A Taxonomy of Trump Tweets – from On the Media.”

On the Media is “WNYC’s weekly investigation into how the media shapes our world view. Veteran journalists Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield give you the tools to survive the media maelstrom.”

A recent segment intriguingly addresses the PEOTUS’ twitter-storm, and how the media should appropriately respond.

As we all know, Donald Trump’s tweets have become a potent force in our new era. On the one hand, a single tweet can cripple opponents, activate supporters, move markets, and subsume the news cycle. On the other, they’re a window into Trump’s wee-hours, unfiltered id. But when his tweets are full of half-truths, distortions, and often bold-faced lies, should journalists treat them as normal presidential utterances, or something else? Cognitive linguist George Lakoff believes that the press must understand how Trump uses language if we’re to responsibly report on his tweets, not just magnify their misinformation. He talks with Brooke about the categories he’s come up with for thinking about Trump tweets.

A summary of the categories:

  1. Preemptive Re-framing – Trump’s tweet stated, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” This was rated “Pants on Fire” by Politifact, but it effectively re-frames the popular vote in the minds of those who see the tweet, thus distorting the facts in the public arena.
  2. The Diversion Tweet – This kind of tweet is akin to the magician’s misdirectional “nothing up my sleeve.” While you’re busy looking at his or her sleeve to be sure, jiggery-pokery is happening elsewhere. A good example is focusing on Hamilton, as Trump did when he tweeted “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” In this way, people focus on Hamilton rather than the $25 million settlement in the case of  fraud allegations against Trump University.
  3. The Trial Balloon – Send up something and see how the public reacts, so you’ll know what to do in the future. When Trump tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” he watched to see how the public responded to this idea; in this case there was a brief discussion about nuclear policy which quickly faded from the public consciousness.
  4. Deflection – In which you attack the messenger. After being pointedly called out by Meryl Streep for mocking a disabled reporter, Trump attacked the messenger: “Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big. For the 100th time, I never “mocked” a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him “groveling” when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!The video is out there; no matter how much he denies it, Trump’s actions can not be interpreted as anything other than cruel mockery of a man’s afflictions – but attacking Ms. Streep, one of the most accomplished and versatile actresses of this generation, deflect’s the public’s view from the issue at hand. This was also evident as Trump attacked Buzzfeed, CNN, and the BBC around reports on the supposed Russian dossier.

Lastly, Lakoff presents an example of a Trump tweet that uses all four strategies at once:

“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to “leak” into the public. One last shot at me.Are we living in Nazi Germany?”

  • Pre-emptive framing: “This is fake news.”
  • Diversion – Getting the public to discuss whether or not this is fake news rather than addressing the issue itself.
  • Deflection – Attacking the messengers
  • Trial balloon – Will the intelligence agencies be stopped, and are they working like Nazi Germany?

And, of course, tucked away in the tweet is the invocation of a corollary to Godwin’s Law: In any online discussion, whoever first brings up a reference to Hitler has lost the argument, and the discussion is ended.

Lakoff’s suggestions for the press on how to handle the onslaught of 3 AM tweets, as well as the entire podcast (it’s only about 8 minutes long) are well worth the listen.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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