Trump, Twitter and the Norms of Political Communication

by Daniel Tippens

On September 23rd 1952, Richard Nixon, after being accused of misusing money in his political expense fund, delivered his famous “Checkers” speech directly to the American people by, for the first time in history, purchasing a 30 minute slot of prime time television. 60 million people watched as Nixon explained all of the details of his personal finances until he ultimately just flat-out stated exactly what his family had in their possession, and what they owed. The level of detail and appeal to emotion was so strong that one columnist said “Tuesday night the nation saw a little man, squirming his way out of a dilemma, and laying bare his most private hopes, fears, and liabilities.”

This was the first time that a major political actor had addressed the public directly via prime time television, and is considered to be the point in which politicians began pivoting from using radio to using television. Ever since Nixon’s speech, televised speeches have been the primary form of direct communication between the President and the public.

Until Donald Trump.

Ever since he announced that he would run for President on June 16, 2015, Trump has been tirelessly using Twitter to communicate with the public. While I don’t have data, I would wager that at least a third of Trump’s media coverage was a reaction to his tweets, as is evinced by the fact that he has 28 million followers — only slightly less than half of the total number of people who watched Nixon’s speech. In addition, Trump gains an average of 48,000 followers per day. These things are interesting to consider alongside other facts, like how before television, Woodrow Wilson had to endure a month of traveling on the railroad to promote the League of Nations, and Eisenhower later would reach millions of people or so through 15 minute TV broadcasts every now and then. Today, Trump can reach 28 million people (and counting) every day, every minute, while on his phone on the way to the White house.

This suggests an historic shift in the type of communication technology that the President uses to interact with the public, rivaling the transition from the radio to the television. In 1959, then Senator John F. Kennedy wrote an article in TV guide discussing the potential benefits and harms of the television medium. He prophetically warned about the cost of ads and competitive television airtime which would inevitably infect politics, driving up the cost of a political candidacy to the point we see today, where the election processes cost billions of dollars (the last election cycle cost was about $2.65 billion). However, one of his most relevant insights for the modern age was his recognition of how the norms of communication differ in television as opposed to in-person.

The slick or bombastic orator, pounding the table and ringing the rafters, is not as welcome in the family living room as he was in the town square or party hail. In the old days, many a seasoned politician counted among his most highly developed and useful talents his ability to dodge a reporter’s question, evade a “hot” Issue and avoid a definite stand. But today a vast viewing public is able to detect such deception and, in my opinion, willing to respect political honesty.

JFK recognized that, depending on the context in which one speaks, the expectations and attitudes people have toward what you say and how you say it will differ dramatically. Of particular note is his observation that, while a politician can manage to dodge a question from a reporter, he cannot dodge a question from a reporter as easily, when millions of people are watching his every move. If nothing else, his communication behavior will be affected by his knowledge that so many people are dissecting him with their eyes and ears. JFK believed, it would seem, that one possible benefit of television would be increased accountability and transparency from the government. A natural question to ask, then, is whether the same is true of Twitter. What are the norms of Twitter, how are they created, and will they benefit or harm our political discourse? Here, I’ll focus on the influence Twitter norms have on the communication between the President and the public, but they could apply just as well to other political actors.

140 Characters or Fewer 

Sometimes norms are created by the constraints of the platform itself. If I am texting someone, there is no expectation that I provide detailed, essay-length responses, because texting is a slow and inefficient way to do such a thing, and I don’t want to get arthritis. Tweets contain a maximum of 140 characters. Not words, characters. This creates an important norm which results in a decreased amount of detail and argumentative support for claims made by the president.

Obviously, 140 characters is simply not enough space to provide detailed factual content. Consequently, there is an expectation that tweets will contain more expressive content instead. Looking over Trump’s Twitter, this is easy to spot. Almost every tweet that he shoots off contains something expressive, like “Sad!” or “Failing!” or even “Fake news!” But even more pervasive are hashtags, which function like body-language.  You’re basically just digitally shrugging your shoulders, smiling, or pointing your finger toward something with an enthusiastic or scornful look. This should be obvious if one recognizes that hashtags almost never even contain full propositions. Just picking some of the trending hashtags today, we find #videolove #worldpenguinday #news and #trumprussia. Clearly, there are no propositions here, and they are nothing more than people pointing to various things on the internet, or signaling their approval or disapproval.

