New study examines how Trump used Twitter to craft an alternate reality for his followers

The study focused on Trump’s use of Twitter and how it was used to create a reality that didn’t rely on empirical evidence. But it went beyond that, looking at how Trump used the platform as a storyteller to launch his rise to the highest office in the land. — AFP

CLEVELAND, Ohio: Russia never meddled. Coronavirus is a hoax. The sound from windmills causes cancer. The election was stolen.

All of the above are lies uttered by Republican President Donald Trump. All of them provably so. Yet most people in the United States know somebody – maybe a friend or acquaintance – who believes the narrative Trump pushed over the past five years.

At one point or another, the question of how people buy into these lies so easily may have come up. After all, the evidence is readily available and far from secret. So how did Trump construct this alternate reality that’s drawn millions of Americans into its orbit?

A new study titled “The Art of the Spiel: Analyzing Donald Trump’s Tweets As Gonzo Storytelling” aims to explain, at least in part, how that alternate reality was crafted using social media during the time leading up to Trump’s election. The study, which has been accepted for publication in Symbolic Interaction, a peer-reviewed journal, was co-authored by Baldwin Wallace University sociology and criminal justice professor Brian Monahan and R.J. Maratea, visiting professor of sociology, criminal justice and criminology at George Washington University.

The study focused on Trump’s use of Twitter and how it was used to create a reality that didn’t rely on empirical evidence. But it went beyond that, looking at how Trump used the platform as a storyteller to launch his rise to the highest office in the land.

The study analysed all of Trump’s tweets available on the Trump Twitter Archive – a database of Trump’s tweets – from June 16, 2015, the day he announced his candidacy, to July 22, 2016, the day after he secured the nomination at the Republican National Convention. They only studied tweets that included commentary from Trump, filtering out those that were only inactive weblinks or retweets from a news source or follower.

The final sample size was 3,876 of Trump’s tweets.

The numbers alone showed just how much Trump relied on Twitter for communication, with about 276 tweets per month. The most active 10% of users on Twitter, which account for 80% of the total content, had a median of 138 tweets per month.

Monahan and Maratea posit that Trump – whether intentionally or not – used “gonzo” storytelling to this end. Gonzo is a type of first-person storytelling, most commonly associated with Hunter S. Thompson, that makes the storyteller a part of the story with no claims or goals of objectivity.

Monahan said they wanted to look at Trump’s preferred communication method – Twitter – with more complexity instead of simply viewing them as individual tweets.

“Like so many, we saw how Twitter became such a prominent part of his voice,” Monahan said. “When you look back, this is a political novice with no experience in politics, no agenda you can draw from to see where things have been to get a glean for where they’re going. Twitter really took an outsized role. As we were watching, we started to notice, ‘Maybe there’s more than just random rants or outrage.’ A lot of people were focusing on the all-caps or the seemingly disconnected elements of it.”

Monahan and Maratea used a method called ethnographic content analysis to look for patterns and meanings not only in the text of the tweets, but in how the audience might interpret them.

“When you’re talking about patterns and meanings, there’s what was intended to be said and what it might mean at large,” Monahan said.

The tweets were then separated into rhetorical frameworks outlining how Trump created his false reality that propelled him to political success and amassed supporters who take his word as dogma.

“Our analysis of thousands of Trump’s tweets indicates that much of Trump’s communications are in service of a story he is crafting that is primarily about himself, and it is littered with grievances (many of which share broad themes with the grievances of his supporters), self-praise, and an unrelenting litany of constructed threats and dangers,” Monahan and Maratea wrote in the study.

“With this, we suggest that the prominence of his adherents’ ‘deep stories’ in his self-serving mediated storytelling serves as fodder for the larger spiel that he is unfurling, one that depicts a world needlessly imperiled by all sorts of nefarious others whose ill intent, incompetence, and intractable weaknesses can no longer go unchallenged. In this constructed world, Trump is self-appointed as a savior figure, the only one with the temerity to call attention to all that is wrong as well as the fortitude, intellect, and skill to put things right.”

In Trump’s storytelling approach, he is not telling his story, but that of his supporters. This despite having little in common with them as a wealthy New York real estate developer and television personality.


