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Donald Trump Uses Twitter To Divert Attention Away From Damaging Stories, New Study Finds

Damir Mujezinovic - Author
By

Nov. 10 2020, Updated 1:54 p.m. ET

A new study published Tuesday in Nature Communications established that President Donald Trump has used Twitter to divert attention away from stories that were potentially harmful to his presidency.

Prior research has shown that journalists rely on Twitter to generate stories. When he launched his first presidential campaign in 2016, Trump successfully used the microblogging platform to his advantage — his Twitter posts received three times as much attention as the messages posted by his then-opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, per the research.

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For example, in 2016, when news broke that Trump had to pay a $25 million settlement over lawsuits involving his controversial university, he focused his tweets on criticizing the cast of the Broadway play Hamilton for calling for a “diverse America.” According to data from Google Trends, the public showed greater interest in the situation with Hamilton than the university controversies.

To prove their hypothesis, authors Stephan Lewandowsky, Michael Jetter and Ullrich K. H. Ecker analyzed Trump’s attempts to divert attention away from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and related matters. To measure how successful Trump’s attempts were, the researchers looked into his tweets and reporting from The New York Times and ABC News.

Assuming that Trump would try to shift the public focus away from Mueller’s investigation to his preferred topics, Lewandowsky, Jetter and Ecker scanned his Twitter messages for keywords such as “China,” “immigration,” and “jobs.” A pattern quickly emerged. The analyses found that both The New York Times and ABC News published stories with headlines relating to keywords in Trump’s Twitter posts.

The researchers conducted a parallel analysis using Brexit — the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union — as a placebo topic. Unlike the Mueller inquiry, Brexit was not potentially damaging to Trump, so he had no reason to engage in diversion tactics.

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“Our data thus provide empirical support for anecdotal reports suggesting that the president may be employing diversion to escape scrutiny,” they wrote.

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“Our analysis presents empirical evidence that is consistent with the hypothesis that President Trump’s use of social media leads to systematic diversion, which in turn may suppress media coverage that is potentially harmful to him.”

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“Our findings have implications for journalistic practice,” Lewandowsky, Jetter and Ecker added.

“How journalistic practice can be adapted to escape those diversions is one of the defining challenges to the media for the twenty-first century,” they concluded.

Trump’s use of Twitter has given scientists a window into his behavior. A recent study by Columbia University published in the journal Economics Letters analyzed his tweets and established that he may be suffering from sleep deprivation, which impacted his performance in office.

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