Legacy of lies, misinformation, mistrust
After the uprising in the US Capitol, Twitter permanently banned President Donald Trump’s account “because of the risk of further incitement to violence”.
Trump was unable to use his favorite tool for public communication. He left 88 million followers, 16,000 now deleted tweets in office and the legacy of spreading disinformation and distrust on the platform.
A CNBC analysis of Trump’s tweets during his presidency found that his most popular and frequent posts largely spread disinformation and distrust. Many of his most popular tweets were falsehood, while the topic he wrote most about, “false news,” was a weapon used to undermine information.
“Trump’s primary use of Twitter was spreading propaganda and manipulating public opinion,” said Sam Woolley, director of propaganda research at the University of Texas at the Austin Center for Media Engagement. “He used Twitter to delegitimize information or to delegitimize the positions of his opponents.”
Of Trump’s 10 most popular tweets, four contained false claims regarding the 2020 election results. Of his 100 most popular posts, 36 contained election-related falsehoods.
According to the analysis, these 36 posts with voting errors received a total of 22.6 million likes and 3.9 million retweets. A historical log of Trump’s posts from the Trump Twitter archive was used and all retweets from accounts other than @realDonaldTrump were excluded.
“Since the November election, Trump has turned to Twitter as the central platform for spreading disinformation about the elections,” said Woolley.
The House of Representatives is expected to indict Trump for the second time on Wednesday afternoon. The Democratically-run house introduced an impeachment article on Monday citing Trump’s repeated false claims of electoral fraud as evidence that he sparked the Capitol riot.
While the disclosure of falsehoods is a form of misinformation, Trump also practiced a less direct mechanism, according to Woolley: attacks to delegitimize information. This can be seen most clearly in the use of Trump’s favorite phrase “fake news”, which appeared about 900 times in his tweet history.
“Trump uses social media and terms like ‘fake news’ and ‘witch hunt’ and his power there to create the illusion of popularity for ideas that actually have no basis,” said Woolley. “Often this leads to support for wrong or misleading things or, more generally, to attack institutions,” which, in addition to the media, can also include health care, science, education and government.
Most common two-word phrases used in Trump’s tweets as President
1. Fake news
2. United States
3. Witch hunt
4. White House
5. America great
6. Complete confirmation
7. New York
8. News media
9. Great job
10. Great again
The rise in social media disinformation from Trump and others is having a visible impact on US democracy, said Kelly Born, executive director of the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University. She described far-reaching implications, such as declining trust in institutions and more specific, tangible results, such as the crowd of Trump supporters that interrupted a joint congressional session that confirmed Joe Biden’s election victory.
“There is no question that that [social media] Platforms were used in every step of “the insurrection,” Born said, “from increasing tension between these groups to increasing hostility to actual physical organization, with people talking about bringing zip ties and ropes and where and when they should go should go. “
Woolley agreed that last week’s events show the power of Trump’s internet presence outside of social media and explain how the online and offline worlds are connected.
Trump’s Twitter cycle followed a now familiar pattern throughout his presidency: Trump tweeted to millions of followers who spread the messages in his posts, which were then covered in the media and pushed further into the public discourse, which Trump did another opportunity gave comment on his first message.
“There were other Republicans and supporters who discounted his activities and said to have his thing on Twitter, downplay it, or ignore it,” Woolley said. “With what we’ve seen in Washington in the past few days, we can no longer deny that what Trump does and says online has serious offline consequences.”
Trump spoke publicly for the first time since the uprising on Tuesday but took no personal responsibility for the violence. Using similar language to many of his tweets in his comments, he called the impeachment interview “really a continuation of the greatest witch hunt in politics”.
In addition to the way Trump used the tool, Born said part of his Twitter legacy is that his actions eventually forced social media and tech platforms to take action against the nature of the content and behavior that he was promoting. Last week, Google and Facebook suspended or banned Trump from their platforms, Amazon withdrew cloud computing support from the Parler social media app due to violent content on the platform, and Twitter has more than 70,000 accounts related to the platform right-wing extremist QAnon conspiracy theory blocked.
Due to Twitter’s permanent banning of Trump’s account, most of his tweets, embedded in media reports over the years, have disappeared, leaving a hole in the 45th President’s historical record. Private companies are not subject to rules for government agencies to retain documents and communications for legal and historical research.
“These tweets will no longer be available to the public and this is not an institutional government account,” a Twitter spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday via email. “We are reaching out to the White House and the National Archives and Records Administration for retention requirements. We will work with the government to help comply with their archival laws.”
The spokesman also noted that Politwoops retains any deleted tweets.
– CNBC’s Marty Steinberg and Steve Kovach contributed to this story.