly how many jobs Trump saved at the Carrier plant at which he works. That Trump aired grievances on social media is nothing new. That he so publicly targeted a private citizen very much is. Both the tweets and what followed–Jones received a barrage of calls and threats–highlight the unprecedented influence Trump can wield in 140 characters, and the dangers of shrugging them off.
In recent weeks, pundits have called on Americans to stop paying attention to Trump’s Twitter account. Their argument makes some sense: Trump is so good at using the medium that he often uses it to distract from “real news,” critics like media columnist Jack Shafer at Politico argue. They point to a recent weekend in which the New York Times published an investigation into Trump’s business conflicts, only to be drowned out by Trump’s conveniently timed tweet alleging massive voter fraud in the popular vote. Trump, as Shafer put it, was yanking people’s chain. Last month, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi called Trump’s Twitter account a “weapon of mass distraction.”
That may be so. But it ignores that Twitter is also Trump’s primary way to communicate with Americans. He hasn’t given a press conference since July 27. What he writes on Twitter matters.
“Trump’s tweets could indeed be major policy pronouncements, given the way he has been using this medium,” says Shyam Sundar, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. Indeed, since his election, Trump’s tweets have influenced the financial markets (see his tweet about Boeing’s planes, which dinged the company’s stock price), ruffled the feathers of our closest allies (see his tweet urging Great Britain to appoint Nigel Farage as Ambassador to the US), and brought death threats to the president and professors of small liberal arts colleges (see his tweet remonstrating Hampshire College after someone on campus burned an American flag).
It’s possible Trump doesn’t appreciate the ripple effects his tweets have, that he’s just speaking his mind without consideration of the consequences–even when those consequences include threats of harm. Whether he intends his missives literally or figuratively is immaterial. His team did not return requests for comment, but experts agree: Trump’s intentions are beside the point. His tweets have weight, and cannot be ignored.
The False Comfort of Casual Settings
Twitter is informal. In the house of the internet, it’s like the den–where people yell at the TV screen together and don’t mind their manners. It’s not the formal dining room where everyone watches what they say. This suits America’s new president elect perfectly, so much so that it’s his primary conduit to his citizenry.
“In the absence of formal press conferences and briefings to news media, his tweets are all we got. So, it’s natural for us to hang on to every word he tweets because that could provide a glimpse into Trump’s America–the shape of things to come under his administration, which is fraught with uncertainty at this time of transition,” says Sundar.
Take those voter fraud tweets. In the “spur of the moment” tirade in which Trump wrote “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Jeff Hancock of Stanford, who researches lying and the psychology of social media, saw something potentially far more meaningful than a potent distraction: the groundwork for voter discrimination laws. (He wasn’t alone.) “I used to just think he was a bullshitter,” Hancock says. “I worry that he’s going to be able to shape a substantial amount of people’s perceptions of reality. This is the primary power of authoritarians. I actually thought he’d change once he assumed the responsibility of power, but given that he is not, I’m concerned.”
The Man’s Gonna Tweet
The simplest solution would be for Trump to stop tweeting altogether, or at least not quite so much. There’s public support for that, at least; according to a Politico poll, most Americans think Trump tweets too much. Some of his own supporters urged him to get off Twitter entirely, worried that what was considered delightfully contrarian during the campaign could sink his presidency.
That’s not going to happen, though. When asked last week at a Harvard Kennedy School Forum whether Trump would stop tweeting once he took office, his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway declined to say definitively. “That will be up to him,” she said. “The president-elect looks at his social media accounts as very good platforms through which to convey his messages.”
The other possibility would be for Twitter to boot Trump. The company did not respond to a request for comment, but has said that if Trump were to use his account to harass or threaten individuals, it would ban him. (Facebook, on the other hand, said that its usual terms of service would not apply to such a key government official.) Trump would have to specifically incite violence or harassment, though, a line which he so far has not approached.
Trump’s tweets also currently don’t come close to violating the First Amendment, but they could once he takes office. At that time, he’ll be speaking not as an individual, but with the power of the state behind him. Personal attacks against people take on new urgency when they come from the president. “There’s the question of whether his speech has the effect of silencing people,” says Harvard constitutional law professor Noah Feldman. “If he said something that had the effect of causing people not to speak, then you could potentially argue that his words are having a chilling effect.”
For the foreseeable future, though, Trump will continue to pick fights with individuals on social media. It’s a new paradigm, one that we need new mechanisms to deal with. The way to develop those isn’t to pretend that the issue doesn’t exist.
Maybe a good place to start, then, is to discern the real reason Trump has chosen his Twitter targets. In Boeing’s case, it’s likely because the company is a vocal free-trade proponent. Fair enough. In the case of Chuck Jones, it’s because a local-level union leader countered Trump’s puffed-up job-saving narrative with the truth.
In every case, the reason to follow Trump’s tweets eventually reveals itself: They say more about him than his targets.