Trump’s tweets were littered with exaggerated or crafted threats that stretch back to the opening days of his campaign. Immigration, terrorism and crime were among the most frequent threats cited by Trump, but could also include things as simple as polling procedures or political correctness.

“You construct a threat and you identify some other that is responsible for it,” Monahan said. “I think a point to make with that is no, what we would call, empirical evidence supports any of these threats.”

To build up these threats, Trump latched on to anecdotal evidence as proof. He opined that drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s escape from a Mexican prison or the death of Kate Steinle, who was accidentally shot by an undocumented migrant that Trump billed as a murder, was proof of the dangers of Mexican immigration.

“The story builds on falsehoods and exaggerations,” Monahan said. “It becomes foundational to the more exaggerated statement and the policies and positions can flow from it.”

Perceived failings

After building the threat, Trump then presented the perceived failings of those in charge as further evidence his followers should place trust in him.

“When Trump tweeted repeatedly about the death of Kate Steinle, he was not just crafting a fear-laden tale of the imminent threats posed by illegal immigration, he was also assigning culpability to the Obama Administration and other political opponents for failing to protect the border, being weak on crime, and generally being ‘all talk and no action,’” Monahan and Maratea said in the study.

“By routinely interlocking danger claims with notions of endemic political weakness, Trump is able to rhetorically bind cited dangers and the institution of politics as core parts of the problems that need to be solved, thus creating a context in which the storyteller’s own proffered solutions can be positioned as necessary moral imperatives, to be enacted without equivocation.”

Substitute approaches

Monahan and Maratea said the threats, once accepted, allowed his supporters to accept Trump’s proposed punitive measures as the only way to counteract the threat.

Monahan and Maratea noted that the solutions Trump provided were often very simplistic – building a wall along the border, for instance – despite the inherent root problems being very complex.

“This may be in part a function of the limited character count inherent to Twitter communications, but surely such evidence could be provided through links to relevant research findings, government reports, or policy papers,” they said in the study. “More than anything, the absence of supportive data in the tweets underscores just how superfluous empirical evidence is within the scaffolding of gonzo storytelling.”


Monahan and Maratea said the policy proposals in Trump’s tweets were less about the policies themselves and more about inserting himself into the supposed solution.

“The substitute approaches advocated by Trump tend to place him in the foreground, with ideas lauded not because they have support in empirical evidence or policymaking practices, but because they are his ideas and rely on his self-proclaimed singular skills and toughness,” they said in the study. “Thus, it should come as no surprise that Trump’s tweets feature a patterned collection of self-praising talk, which we coded as self-adulation.”

Trump is no stranger to self-adulation, but Monahan and Maratea noted that the tweets that fit the self-adulation framework were less about the “I alone can fix it” narrative he pushed and more about self-congratulatory statements, such as describing himself as the healthiest candidate ever, touting his ability to make deals or even bragging about his ability on the golf course.

These positioned Trump as an authority on all matters, whether he had any expertise in the field or not, lending credibility to his adherents.

“As we see it, tweets reflecting the self-adulation frame are more focused on building up the storyteller than the story,” they said in the study. “In other words, they are all about self-praise.”

Popular appeal

Without any evidence to rely on for the threats or his proposed solutions, Trump relied on amplifying praise he received from others. This included popular figures in politics, entertainment and the media – the study notes tweets about Fox News personalities Piers Morgan and Chris Wallace as examples – and even traditional methods such as polling, lending legitimacy to Trump’s crafted narrative, making it easier for others to believe that it was, in fact, the truth, Monahan and Maratea said.

“The importance of so frequently injecting positive punditry into his Twitter narrative may lie in the fact that such testimonials provide external reinforcement for the very things he is also routinely promoting via self-praise,” they said in the study. “Moreover, as the media coverage of Trump grew more negative during the campaign, the curated collection of public affirmation from well-known others helped to bolster the idea that Trump was leading a movement with an ever-growing groundswell of support.”


Trump’s Twitter and often outlandish claims were a significant focus of criticism and scorn, lending itself to the final framework identified by Monahan and Maratea: delegitimisation.

