The age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the politics of
Brian L. Ott
Department of Communication Studies, College of Media & Communication, Texas Tech University,
This essay explores the changing character of public discourse in the
Age of Twitter. Adopting the perspective of media ecology, the
essay highlights how Twitter privileges discourse that is simple,
impulsive, and uncivil. This effect is demonstrated through a case
study of Donald J. Trump’s Twitter feed. The essay concludes with
a brief reflection on the end times: a post-truth, post-news,
President Trump, Twitter-world.
Twitter; Donald J. Trump;
narcissism; hate speech;
In his New York Times best-selling book, Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in
the age of show business (1985), influential cultural critic and media ecologist Neil
Postman argued that the medium of television substantially undermined the quality of
public discourse in America. The first time I read Postman’s book I remember thinking
that it was reductionistic and perhaps even a little naïve. He seemed, after all, to be con-
demning an entire medium of communication on the basis that it promoted a different
way of processing information than print-based media. But Postman’s argument was con-
siderably more nuanced than I originally gave him credit for. He was, after all, not denoun-
cing all television. On the contrary, Postman was quite clear that he had no objection to
“television’s junk,”noting that, “The best things on television are its junk, and no one and
nothing is seriously threatened by it”(p. 16). What did concern Postman was when tele-
vision aspired to be more than junk, when it presented “itself as a carrier of important cul-
tural conversations,”when political, religious, and educational discourse was filtered
In the more than 30 years since the publication of the first edition of Amusing ourselves
to death,I’ve become increasingly sympathetic to Postman’s argument as well as alarmed
about what has transpired since then. My change of heart is fueled in large measure by the
fact that I, like Postman, have witnessed and lived through a paradigmatic social change, a
fundamental shift in the dominant mode of communication. Just as the Age of Typogra-
phy gave way to the Age of Television, the Age of Television is steadily giving way to the
Age of Twitter.
As with all communication revolutions, the rise of Twitter, along with
other social media, does not signal the disappearance of older media like television. Emer-
ging media do, however, typically transform existing media. So, while Twitter had a
“largely symbiotic relationship with television …particularly as a cross-promotion
platform”(Brouder & Brookey, 2015, p. 46) in its early years, it has begun to transform
our televisual landscape and, consequently, the character of our public discourse.
CONTACT Brian L. Ott email@example.com Department of Communication Studies, College of Media & Communi-
cation, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, USA
© 2016 National Communication Association
CRITICAL STUDIES IN MEDIA COMMUNICATION 59
Whereas television produced public discourse that was silly, ridiculous, and impotent,
Twitter promotes public discourse that is simple, impetuous, and frequently denigrating
and dehumanizing (“Scientists warn,”2009).
I’m not suggesting, of course, that all content on Twitter is equally harmful. Much of the
Twittersphere is relatively innocuous; its content is so trite, vacuous, and insignificant as to
be of little consequence, or at least of little consequence beyond providing an outlet for
narcissists to post “messages relating to themselves or their thoughts”(Stieglitz &
Dang-Xuan, 2013, p. 220). One study suggests that about 80% of the activity on Twitter
falls in this category (Naaman, Boase, & Lai, 2010). The danger arises from the other
20% when issues of social, cultural, and political import are filtered through the lens of
Twitter, for Twitter infects public discourse like a social cancer. It destroys dialog and
deliberation, fosters farce and fanaticism, and contributes to callousness and contempt.
In what follows, I make a provisional case for this claim by, first, examining the platform
of Twitter from the perspective of media ecology and, second, reflecting upon the Twitter
practices of President-Elect Donald J. Trump.