Of course, expressions are among the most informationally impoverished forms of communication in political discourse. They may be useful for indicating the very broad positions and attitudes that somebody holds, and perhaps revealing someone’s character, but only in the most minimal sense. So there is a problem here. If Twitter becomes the primary mode of communication between the public and the President, there will be a public expectation, generated by the nature of the platform, for more expressive content than factual. And of course if everyone expects this, then we will tolerate this kind of communication and administer less, if any, public censure when a President informs the public of what’s going on through digital scornful looks or, in Trump’s case, perhaps a middle-finger emoji. This was not present with televised Presidential speeches, and means we may become more complacent with a President who gives us only the thinnest information possible.

But there is an additional worry that arises from the fact that tweets are dyed in expressive content. Since expressive content is inherently ambiguous, tweets are also drenched in ambiguity. As such, people expect tweets to be vague and unclear. This provides the President with a convenient excuse, when someone calls into question something he tweeted. Just take the somewhat recent tweet Trump wrote, accusing Obama of wiretapping him during the election process:

asd

Sean Spicer was asked to substantiate this claim, and his response was that the President was “very clear in his tweet” that there was evidence for “wiretapping.” Of course, he followed these remarks by saying, essentially, that wiretapping is a very unclear term, in that it encompasses a number of different things. In other words, Trump was clear about being unclear. And, of course, since few people expect tweets to be precise, when Sean Spicer excused the President’s remarks by pointing out that they were ambiguous, the excuse passed muster. Additionally, even if this kind of ambiguity-pleading happened repeatedly in the future, nobody would question it because, after all, tweets are only 140 characters. So, since Trump has made himself a cushy space for excuses, he has also made it possible to make all sorts of wild, ambiguous claims that can rarely be “proven” to be found wrong, and never be held accountable for being serially ambiguous.

On the go

Twitter was developed as a medium through which people could shoot off what they were doing, feeling, or thinking at any given time and place, which makes sense given the 140 character limit. A natural corollary to this is that people do not expect you to follow up a tweet. If you tweet that you are at a dinner party, there is no expectation that you will later provide extensive details or tweets documenting all of the events that transpired. Or if you tweeted that you find capitalism abhorrent, a comment storm might ensue, but nobody expects you to rigorously engage with the comment thread, or tweet later with extensive arguments.

The result is that Trump can make assertions — clothed in expressive content — without there being any expectation that he provide argumentative support or detail for his claims. Again, this is not a norm that takes holds with respect to televised speeches, because the President has a lengthy window of time to talk, a lengthy period of time to prepare, and knows that millions of people will be on the lookout for controversial assertions. The result of this is that the public expects for the President to provide evidence and arguments, at least minimally, for his claims. If he doesn’t, there will be a backlash.

There is something else that results from the public not expecting further details and arguments to be given: the illusion that it is always possible that the President would have an answer to questions for details, were he to give them. When I read an essay by someone in a position of authority, call him Dave, and then I read a seemingly damning critique of Dave’s work, I always have, lodged in the back of my mind, the thought that Dave would have a response were he to see the critique and write a reply. As such, it is easy for me to suspend Dave’s view in mental space as at least plausibly true.

This is an illusion that one finds in in written arguments, but not in face-to-face arguments. Part of the reason for this is that, like with tweets, there isn’t as strong of an expectation for an author to reply to a critique of his work when it is in writing, while there is an expectation for someone to reply to an in-person critique.

Take the debate between Shelly Kagan and William Lane Craig about whether God is necessary for there to be objective moral facts. (1) Kagan essentially mopped the floor with Craig, because Craig was forced to attempt to respond to Kagan’s powerful objections right then and there, in front of a large viewing audience. At one point, the crowd even laughed at Craig’s attempt to respond to a point that Kagan made. When viewing two people in dialogue, an interlocutor must try to reply to a clear and pressing objection. So, one can tell when someone has no good answers, and thus, his position can more plausibly be considered untenable.

