Tweets are designed to distract people when they receive bad media coverage, the study suggests.


President Donald Trump tweets more about his perceived strengths when the news media report events that could damage his reputation in order to distract people, a study has suggested.

Researchers found that when certain media reported more about the Mueller investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, the president subsequently tweeted more about unrelated issues. This in turn led to less coverage of the investigation.

The authors of the findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, said this indicated that the President’s tweets could distract the media from issues he finds threatening.

The authors noted that no politician before Trump had used Twitter as he did, and this had given the social media platform a central role in global politics. The study was released the week after the 2020 presidential election, when Twitter marked several tweets from the president as false or misleading after he claimed without foundation that the Democrats were trying to steal the election.

To investigate whether his tweets affect the news agenda and whether this may be a deliberate move by the president and those who may have access to his Twitter account, the team studied the coverage of the Mueller investigation by ABC World News Tonight and The New York Times between Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017, and the end of his second year in office, January 20, 2019. The team chose these as popular and influential news sources close to the political center.

After identifying three issues that the President kept coming back to during the first two years of his presidency – “China,” “Jobs” and “Immigration” – they examined all the tweets from his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account during the period they chose.

The team concluded that in the 731 days Trump investigated, tweets about his favorite topics distracted from and suppressed “uncomfortable media coverage.

Because the researchers had no control over how the data they used was generated, they said it was possible that the results could be biased by unknown variables, but that this was not likely. The authors also acknowledged that their results were focused on two channels and that the patterns mentioned might be different in others. In addition, the data did not prove the President’s intentions as he tweeted, and it is unclear whether he is aware of the impact that his tweets seem to have on the media.

Co-author Stephan Lewandowsky, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol, UK, said in a statement: “Our analysis presents empirical evidence consistent with the theory that whenever the media reports on something that is threatening or politically uncomfortable for President Trump, his presentation increasingly tweets on unrelated topics that represent his political strengths. It has been shown that this systematic diversion of attention away from an issue that could potentially harm him significantly reduces negative media coverage the next day.

Lewandowsky continued: “It is unclear whether President Trump, or whoever is at the top of his Twitter account, is using such tactics intentionally or by pure intuition.

“Either way, we hope that these results will serve as a helpful reminder to the media that they have the power to set the news agenda and focus on the issues that seem most important to them, while perhaps not paying as much attention to the Twitter sphere.

Washington Newsday has asked the White House for a comment.


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