1. The logic of Twitter
Media ecology or “medium theory”is a perspective that suggests every communication
technology (i.e. medium) has key physical, psychological, and social features that are
relatively distinct and fixed, and that these features shape how users of that medium
process information and make sense of the world (Meyrowitz, 1994). Basically, every
communication medium trains our consciousness in particular ways. I argue that
Twitterultimatelytrainsustodevalueothers, thereby, cultivating mean and malicious
discourse. To understand how it does this, I examine Twitter’s defining features. Much
like Facebook’s“status updates,”Twitterisamicrobloggingplatform,“aformofblog-
ging in which entries typically consist of short content such as phrases, quick com-
ments, images, or links to videos”(Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan, 2013, p. 219). In the case
of Twitter, users send and receive “Tweets,”messages consisting of no more than
140 characters. Since its launch in March 2006, Twitter has grown rapidly in popular-
ity, and by 2014, it had more than 500 million users who were generating over 400
million tweets a day (Zubiaga, Spina, Martínez, & Fresno, 2015, p. 462). As a mode
of communication, Twitter is defined by three key features: simplicity, impulsivity,
1.1. Twitter demands simplicity
Because of its character limitation, Twitter structurally disallows the communication of
detailed and sophisticated messages. To be clear, a Tweet may be clever or witty, but it
cannot be complex. On election night, for instance, Jason Sweeny tweeted, “I can’t
imagine how stressed Americans are feeling right now. I’m Canadian and I’m chugging
maple syrup and just punched a moose”(November 8, 2016). While this Tweet humor-
ously captures the anxiety (and anger and sheer terror) that many felt on election
night, it does not and cannot explain, analyze, or assess those feelings. In Amusing our-
selves to death, Postman highlights smoke signals as an example of a communication tech-
nology whose form excludes complex content such as philosophical argument. “Puffs of
smoke,”he writes, “are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence,
and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blan-
kets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy”
(p. 7). With respect to its capacity to convey complex ideas and concepts, Twitter is the
modern day equivalent of smoke signals, which explains why one can philosophize
about Twitter but not on Twitter.
Perhaps the best evidence that Twitter is structurally ill equipped to handle
complex content is the common practice of linking. Twitter users often post links
to videos, news articles, government reports, and research studies because the
ideas contained in those messages are too complex to be tweeted. When clever
and even smart ideas are expressed on Twitter, the form demands that they are
greatly simplified; and the repeated production and consumption of simple mess-
ages, which endlessly redirect our attention elsewhere via hyperlinks, reshapes
human cognition in ways that nurture simple-mindedness and promote short atten-
tion-spans. Indeed, the culture of the internet in general tends to promote “‘shallow’
information processing behaviors characterized by rapid attention shifting and
reduced deliberations”(Loh & Kanai, 2015). Just as the invention and spread of
writing gave rise to the literate mind, the development and growth of social media
has ushered in the distracted mind (Carr, 2010). By demanding simplicity, Twitter
undermines our capacity to discuss and, subsequently, to think about issues and
events in more complex ways (Kapko, 2016).
1.2. Twitter promotes impulsivity
While Twitter is similar to smoke signals in terms of message complexity, it is utterly dis-
similar in terms of effort. When one decides to send a smoke signal, they must go to con-
siderable effort (i.e. gathering wood, building a fire, and going to a location where the
smoke can be seen at a great distance). If one chooses to go to all that effort, presumably
she or he has something important to communicate and, in fact, smoke signals have his-
torically been used as a means of signaling impending danger. Tweeting, by contrast,
requires almost no effort at all. It is ridiculously easy. Thanks to wireless technology,
one can tweet from virtually anywhere at any time. Since tweeting requires little effort,
it requires little forethought, reflection, or consideration of consequences. Tweeting is,
in short, a highly impulsive activity, something that one can do easily even if one has
nothing considered or important to say. Tweets are often sparked by an affective
charge, a charge that they transfer through the social network since “emotionally
charged Twitter messages tend to be retweeted more often and more quickly compared
to neutral ones”(Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan, 2013, p. 217).
Repeated use of Twitter trains users to speak impetuously, which may partially account
for why visiting New York University professor Geoffrey Miller tweeted: “Dear obese PhD
applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the will-
power to do a dissertation #truth”(June 2, 2013), or why public relations executive Justine
Stacco tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m white!”
