In 2011, Donald Trump began tweeting. Embodying the pugnacious persona he’d developed on The Apprentice, Trump used Twitter to pick fights. He picked fights with comedian Rosie O’Donnell. He launched diatribes against China and Iran. He subscribed to conspiracy theories about global warming and President Obama’s birth certificate. His tweets were designed to go viral, be controversial, garner attention and attract media coverage. It worked.
The strategy continued after announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination. He picked fights with Democrats. He picked fights with Republicans. He continued to attack President Obama. Once he secured the nomination, he picked fights with journalists. He picked fights with Hillary Clinton. All the while, he amassed an inordinate amount of media coverage, dwarfing every other Republican candidate and Secretary Clinton by wide margins. By the time of 2016 Presidential election, Trump had earned nearly $5 billion of ad-equivalent coverage, while Clinton had earned slightly more than $3 billion. Being controversial and argumentative on Twitter helped him win the media battle and the Presidency.
Trump’s tabloid career in the 1990s and his reality TV career in the 2000s taught him valuable lessons on how to manipulate media coverage in order to consolidate power:
- If news coverage disproportionally focuses on wealthy individuals; and,
- news coverage disproportionally focuses on controversy; then,
- wealthy individuals embroiled in controversy will receive greater amounts of news coverage; and, in return
- greater amounts of news coverage will garner that individual more notoriety and influence.
The interplay between media and power is much more complex than this simple formula. Thousands of scholarly articles have interrogated these questions, several of which I cite in my book. Yet, as I realized while researching my book—and as Trump realized in his path to the Presidency and Elon realized in his takeover of Twitter—there is one strategy on Twitter that seems to generate continual results: pick fights. Viewed in this light, Elon Musk’s path to fighting with—and taking over—Twitter, seem more calculated and less random than perhaps they originally appeared.
Musk picked fights with Twitter itself. He criticized the company’s lack of profits, lack of features, and general lack of product evolution. He attacked Twitter’s inconsistencies in content moderation. These combative stances amassed him followers, media coverage, and positioned him in public opinion to be Twitter’s savior—very similar to how Trump manipulated social media and journalists to position himself as the person to “Make America Great Again.”
Once he bought Twitter, Musk continued to pick fights. He’s criticized Twitter’s own employees; mocked the Biden Administration’s new disinformation governance board and Declaration for the Future of the Internet; and poked fun at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. All the while, he amassed more followers and media coverage, not just for Twitter but also for Tesla and SpaceX. Being one of the richest individuals in the world, coupled with one of the loudest megaphones in the world, Musk is now positioned as one of the most powerful people in the world. What he will do with that power is unknown.
Why does picking fights work so well on Twitter—far better than it does on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or other platforms? I detail the answer in chapter five of my book, but I will offer a brief breakdown here:
(Side note: If you still haven’t read my book, you really should. It’s relevant to so many major issues our world is facing, and it’ll help you understand what’s going on in ways you won’t get anywhere else. I’m biased, of course. But, literally, something comes up each week that directly relates to my book. Please read it!)
Twitter operates under a kind of “media logic,” a term that dates to the 1970s. Essentially, the concept of “media logic” suggests that certain conventions will be used repeatedly by the news media in order to frame events in ways that capture attention and satisfy consumers. “Media logic” also argues that sporting events, cultural events, political events and public ceremonies must adapt to such logic in order to influence public affairs.
One of those conventions is to focus on the unusual, the unexpected and that which deviates from the norm. Dog bites man is not news; however, man bites dog is. Another convention is to focus on the controversial. To quote long-time Washington Post journalist David Broder, “reporters are instinctively fight promoters.” News producers assume that controversy captures attention and satisfies consumer appetites—and today, those assumptions are increasingly confirmed by metrics that tell editors which controversial stories are generating likes, clicks, views and shares.
Since its early days, journalists have had an outsized presence on Twitter. At various points in time, 83% of journalists used Twitter and journalists represented 25% of Twitter’s verified users. As a social network predicated on status since its inception, occupations for whom status is critically important—journalists, politicians, venture capitalists, and academics—have invested far more time in Twitter than other platforms where societal status is less of a central factor (e.g., Reddit or Twitch). Twitter has also continued to privilege text and words more than visual or video-based platforms such as Instagram or YouTube. And Twitter was thrust into prominence at SxSW in 2007 and by President Obama’s campaign in 2008—two events that drew large numbers of journalists to the platform.
