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Trump Tweets to Distract People When He Gets Bad Media Coverage, Study Suggests

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President Donald Trump tweets more about his perceived strengths when the news media reports on events that could harm his reputation in an attempt to distract people, a study has suggested.

Researchers found that when certain outlets featured more coverage of the Mueller investigation into potential Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the president subsequently tweeted more about unrelated topics. In turn, this led to less reporting on the investigation.

The authors of the findings published in the journal Nature Communications said this suggests the president’s tweets may divert the media from issues he finds threatening.

The authors noted that no politician before Trump had used Twitter like him, and this has given the social media platform a central role in global politics. The study was published the week after the 2020 presidential election, when Twitter flagged several of the president’s tweets as false or misleading after he claimed without basis that the Democrats were trying to steal the election.

In order to investigate whether his tweets affect the news agenda and if this may be a deliberate move on the part of the president and those who may have access to his Twitter account, the team examined coverage of the Mueller investigation by ABC’s World News Tonight and The New York Times between Trump’s inauguration on 20 January 2017 and the end of his second year in office, on January 20, 2019. The team chose these as popular and influential news sources that are close to the political center.

After identifying three issues that the president repeatedly returned to in the first two years of his presidency—”China,” “jobs,” and “immigration”—they examined all tweets from his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account in their chosen time period.

President Donald Trump speaks in the briefing room at the White House on November 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. A study has found the president’s tweets affect media coverage of stories that may harm him politically.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The team concluded that in the 731 days Trump’s they looked at, tweets about his preferred topics distracted from and suppressed “inconvenient media coverage.”

As the researchers did not have control over how the data they used was created, they said it is possible the results may be skewed by unknown variables, but that this is not likely. The authors also acknowledged their findings focused on two outlets, and said patterns may be different in others. In addition, the data did not prove the president’s intentions as he tweeted, and it is unclear if he is aware of the effect his tweets appear to have on the media.

Co-author Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of cognitive psychology at the U.K.’s University of Bristol, said in a statement: “Our analysis presents empirical evidence consistent with the theory that whenever the media report something threatening or politically uncomfortable for President Trump, his account increasingly tweets about unrelated topics representing his political strengths. This systematic diversion of attention away from a topic potentially damaging to him was shown to significantly reduce negative media coverage the next day.”

Lewandowsky went on: “It’s unclear whether President Trump, or whoever is at the helm of his Twitter account, engages in such tactics intentionally or if it’s mere intuition.

“Either way, we hope these results serve as a helpful reminder to the media that they have the power to set the news agenda, focusing on the topics they deem most important, while perhaps not paying so much attention to the Twitter-sphere.”

Newsweek has contacted the White House for comment.

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