(December 13, 2013), or why Minnesota State Representative Pat Garofalo tweeted:
“Let’s be honest, 70% of teams in NBA could fold tomorrow + nobody would notice a
difference w/ possible exception of increase in streetcrime”(March 9, 2014). A professor,
CRITICAL STUDIES IN MEDIA COMMUNICATION 61
a PR executive, and an elected official should know better than to engage in fat-shaming
and racism, and judging from their public apologies, they probably do. That they tweeted
these comments despite knowing better suggests just how much Twitter’s form inhibits
1.3. Twitter fosters incivility
Uncivil communication refers to speech that is impolite, insulting, or otherwise
offensive. Two dimensions of Twitter, in particular, encourage uncivil discourse.
First, Twitter is decidedly informal. Itslackofconcernwithpropergrammarand
style undermines norms that tend to enforce civility. The act of writing “Dear So-
and-So”at the start of a formal letter, for instance, lessens the likelihood that
demeaning communication will follow. Second, Twitter “depersonalizes inter-
actions,”creating a context in which “people do not consider how their interactions
will affect others”(Tait, 2016). It is much easier to say something nasty about
someone when they are not physically present. Take, for example, rapper Azealia
Banks’racist and homophobic Tweets about former One Direction singer Zayn
Malik. Had Malik been present, it’s hard to imagine that Banks would have said,
“dude, I make better music than you. Simmer down with that fake white boy rebel-
lion and that wannabe Bieber swag. Lol u a bitch nigga for even responding like that”
or “Imma start calling you punjab you dirty bitch. You a dick rider for real. Ride this
dick until the wheels fall off Punjab.”Twitter’s lack of formality and intimacy under-
mines the social norms that uphold civility and predisposes users to engage in both
divisive and derisive communication.
The features that define Twitter are not equally appealing to everyone. Recent research
indicates, for instance, “links between Dark Triad constructs and Twitter usage”(Sumner,
Byers, Boochever, & Park, 2012, p. 386). In other words, the personality traits of narcis-
sism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—commonly referred to as the Dark Triad—
are positively related to Twitter usage. Since the messages on Twitter are neither
complex nor considered, heavy Twitter users are not motivated by the fact that they
have something significant to say. They rarely do. What tends to motivate them is self-
interest and self-promotion. Above all, heavy Twitter users appear to have a desperate,
even compulsive, need for attention, and to ensure that they get that attention, “they
tend to post more emotionally charged tweets”(Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan, 2013, p. 241).
While emotion can vary from positive to negative, heavy Twitter users favor negativity
and aggressiveness, which is not surprising since “negative sentiment”is the key to popu-
larity on Twitter (Thelwall, Buckley, & Paltoglou, 2011, p. 415). All of this means that
Twitter breeds dark, degrading, and dehumanizing discourse; it breeds vitriol and vio-
lence; in short, it breeds Donald Trump.
2. Assessing @realDonaldTrump
What FDR was to radio and JFK to television, Trump is to Twitter. (Gabler, 2016)
On November 10, 2012, Donald Trump tweeted, “Thanks- many are saying I’m the
best 140 character writer in the world.”As a number of Twitter users were quick to
point out, it was not clear that anyone had ever said that. Jim Spellman tweeted,
“FYI ‘Many’is twitter slang for ‘No one’@realDonaldTrump,”while Leslie Abravanel
responded, “when he says ‘many’, he means the voices in his overinflated, inexplicably
coiffed head, right?”But Jon Sosis was the most incredulous, tweeting, “@realDonald-
Trump You’re not even the best 140 character writer in your car right now. Shut
your trap you waste of life.”As doubtful as it is that anyone other than Donald
Trump (with the possible exception of “John Miller”) has declared Donald Trump
“the best 140-character writer in the world,”I’m quite comfortable granting him this
“honor,”for as Virginia Heffernan notes, “Trump …makes himself heard in fragments,
monosyllables and exclamation points, a proud male hysteric with the deafening stac-
cato and hair-trigger immune system that Twitter exists to host”(Heffernan, 2016). Per-
sonally, I’m willing to go even further and say that Trump’s natural style of speaking
and Twitter’s underlying logic are wholly homologous.