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As a result of being a platform predicated on status, privileging text, and being heavily populated by journalists, I argue in my book that Twitter has evolved to operate along a kind of “media logic.” That logic equates being a compelling news story with who or what gets to be considered publicly valued. Trump made himself into a compelling news story by deviating from the norm and being controversial. Elon has done similarly. Journalists have, too: a New York Jets reporter I follow, Connor Hughes, engages in combative banter with fans on Twitter in ways that have massively grown his following and raised his profile from a local newspaper reporter to a national reporter with The Athletic. Taylor Lorenz is a master of stirring up controversy online in ways that have netted her a lucrative book deal and coveted reporting jobs. Even historians have learned this trick; I chronicled in my book how Princeton historian Kevin Kruse became a celebrity in 2017 and 2018 by getting into Twitter spats with Dinesh D’Souza and Charlie Kirk. It wasn’t that Dr. Kruse articulated anything different than thousands of other historians of American history. It was that he did so by dunking and dissing on Conservative pundits in a manner that caught the eyes of journalists looking for stories, adhering to media logic and becoming a media darling. Indeed, when he was profiled in the news, he was labeled as history’s “attack dog.”
(One of the arguments I make in my book is that as history has become embedded within the politics of Twitter, media logic has also come to shape what the public expects history to be. In other words, the history on Twitter that was deemed publicly valuable shared the characteristics of what made for a compelling news story: novel, discrepant, emotional, episodic and with a conflict at its core.)
According to Elon, he does not purposefully seek out fights, though he admits that he does not shy away from them. Yet, as with everything we see on social media, we should ask ourselves what agendas are at work behind the scenes. A glimpse into the recent past tells us there is more afoot than what we see on the surface.
Musk is a keen observer of the political and social media landscape. He knows that generating controversy in ways that induce journalists into media coverage helps his bottom line. He may not have his eyes on The White House, but he most certainly has his eyes on something (President of Mars, perhaps?). More importantly, we as social media users have a responsibility to be savvy social media consumers—and journalists have a responsibility to be savvy reporters—using our media literacy skills to recognize when an influential figure is manipulating the ecosystem in order to advance an agenda. We need only to look at recent history to see how simply this can be done—and how easily we can all be goaded into taking the bait.
P.S. – I’m not only person to see a connection between Musk and Trump.👇
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Musk and Trump are aligned politically or share the same worldview. Rather, by recognizing patterns in their behaviors and the similarities in how the media ecosystem has responded, we can learn important lessons on how platforms privilege certain actors and particular types of information, and what the real-world consequences are. Picking fights on Twitter is not solely about winning arguments; it’s also an extremely effective strategy for self-promotion, garnering media attention, and consolidating power.
Will the Library of Congress continue to archive tweets?
An under-reported question surrounding Elon’s Twitter purchase has been whether he will allow the Library of Congress to continue to preserve it.
Three years later, the Library announced that while it had successfully imported approximately 170 billion tweets from 2006 to 2010, it had yet to figure out how to make them available to researchers in a meaningful or systematic way. By the end of 2017, the Library still had not made those tweets available (save a handful of very specific exceptions) and the complexity of Twitter had grown due to the increases in photographs, videos, gifs, memes, deleted tweets, removed accounts, and Twitter threads. The Library shifted to only collecting the text of tweets and to acquiring tweets selectively.
Twelve years since the initial announcement the Twitter archive is still largely inaccessible and the company is under new ownership. What will the Library and Twitter decide to do? The gift agreement gives the parties an option to agree upon different terms. I’ve not seen any public comment from Elon or the Librarian of Congress (though I do have friends on the inside I can ask 😊).
Will Twitter API’s continue to be available?
Even amidst the challenges at the Library of Congress, Twitter enabled scholars and researchers to access Twitter data through application programming interfaces, or API’s. Scholars around the world set up Twitter researcher accounts—including yours truly—enabling us to download Twitter data and analyze it. That data proved critical to understanding election outcomes, political discourse, public health information, and protest movements. Will Elon allow continued research access? Musk seems like a person motivated by discovery and freedom of information, so one hopes the answer will be “yes.”
Have a learned and media-literate week.
Crossposted from the History Club.