People of all political persuasions roll their eyes at Donald Trump’s bombastic blasts at “low energy” Jeb Bush, “little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” and, now that he’s certain to be the Republican nominee, “crooked Hillary.”
Sure, it’s juvenile, but it’s also effective. Research is finding that when he spouts out phrases like “crazy Megyn,” he almost surgically inserts them into our vernacular. And scientists are showing that even as American political rhetoric has gotten simpler, both the mainstream media and the public swallow it almost without thinking.
Computer scientists are tracking the evolution of talking points from Trump’s mouth to our Facebook feed and finding that we are acting on what Trump and his fellow pols feed us. Language used by our politicians has always made its way into our conversations at home and at the water cooler. What’s different is that now we have the tools to understand the magnitude and flow of these talking points from D.C. to the dinner table.
We have troves of data about political communication — digital transcripts of every law, speech, news story, blog, and tweet. With those, computer scientists are building tools for understanding the language of politics. In essence, they are putting the “science” in political science.
One scientist is Oren Tsur, a researcher at Harvard and Northeastern who studies how social networks shape and are shaped by language. He applies an artificial intelligence technique called natural language processing to political language to extract patterns, infer meaning, and track the evolution of words, phrases, and, to a certain extent, voter sentiment. Tsur found, for instance, that Democrats were able to blunt the pejorative connotations of “Obamacare” when they co-opted it from Republicans.
Tsur is tracking political spin as it makes its way from Congress to talk shows to our Twitter rants. In one study, he looked at four years of public statements by members of Congress and found he could quantify political framing (that is, spin) by analyzing which politicians “owned” a topic and how often they used specific phrases. Remember John Boehner’s “back room deals,” used to imply that Obamacare was being shaped by lobbyists? Boehner said it only 21 times, but it made its way into 456 congressional press statements (including 62 by Democrats). Tsur hasn’t looked at the phrase’s spread into the Twittersphere, but other researchers have used similar computer science techniques to track commonly used phrases in legislation and even Supreme Court opinions. As for backroom deals, the phrase was molded into an official talking point that came to frame discussion of the Affordable Care Act.
Tsur is now looking at Trump’s vocabulary, mostly, he says, out of sheer awe. Phrases like “little Marco” and “crooked Hillary” are both ad hominem and plain insulting. But they appeal to our brains like the sugary riff of a tune we may actually hate.
In a recent work he published in Politico, Tsur examined seven years’ worth of Trump tweets, more than 15,000. Tsur and his colleagues’ most salient conclusion? “Nobody else uses language quite like Trump does,” Tsur writes. Trump employs the adjective-name structure 10 times more than any other candidate on Twitter. Truly (not) presidential. But these tactics are extremely effective: By repeatedly hammering the public with his insults and talking points, Trump cements his positions and all but guarantees he’ll monopolize the nightly news as well as the dinnertime conversation. Even when the media are trying to make fun of Trump, they’re reinforcing his language.
In some ways, what Trump is doing is just the latest incarnation of Roger Ailes selling us Nixon in 1968. But now we have the computational tools and big-data know-how to put a magnifying glass to our political memes. Tsur says, in general, “the vocabulary is getting smaller, the length of the sentences are getting shorter. It’s very easy to see.”
He stresses that shorter doesn’t always mean dumber. It can mean that complex ideas are being stated more clearly and made more approachable. They might even be more precise.
Imagine if we were still saying things like this 19th-century insult heaved at John Adams: “a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Translation: loser.
Today’s politicians — and would-be politicians — use deft, digestible language to make it easier than ever for us to regurgitate their talking points and crucify their opponents. Trump supplies us with the shiny rhetorical ammo, and we adopt it, even if we disagree with him. Of course, the joke is on us. We wallow in an increasingly shallow and base American political culture, and it’s our own fault.
The computers are telling us to think for ourselves. Let’s turn it around.
Here are some ways to build up your immunity to political spin: Look past the phrase to its author and see if it is sincere or political cynicism. Co-opt the phrase and give it your own spin. Or even try creating your own talking points. Here’s one, with a nod to George Orwell: That’s just Trumptalk.Aleszu Bajak is a senior writer for Undark magazine in Cambridge. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.