As anecdotal evidence of this homology, consider that in March 2016, Massachu-
setts Institute of Technology scientist Brad Hayes programed a Twitterbot to mimic
the then presidential candidate. The bot, which is called DeepDrumpf, “uses an artifi-
cial intelligence algorithm based on Trump’s language in hundreds of hours of debate
transcripts”to generate Trump-like tweets (Garfield, 2016). According to Hayes,
Trump’s debate rhetoric during the Republican primary displayed three prominent
traits: it “use[d] simple language,”it “defer[red] to trusted friends and colleagues,”
and it “constantly insult[ed] his opponents.”The first and third of these characteristics
mirror the defining logics of Twitter, allowing DeepDrumpf, which was not “taught
any rules about the English language,”to generate these “terrifyingly real”Tweets
(Biggs, 2016): “I’dliketobeatthat@HillaryClinton.Sheisahorror.Itoldmysuppor-
ter Putin to say that all the time. He has been amazing”(April 5, 2016); “If I get elected
president, believe me folks. I will bring unbelievable aggression. I bring that out in
people. @tedcruz #Trump2016”(April 27, 2016); and “I can destroy a man’slifeby
firing him over the wall. That’salwaysbeenwhatI’m running, to kill people and
create jobs. @HillaryClinton”(May 5, 2016). Importantly, DeepDrumpf learned to
create Trump-like Tweets not by emulatinghisTwitterfeed,butbystudying42
pages of debate transcripts, which affirms the idea that Trump’s ordinary speech
reflects the underlying logic of Twitter.
And, in fact, commentators who have studied Trump’spublicdiscoursehave
observed speech patterns that correspond closely to what I identified as Twitter’s
three defining features. Simplicity. According to Shafer (2015), “Trump isn’tasim-
pleton, he just talks like one. …[he] resists multisyllabic words and complex, wri-
terly sentence constructions when speaking extemporaneously in a debate, at a
news conference or in an interview.”When Trump’s public discourse is run
through the Flesch–Kincaid grade-level test, it rates at a 3rd or 4th grade reading
the considered, Gabler (2016)wrote,“Above all else, Donald Trump is the candidate
of impulse running against candidates of calculation.”Incivility. Based on an analysis
of Trump’s public utterances during the campaign, Merrill (2015) concluded, “Mr.
Trump’s language is darker, more violent and more prone to insults.”The homology
popularity is due, at least in part, to the fact that “He is a man of his technological
moment”(Gabler, 2016). It may also account for the popularity of Trump’s Twitter
CRITICAL STUDIES IN MEDIA COMMUNICATION 63
account, @realDonaldTrump, which had 12.7millionfollowersasofthiswriting,
although 64–79% of those are believed to be fake or inactive (Bilton, 2016; Petersen,
I am currently working on a sustained analysis of Trump’s Twitter feed. But since this is
a work-in-progress, I will simply share the results of one 7-month-long study of Trump’s
tweets. Based on more than 2,500 tweets from @realDonaldTrump from October 2015 to
May 2016, Crockett (2016) drew the following conclusions. First, Trump’s lexicon is
simple and repetitious, relying heavily on monosyllabic words such as “good,”“bad,”
and “sad,”such as this Tweet which managed to incorporate all three: “Failing
@NYTimes will always take a good story about me and make it bad. Every article is
unfair and biased. Very sad!”(May 20, 2016). Second, Trump’s Tweets are overwhel-
mingly “negative in connotation—and the majority of them are out right insults.”