Since there is no expectation for someone to follow up on criticisms of a tweet, controversial assertions can be made, and when articles appear, explaining why the content of the tweet was foolish, wrong, heartless, etc., the illusion that Trump would have a reply were he to actually provide it can still loom in people’s minds, especially his supporters.

This problem might seem mitigated by the fact that, as we have all been witnessing the bizarre quasi-reality TV show that is Sean Spicer’s press conferences, journalists do in fact follow up with tweets that Trump makes, asking Spicer for evidence and support for the claims he makes, like in the wiretapping incidence mentioned above. Perhaps this can mitigate the problem I’ve just mentioned about people believing Trump would have something to say were he given the chance to reply. Unfortunately, this won’t help, because it isn’t Trump who is being asked for details, it is his press secretary. So, the illusion remains entrenched.

Sincerity and user-control 

The interesting thing about television is that the person on the screen has minimal control over the norms surrounding the medium. The public, and the nature of the platform, determine most, if not all, of the norms. If you are delivering a Presidential speech, it will be much more difficult for you to claim insincerity as an excuse, because when speaking on such a formal platform, after having had plenty of time to prepare, the public expects sincerity. But with Twitter this isn’t the case. The user has considerable control over many of the norms that surround his particular page, the most important of which, I think, is his ability to determine the viewer’s expectations of how sincerely to take his tweets.

Suppose that my tweets frequently look as though they are being fired off while I am in an emotionally charged state, or people notice that I never follow through on what I say, with my actions. In such a scenario, people will expect my tweets to be made insincerely, in one way or another. What this means is that if I send off an inflammatory or false tweet, and someone calls me out on it, I can always seek refuge in the excuse of, “don’t take it so seriously, it was only a tweet.” Indeed, when asked by the Financial Times if he regretted his tweets, he said, “I don’t regret anything, because there is nothing you can do about it… You know if you issue hundreds of tweets, and every once in a while you have a clinker, that’s not so bad.” This gives the President the ability to say anything he wants, taking praise for the things that turn out to be true and claiming insincerity for any tweet that turns out to be false or offensive.

If one takes all of these norms and their consequences together, it seems clear that the transition from television to Twitter will bring with it expectations for only the thinnest of possible information and a decreased level of accountability. I unfortunately don’t have any prescriptions to provide here, for there seem to be only two obvious ones: change the norms or give up the platform. The former is a naive and impotent thing to say, and the latter simply may not be possible. So, I’ll end this essay with more of John F. Kennedy’s words, “this is not the place to discuss alternative remedies.”

Notes

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiJnCQuPiuo&t

Categories: Essay, Essays

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22 Comments »

  1. The Trump tweets reveal that we have a madman in the White House. We have had some sickies there before, but none so easily diagnosed as this one.

    He does have an alt-right army of followers who will use any lie to excuse his perverse behavior; but although this raises questions as to their sanity as much as his, and raises serious questions concerning democracy in the US going forward, this doesn’t make him any less mad.

    I know that some (including commenters here) hoped that Trumps election would eliminate the dangers of the Neo-con neo-imperialism that in many ways Clinton represented.

    We are currently de facto in a state of war with Syria (without any Congressional approval; but what the hell, Trump saw some pictures on television) which brought us close to a military confrontation with Russia (who helped him get elected, but what the hell business is business, and big explosions look good on television, which is all the reality-TV-president cares about); and we are close to a nuclear war with North Korea (which would evaporate the whole Korean peninsula). Do we feel any safer now?

    Trump’s tweets have made the office of the president of the US the laughingstock on the world stage; indeed, Netanyahu openly laughed at him when he said (speaking as the untutored he is), “hey slow down on those Jerusalem settlements, ok?”

