Social media offers you a river of information and updates catered to your tastes and preferences. It’s not unusual to follow people who share your beliefs and political views. But for President Donald Trump, the highly selective list of people that make up his feed yields not just affirmation of his beliefs, but of the man himself.
CNET spent a week following a feed made up of the 46 accounts that Trump follows to get a snapshot of what his worldview looks like through the lens of Twitter. While Trump likely gets his information from a wide variety of sources, from cable news to his White House daily briefings, it’s undeniable that Twitter plays a key role, as evidenced by the roughly 200 tweets and retweets of himself and others he sent out last week.
Trump actually displays many of the same patterns in social media usage that researchers have registered concerns about, mainly through the creation of a nearly air-tight echo chamber that tells him he’s doing a great job and reinforces the issues he already prioritizes.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The effects of such an echo chamber could range from never having beliefs challenged to digging into outright untrue beliefs — posing even more of a problem in an era where misinformation can easily spread without scrutiny on social media. And for someone in a leadership position, all of this can impact the decision making that affects millions of people.
“Leaders are as subject to misinformation as ordinary voters,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies and founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. “If someone is only getting a slanted view of reality, from a particular point of view, they may end up making bad decisions based on that limited information.”
Trump’s preferred method of social media consumption isn’t unique. A January 2020 study from the Pew Research Center found that Republicans have grown “increasingly alienated,” distrusting more established news sources, favoring Fox News and the radio shows of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Another study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America journal, looked at 376 million Facebook users over six years and found that people tend to limit themselves to a smaller number of news sources and prefer information that confirms their views.
And it’s not just your cousin getting more polarized. A 2018 study from Stanford University sampled about 40,000 Twitter users, sorting them by political ideologies from far left to far right, and found that more moderate views on “hot button issues” tend to disappear on social media.
For years now, researchers have been questioning what price society is paying for digital insulation — including the viral spread of misinformation, which often contributes to that polarization.
To watch it play out on Trump’s line of sight on Twitter is a whole other matter.
Trump follows 46 accounts, largely composed of Fox News personalities including Hannity, Jeanine Piro, Laura Ingraham and Geraldo Rivera; Trump’s family members, like children Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr.; the accounts for his various properties; his surrogates and advisers; and finally a small collection of known associates like Mark Burnett (who produced Trump’s reality TV show, The Apprentice); Burnett’s wife, actress Roma Downey; WWE’s Vince McMahon; and golfer Gary Player.
While social media tends to be relatively fast-paced, when you’re only following 46 accounts, the stream of posts is a bit slower. Reviewing what comes into his news feed over the course of about a week, it’s possible to sort everything into a few main categories.
First, there are tweets of affirmation. These tweets, often from his staff and children, tell him that he’s doing a good job. That can take a few forms. Trump Jr., for example, might retweet his father with a “Like it or not he’s right.” Or there’s social media personalities Diamond and Silk tweeting items like, “If you want your Religious Freedoms protected, you better vote Trump!”
There’s also a regular flow of positive quotes and clips from the Trump campaign. Campaign manager Brad Parscale will bolster Trump: “President @RealDonaldTrump is Right! Trump Supporters are STRONGER and SMARTER than the radical Left. The media doesn’t realize it, but YOU are the elite! Not them!”
The actual re-election account also tweets such affirmations as: “President @realDonaldTrump stands for LAW & ORDER!” In another tweet from the campaign account, which also managed to incorporate racist dogwhistling about the coronavirus: “Before the plague from China, America had the strongest economy in our history thanks to the policies of President @realDonaldTrump!”
On plenty of occasions, Trump has ginned up racist ties between coronavirus and China (just days ago, he referred to it as “Kung Flu”). As is the case with that tweet, Trump is bound to see his opinions and talking points reinforced on his timeline. For example, Trump regularly butts heads with CNN reporter Jim Acosta. Diamond and Silk tweeted in June, “Jim Acosta is the worst!”
A retweet of GOP communications adviser Paris Dennard said, “It’s clear the media is still out for Pres. @realDonaldTrump & his team because they know we are making a real impact, doing real engagement & making a difference especially for the Black Community.” Trump Earlier in June Trump said he’s done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln.
There are also talking points that tend to bubble up more closely tied to news events. As Trump has criticized the protest zone in Seattle (recently threatening with “serious force,” a tweet Twitter actually hid for violating rules about abusive behavior), he’s also seeing tweets from Hannity with links to Hannity’s website and headlines like “SEATTLE SPIRALS: Mayor Calls ‘Autonomous Zone’ Anarchists ‘Patriots’ Who ‘Want a Better World,” along with photos of fire and general chaos.
Another theme cropping up, echoed by several in his timeline is the length of time it’s been since presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has given a press conference, coupled with the unsubstantiated idea that Biden is suffering a mental decline. Trump Jr., for example, compared Biden’s campaign to the 1989 movie Weekend at Bernie’s. This closely mirrors Trumps recurring baseless jabs at Biden’s mental health.
By and large, to watch Trump’s Twitter timeline is to see a version of the US that’s almost entirely framed through the lense of Trumpian, fringe right-wing politics. There’s outrage over the removal of Confederate monuments, the scrapping of racist cultural staples like the Aunt Jemima brand, the unshakable narrative of political persecution by the Democrats and by the media, and a political campaign that started in 2015 and never ended.
There are, however, a few wildcards that appear in Trump’s timeline. Whether thanks to retweets from people he follows (presuming Trump hasn’t disabled retweets) or whatever else, there are glimmers of the outside world or even just non-talking points that creep into his Twitter world. Maria Bartiromo, tweeted a link to a video from Fox Business about how the drug hydroxychloroquine (which Trump has repeatedly offered as a defense against the coronavirus and even said he takes himself) has no effect on the disease in clinical trials.
Fox New host Greta Van Susteren retweets a wider variety of news sources ranging from USA Today, CNN, Forbes, CBS News, ABC News, etc) than possibly anyone else Trump follows. She tweets articles that aren’t always political — a science story about a black hole; Germany banning plastic straws and single use plastics; Chuck E. Cheese filing for bankruptcy; the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar — and more than a few vegan-related items, as well. This stands in contrast to most of the types of sites and stories Trump usually sees, coming from sources like Breitbart, Washington Examiner and Hannity.com.
Presidents on Twitter
When it comes to how any given president uses Twitter, there’s not a lot of precedent for comparison, seeing as how the social network only dates back to 2006.
Former President Barack Obama used his personal handle @BarackObama and occasionally the White House’s Twitter account as there wasn’t an official @POTUS handle until 2015. Even from the early days, though, Obama’s account followed several thousand (and later several hundred thousand) accounts.
Obama’s archived presidential account (@POTUS44) shows he followed 76 accounts including Chicago sports teams, various cabinet members and government agencies and departments like NASA and National Parks Service. A 2015 article from Politico confirms more or less that same mix of accounts back in 2015.
Since taking office in 2017, Trump has primarily stuck to using his personal account. It’s impossible to know exactly how he uses it, but based on the frequency of tweets, it stands to reason he’s logged on quite a bit.
None of this is to say Twitter is the only source of information Trump takes in — ostensibly, he gets briefings, and based on what he references in tweets, watches a good bit of programming on Fox.
In some ways, it’s always been true that people gravitate toward the information they agree with and seek out others who are similarly minded, creating their own bubbles.
But as West from the Brookings Institution pointed out, social media echo chambers are more extreme than they’ve ever been.
In between those other sources and likely in those little free moments anyone uses to pull up a social media and scan through, Trump can check into this iteration of the world that looks just the way he wants it.