Just under a century ago, confronting an antagonistic press that opposed him at every turn, President Franklin Roosevelt turned to the then-nascent technology of radio to bypass the media and speak directly to the American public through his “fireside chats.” Today Donald Trump wields his Twitter account to similar effect. Using a new dataset that tracks every appearance of Trump’s tweets on television news screens this year, we can examine how effective has he been at setting the media agenda.
Trump’s Twitter account is so central to his presidency that the courts have ruled it is “his most important channel of communication.” By last September, online news outlets had cited more than a third of the tweets Trump has ever sent and @realDonaldTrump was the most-cited personal Twitter account in the world.
Television news is still a major information source for Americans, raising the question of just how much influence Trump’s tweets wield on TV coverage, from acting as a source of video footage of White House events to actually driving the news cycle itself.
The most common way television news covers Trump’s tweets is to display them on screen, as seen in the example above CNN’s “Erin Burnett Out Front.”
How often do tweets appear on TV screens? The “heatmap” below shows just how much of a shadow Trump’s Twitter account casts over the television news landscape, recording the total seconds of airtime each hour (Y axis) by day since the start of 2020 (X axis) that the text “@realDonaldTrump” was displayed on screen on BBC News London, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Look closely and there was at least one second of airtime showing Trump’s Twitter handle almost every hour or every other hour of every day this year.
Interestingly, the most intense period was when Trump was hospitalized at Walter Reed medical center, with his tweets offering the main insight into his condition.
Interest in the @realDonaldTrump handle has been bipartisan, with MSNBC devoting 41,821 seconds, Fox News 40,211 seconds and CNN 39,240 seconds to displaying it. Even BBC News London has spent 2.8 hours on his tweets this year. This crossover from social to mainstream media means that even those who don’t use Twitter see a 24/7 summary of the president’s tweets in the news.
Not all appearances of @realDonaldTrump are actual tweets. His handle also appears in the background of campaign rallies, in displays of his other social media accounts such as Instagram and when retweets and replies from other major politicians to his tweets are shown on screen. To filter for just his tweets, a combination of computer and human analysis was used to tie each appearance of @realDonaldTrump from Jan. 1 to Sept. 4 of this year to the actual tweet being displayed (and discard it if it was not, in fact, a tweet). The same was done for @JoeBiden. (This analysis excluded BBC News London in order to measure only what Americans saw.)
The end result was that of Trump’s 8,052 tweets over those eight months, 1,290 (16%) appeared on screen at some point, for a total of 22 hours. In contrast, just 112 out of Biden’s 2,261 tweets (4.95%) were worthy of television coverage, totaling just 1.23 hours. In all, nearly an entire day of coverage thus far this year featured one or both of their tweets.
Trump’s most-displayed tweet was his “when the looting starts the shooting starts” warning that was displayed for more than 23 minutes. Biden’s most-shown tweet was his statement about “diversity in the African American and Latino communities” that received 8.7 minutes of coverage. These numbers only count the amount of time the tweets themselves were displayed, not the endless on-air commentary and discussion about them or cases where they were read out loud rather than shown, meaning the tweets actually drove far more news airtime.
Social media platforms are increasingly flagging Trump’s posts as violations of their rules, affixing warning labels to them and in some cases hiding them from view. Do these warnings work to decrease the posts’ visibility? While the dataset is too small to answer this question definitively, it is worth noting that two of Trump’s 10 most-shown tweets had been flagged by Twitter as “glorifying violence” and making “unsubstantiated claims” about voter fraud, with several other controversial ones receiving considerable airtime as well. This suggests that platforms’ actions may be backfiring in some ways, drawing more attention to content that might otherwise have been overlooked or dismissed.
It is clear that Trump’s tweets can drive the news cycle, becoming stories in themselves. Yet this leaves unanswered the broader question of whether the president can direct the media’s focus more broadly on a topic simply by tweeting about it. When it comes to voter fraud, it would appear that the answer is yes.
Over the eight months analyzed here, 40 of Trump’s tweets relating to voter fraud collectively appeared on screen across the three news channels for 92 minutes. In contrast, all 112 televised Biden tweets across all topics received just 72 minutes combined.
Why is this important? Given the lack of extensive media coverage of voter fraud outside of Trump’s tweets, it suggests that Trump is able to short-circuit the editorial process of the news media. In other words, most outlets would not have devoted much time to stories about voter fraud, since they consider widespread fraud too uncommon to warrant discussion. By tweeting repeated claims about illicit electoral behavior, Trump was able to bypass these editorial judgments and lead outlets to devote an hour and a half of coverage, to date, just to his election tweets alone, not to mention the endless hours of subsequent debate about them.
Much like Roosevelt’s fireside chats, this Twitter presidency demonstrates the power of new technology to not only bypass a hostile press, but to effectively redirect its energies into greater coverage and debate of the topics he wants the nation talking about. Whether next week or in four years, the only question is whether Trump’s Twitter magic is a unique element of the media’s Trump hysteria or whether his successor is able to wield the platform to similar effect. The numbers thus far from candidate Biden aren’t promising.