“Delegitimisation, the sixth and final frame in this analysis, adopts a different, more indirect, means of promoting the viability of both the narrative and its author,” they said in the study. “Delegitimisation is a discounting tactic intended to invalidate critical viewpoints by calling into question the legitimacy of those who author or spread such viewpoints.”

Trump used this framework in multiple ways. The tweets Monahan and Maratea studied actually came before the widespread use of “fake news” but attacking critical media stories was common. Anyone who attacked Trump was labelled dumb, dopey or any other epithet while others, like his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, were bestowed with monikers like “Crooked Hillary”.

But Monahan and Maratea said it didn’t stop at simply his political opponents. After Trump called Mexican immigrants “druggies, drug dealers, rapists and killers”, Macy’s pulled all Trump brand merchandise from their stores.

Trump targeted the retailer in his tweets for what he perceived as their own misgivings. The act became reliant on whataboutisms and condemning the condemners, essentially distracting from his own controversies by saying his critics were no better. This helped solidify Trump’s status as a reliable narrator to his followers.

“Once again, we can see the narrative’s core frames interwoven in support of one another in Trump’s tweets,” Monahan and Maratea said in the study. “For instance, the very fact that Trump is so willing to violate longstanding norms of political discourse with the use of derogatory nicknames and personal insults accentuates his ‘outsider’ status.”

How an alternate reality becomes real

Trump did not operate in a vacuum, and his tweets alone likely weren’t enough to solidify his elevation from storyteller to arbiter of the truth as he and his followers saw fit.

The news media reported relentlessly on Trump’s 2016 campaign, down to almost every minute detail. Being featured in mainstream media sources at all helped legitimise Trump’s story, especially when some stories focused on breaking news alerts repeating what Trump said instead of examining what he said more critically.

The cycle of Trump tweeting and the press reporting made the claims real enough for some to believe Trump’s alternate reality, even when provided with evidence to the contrary, Maratea said.

“Whether you call it cognitive dissonance or whatever, the more coverage he got, the more ardent his support became amongst the true believers, which we now see there are a lot of,” he said. “When an act was pointed out, it just became more evidence that the gonzo leader was being attacked.”

The future of gonzo politics

While Monahan and Maratea’s study did not cover any of Trump’s recent tweets, they both felt it was applicable to the months since Trump lost the election to Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump routinely said he had won the election, a demonstrable lie, and that there was widespread voter fraud, another claim for which there is no evidence.

“Politics may be built on lies but those lies have to at least construct a reality that people think is truthful,” Maratea said. “There are at least 74 million people in this country that believe that truth exists in what he says. There’s a real divergence in how people perceive reality.”

In interviews, Monahan and Maratea said it was important to note that the study didn’t focus on Trump to be solely critical of Trump, or even Republicans as a whole.

“The politicians who have really dove head-first into Trumpism seem to be the ones that are attempting to co-opt the Trump way. Right now, that seems to be politicians on the right,” Maratea said. “But it’s important to remember this is not something – and we didn’t mean this article to be – a statement on politicians on the right because it can happen on both sides.”

Already, Maratea said politicians such as Rep. Jim Jordan, a Champaign County Republican, were attempting to emulate Trump’s methods, whether intentionally or not.

“When you see politicians doing this on both sides, it doesn’t necessarily reflect a belief structure,” Maratea said. “These things that Jim Jordan is yelling or saying about aren’t necessarily things he believes. This is about power. How can I get on powerful committees, go from Congress to Senate, become president.”

Monahan and Maratea said they didn’t know what effect Trump’s recent banishment from Twitter would have on his status as a political storyteller, though both agreed his strategy wasn’t going away any time soon.

They said they hoped the study would provide a framework for anyone – academics, journalists or the public – to become more aware of how to spot the markers for politicians using social media to build political worlds not based on facts.

“How many years have we been laughing at his statements?” Monahan said. “By themselves, they’re laughable to many. With this framework, looking at one another, we can see new dynamics in structure and content. One of the questions going forward for social scientists is why is this working?” – The Plain Dealer, Cleveland/Tribune News Service

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