Indeed, in October 2016, The New York Times published a list of the 282 people,
places, and things Trump has insulted on Twitter (Lee & Quealy, 2016). As a specific
example, consider Trump’s Tweet of August 28, 2012: “.@ariannahuff is unattractive
both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man- he
made a good decision.”Trump’s offensive, bullying, and abusive comments contribute
to the high rate at which he is retweeted, which, as of January 2016, was 2,201 times on
average (Tsur, Ognyanova, & Lazer, 2016). Third, Trump makes frequent use of exclama-
tion points and all caps, such as in the following tweet: “Why doesn’t the failing @nytimes
write the real story on the Clintons and women? The media is TOTALLY dishonest!”
(May 15, 2016). These stylistic practices reinforce the negative sentiment of his Tweets
and heighten their emotional impact, which is, in turn, reflected in the intense emotion
of his followers, a phenomenon scholars refer to as “emotional contagion”(Auflick, 2016).
Frankly, I can think of no better word than “contagion”to describe the toxic effect that
Twitter, as a mode of communication, and Trump, as a model of that mode, have had on
public discourse. Trump’s simple, impulsive, and uncivil Tweets do more than merely
reflect sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia; they spread those ideologies like a
social cancer. There is mounting evidence that Trump’s Twitter feed appeals to, resonates
with, and even endorses white supremacists (Kharakh & Primack, 2016). His Tweets teach
us to see others as less-than-human and they inspire hatred and violence. If this all sounds
a bit alarmist, consider the case of Tay, an artificial intelligence engineered by Microsoft to
learn how to Tweet by interacting with humans. After just 24 hours, Microsoft ended the
experiment because Tay had adopted a profane vocabulary, developed a disturbing affinity
for Adolf Hitler, and began spewing racism and hate (Horton, 2016). After Microsoft shut
down the “malfunctioning”Twitterbot, one user tweeted, “So the robot repeated what
society taught it and you think the robot needs fixing?”In the words of Donald Trump, sad!
3. A post-election postscript
Following the election, Dr. Brookey graciously offered me the opportunity to make one
final set of revisions to this piece. And, indeed, with the election now behind us, there
are several issues worth reflecting upon. But none of them fundamentally alter the argu-
ment I made in this essay, which was completed a short time following the Democratic
National Convention. So, aside from a few minor edits and updates, I have chosen to inte-
grate my reflections as a “post-election postscript”to preserve the integrity of the piece.
Like many, I am deeply troubled by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. I am
disheartened—horrified actually—that a figure whom the Huffington Post has accurately
described as “a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther”has been
elected President of the United States. But, unlike many, I am not surprised by this
outcome. To me, the Age of Twitter virtually guaranteed the rise of Trump. Public dis-
course simply cannot descend into the politics of division and degradation on a daily
basis without significant consequence.
In the coming months, the election will be endlessly dissected; there will be countless
attempts to explain how a figure so uniquely unqualified and temperamentally unfit to
be President was ultimately elected. Some will be quick to blame the Republican establish-
ment, who for decades implicitly endorsed the racism, sexism, fear-mongering, and reck-
less disregard for the truth that explicitly characterized the Trump campaign. Fair enough;
they should be called out for this despicable behavior. But I want to briefly mention two
other contributing factors: (1) the uncritical acceptance of social media platforms such as
Twitter as the principal source of news and information concerning public affairs, and (2)
the mainstream news media’s treatment of Twitter itself as news.
According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of U.S. adults get their news on social
media (Gottfried & Shearer, 2016). This is alarming, profoundly so, since the “news”
content on social media regularly features fake and misleading stories from sources
devoid of editorial standards. Moreover, it is specifically targeted to users based on
their political proclivities (i.e. what items they “like,”which sites they visit, and whom
they’re “friends”with). “Currently,”writes Olivia Solon, “the truth of a piece of content
is less important than whether it is shared, liked, and monetized.”In short, people
across the political spectrum (the right and the left) are being fed a steady diet of what
they want to hear. The result is the creation of ideological silos, powerful echo chambers
of misinformation that, thanks to confirmation bias, reaffirm our existing beliefs (Solon,
2016). For millions of Americans, their primary political involvement during this election
cycle was limited to tweeting and retweeting snarky anti-Clinton or anti-Trump memes to
like-minded individuals (i.e. “followers”), or posting and liking links to articles on Face-
book that reflected their political leanings. These activities do not foster reasoned public
deliberation among people of diverse backgrounds and experiences; they produce a uni-
formed, uncritical, and irresponsible electorate. And, let’s be honest, such activities are
not really even about trying to share information; they’re self-interested performances
undertaken to project a particular political image of oneself.
