Now, in the waning days of his campaign for the presidency, let us dismiss one of the most persistent falsehoods about Donald J. Trump: the notion that he is a social media genius.
Twitter helped make Trump the nominee of the Republican Party, but the lesson for politicians is that everything he did on Twitter to win the nomination ended up destroying him as a candidate.
Last winter, in a piece on Trump’s mastery of Twitter, Slate declared, “Everyone knows he’s the best.” In 2015, The New York Times described his Twitter campaign as the fulfillment of “a vision, long predicted but slow to materialize,” namely “a White House candidacy that forgoes costly, conventional methods of political communication and relies instead on the free, urgent, and visceral platforms of social media.”
The essence of Trump is his Twitter account. And, on the face of it, that account looks impressive. He has 12.7 million followers, while Hillary Clinton has just under 10 million. Even if as many as half of his followers are fakes, the number is large, although not nearly as huge as Katy Perry’s (93 million) or Justin Bieber’s (89 million). His account has tweeted almost 34,000 times, more than three and half times as many as Clinton.
His most popular tweet, from last May, was retweeted over 80,000 times.
Trump supporters point to the size of his rallies and his Twitter account as evidence of his certain victory. But they fail to grasp that Twitter and rallies are forums for the already convinced rather than the undecided. It is easy to sound powerful in an echo chamber.
A presidential election needs to reach far and wide. Trump’s most fundamental failure as a candidate has been his inability to expand his pool of voters. This inability should be blamed in part on unwillingness because it seems that Trump just can’t believe that all the love he gets on social media and at his rallies isn’t representative of the nation.
Can you blame him? What must it be like to have Trump’s Samsung Galaxy (or iPhone), buzzing thousands of time a day with alerts of likes and retweets. Before Trump announced his candidacy, his tweets averaged 79 retweets (other people reposting his post to their followers); in January 2016, they averaged 2,201; now his tweets routinely get over 10,000 retweets and over 30,000 likes.
This is a degree of affirmation and congratulation that few of us can imagine, but most of us can appreciate. It feels good to have a tweet liked or retweeted, in exactly the same way that it feels good to have a smile or laugh reciprocated. The psychology of Twitter is built on basic social behaviors that occur offline as well. When we are kind or amusing, people smile. If we say something funny or profound, the remark gets shared.
Tangible expressions and actions matter tremendously because it is often difficult to tell how much your peers accept or admire you. It is relatively easy to read a smile. The problem, of course, is that a smile can be faked. It is a sign of social connection rather than the connection itself.
In an essay on new media, the neuropsychologists Diana Tamir and Adrian Ward explain that the social brain relies on “proxy cues” to signal the successful pursuit of relationships built on trust, admiration, and sympathy. Deep relationships take time to forge, so it is important that we have a way to track their progress. Smiles and embraces trigger a reward system, located deep inside the center of the brain, in a small structure named the nucleus accumbens, which is activated by a range of things that make us happy, from eating food and having sex to winning money and, a recent study by Dar Meshi, Hauke Heekeren, and Carmen Morawetz suggests, getting Facebook “likes.”
Likes and retweets replicate the gestures that create pathways to deeper social relationships. These gestures are so important that our brains have evolved to make us crave them. The brain’s reward system allows us to feel pleasure when we elicit certain social reactions, Dar Meshi says.
The problem with all of these stimuli is that they lead many individuals to crave them more than the long-term goals with which they are associated. A desire for nourishment turns into a food addiction, for pain relief into opioid abuse, and for affirmation into an inability to disconnect from social media.
This addictive potential is enhanced by the power new technologies have to short circuit old adaptive systems. Tamir and Ward suggest that social media are “exaggerated versions of the stimuli that shaped our neural structures and cognitive tendencies over the course of evolution.”
Meanwhile, “supernormal stimuli,” like cocaine and Twitter, “hijack adaptive systems and set them on a path toward unexpected ends,” by cutting right past the traditional causes and contexts of pleasure. Worse yet, social media put “our social minds into overdrive by providing near constant social cues,” encouraging people to stay online, looking for the next like or retweet.
Sound familiar? Trump has struggled to unplug from Twitter, even though it has been the source of some of his most infamous gaffes. He says he’s a master of Twitter, but he is also its slave, which is all the more ironic since he recently bragged about being “unshackled” and getting back on Twitter.
Trump managed to undo himself several times through tweets, but that should have been no surprise, because he’s been doing Twitter wrong from the start. He fails to grasp that social media are most effective when they are, well, social. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram work best as meetings places, not as megaphones. The key term in social media marketing is engagement. A successful Twitter strategy includes lots of conversations, something almost entirely absent from Trump’s feed.
The simplest social gesture is simply liking another person’s tweet. A typical Trump tweet will receive thousands or even tens of thousands of likes. Yet Trump has only hit the little heart symbol 44 times since the feature debuted last year. Clinton has liked almost 1,200 tweets.
Trump uses Twitter’s most important gesture of engagement, the retweet, sparingly. Instead of simply clicking on an icon, he copies and pastes remarks by supporters into a tweet of his own. Donald Trump’s approach to Twitter is so ungenerous he makes the extra effort to insure that it is his name and face that appear on his “retweets.”
Trump and his advocates are fond of pointing at his big numbers as evidence of his assured win in the election, but they call no attention to his pitiful number of likes or to the number of accounts he follows: 41 (and of those, 17 have the name Trump in them). It is not surprising that Trump uses social media in a manner that grossly overestimates its power as media and miserably underestimates its social value.
Will Twitter continue to play a Trump-sized role in elections? Twitter and Facebook have played their part in disseminating information during this election, but they have also keyed up groupthink and emotional responses in both parties. This week, Trump launched his own nightly newscast from his campaign headquarters on Facebook Live.
As Tamir and Ward put it, “New media offer simple solutions to complex social needs.” Trump’s race for the presidency has embodied this principle by making the exact same offer to voters, but what should resonate for future candidates is not his success in doing so, but his inability to see his failure as it was happening. For that blindness he can thank his 12 million Twitter followers.
James Murphy is freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_s_murphy.