Unfortunately, the situation with the mainstream news media is no more encouraging.
In addition to failing to adequately vet Trump during the primary race, to providing
unprecedented free advertising to him through its obsessive coverage, to normalizing
his candidacy by adopting a traditional “horse race”mentality, and to repeatedly furnish-
ing his surrogates with a platform to perpetuate obvious and outrageous falsehoods, the
U.S. news media consistently treated Trump’s Twitter feed, as well as many others’,as
Now, I’m not certain when “reporting”(yes, I mean that ironically) on Tweets
began to count as “journalism”(again, ironically), but it signals the complete de-evolution
of the news media.
So, I think it needs to be said in no uncertain terms: people’s opinions on Twitter are
opinions, not news! And in many cases, thanks to the ubiquity of bots, they’re not even
people’sopinions! According to The Atlantic,“more than a third of pro-Trump tweets
CRITICAL STUDIES IN MEDIA COMMUNICATION 65
and nearly a fifth of pro-Clinton tweets between the first and second debates came from
automated accounts, which produced more than 1 million tweets in total”(Guilbeault &
Woolley, 2016). Despite this fact, the news media seem intent on treating Twitter as a legit-
imate source of news, and that is likely to have several consequences going forward. First,
Twitter and its underlying logic will continue to supplant television and its underlying
logic as the dominant epistemology of the moment. Second, we will continue to witness
the rise and mainstreaming of divisive and incendiary public discourse. This has, in
fact, already begun. As USA Today reports, there was a massive increase in hate speech
on Twitter during the presidential election (Guynn, 2016). The continued collapse of
thoughtful, reasoned, and respectful discourse is hardly limited to Twitter though, since
Twitter’s pernicious properties are reflected in other social media platforms. Thus, we
are likely to witness a growing intolerance for cultural and political difference. Fourth,
we will see more dangerous demagogues rise to prominence. Whatever else it may
portend, Trump’s election marks the beginning, not the end, of the Age of Twitter.
1. I’m calling it the “Age of Twitter”both because this essay is primarily about Twitter and
because I like the linguistic parallelism with the Age of Typography and the Age of Televi-
sion. But the Age of Twitter is really the Age of Social Media.
2. After Donald Trump formally became the Republican nominee for President, his Twitter
feed saw an uptick in more positive, supportive messages, though his highly negative
Tweets continued. Analysis of his Tweets suggests that “the more haughty, critical ones
come from an Android device, while the nice ones comes from an iPhone …[leading to
the] suspicion that the Android tweets are written by Trump himself [and the] iPhone
tweets might be penned by his campaign staff”(Matyszczyk, 2016).
3. Twitter increasingly performs the agenda-setting function in politics once dominated by tel-
evision. Television or, at least, televised news now follows the lead of Twitter. Gone are the
days when TV journalists engage in serious investigative reporting, challenge obviously false
and misleading information, or just generally report on events of public significance. Frankly,
I’m nostalgic for the world of television that Postman (1985) argued, produced the “least
well-informed people in the Western world”by packaging news as entertainment
(pp. 106–107). Twitter is producing the most self-involved people in history by treating
everything one does or thinks as newsworthy. Television may have assaulted journalism,
but Twitter killed it.
Notes on contributor
Brian L. Ott is Professor and Chair of Communication Studies in the College of Media & Com-
munication at Texas Tech University. He is the author of The small screen: How television equips
us to live in the information age and Critical media studies: An introduction (2nd ed.), as well as a co-
editor of It's not TV: Watching HBO in the post-television era, Places of public memory: The
rhetoric of museums and memorials, and The Routledge reader in rhetorical criticism.
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