    But as bad as Trump is, the real story here is his followers – a third of the population that rejects science, evidence, argument, media. Unable to weigh balances between sources of information, they are utterly detached from political reality. I say again, I don’t think they should be allowed to vote. But they do vote. It will take a sharper political intellect than mine to find some way to deal with them. And, unfortunately, I don’t see that in the Democratic Party for the nonce…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And let’s not forget (the clearly illegal) nepotism, and self-serving tax proposals and foreign business deals, under the very nose of a Republican Party that will give him anything as long as they get their money-to-the-rich budgets passed.

    Only a hundred days in, we have the most corrupt administration in history, and a congress unwilling to prosecute.

    China is now the most stable superpower, and the leader of the ‘free world.’ None of us likes that, but there it is. The sun has set on the West.

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  3. Hi Dan, I think this is an important subject to consider. Trump touts how Twitter allows him to bypass media, and so give an unfiltered version of “facts”. In short he has a personal ministry of (mis)information.

    Frankly, I think Twitter itself should have cut him off, or put some boundary on how he can tweet, including requirements for factual accuracy. Given that neither Trump nor Twitter seem to have a conscience about such things, Congress probably should step in.

    The office of the President (if not the person) is supposed to be a symbol of respect and authority. This is discrediting the office and the US. Congress could ban the executive from using such services, or discussing the *people’s* business on such platforms (as if it were all about his own personal life).

    Our President’s should have more character than 140.

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  4. Quite predictably the commentary has veered off course to condemn everyone’s favourite hate figure. Which of course misses the point of the essay. This is a pity because Dan-T is saying something important and does it with his hallmark clarity.

    I loved this:

    tweets are dyed in expressive content … tweets are also drenched in ambiguity.

    What liquid, limpid, pellucid prose!

    I am reminded that St. Ignatius of Loyola once wrote that ‘the world is drenched in God‘.

    The mixture of semantic content with expressive content has always been with us, in all forms of communication. Not only that, but we look for it. We naturally look for indicators of sincerity and emotional intent because they usually matter. Tweets greatly limit the possibility for semantic communication so we use it more as a signalling channel. Its simple immediacy lends itself to signalling.

    A large part of leadership is about emotion. It has always been thus and Trump understands this better than Obama did, hence the manner in which Trump uses Twitter. By comparison Obama came across as a lumpen log! Try listening to Churchill’s war time speeches.

    Disclaimer: as an un-American I couldn’t care less about your leadership squabbles and the hate-Trump campaign bores me.

    I hope that we rather talk about the main subject of the essay, the problems of expressive vs. semantic content in a constrained medium such as Twitter.

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  5. labnut,
    “the problems of expressive vs. semantic content in a constrained medium such as Twitter.” That’s not the subject of the essay. The subject of the essay is that twitter provides a platform that allows a participant to say anything off the top of their heads with no responsibility or accountability, wrapped in a cloud of unfounded expectations on the part of his/her ‘followers,’ thus mooting any actual argument or evidence That’s a real political danger, and the followers of a manipulator like Trump are being led down a garden path toward a dung heap.

    It is notable that the Checkers speech with which Dan opens this article was one of the great con-jobs in modern American politics. The issue Nixon claimed to address was that he stood “accused of misusing money in his political expense fund;” instead he talked about his household finances and hoped voters wouldn’t begrudge the purchase of a dog! – Distraction, evasion, manipulation.

    Leadership is about making decisions and taking responsibility. A good leader needs also to have rhetorical skills to tweak the emotions of followers, to be sure. But reducing leadership to this leaves us ultimately with only a lead lemming racing towards a cliff. And that has happened all to often in Modernity, and seems destined to happen again in the US.

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  6. EJ,
    “the problems of expressive vs. semantic content in a constrained medium such as Twitter.” That’s not the subject of the essay. The subject of the essay is that twitter[sic] provides a platform that allows a participant to say anything off the top of their heads with no responsibility or accountability,

    The last paragraph of Dan-T’s essay put the matter succinctly:

    If one takes all of these norms and their consequences together, it seems clear that the transition from television to Twitter will bring with it expectations for only the thinnest of possible information and a decreased level of accountability. I unfortunately don’t have any prescriptions to provide here, for there seem to be only two obvious ones: change the norms or give up the platform.

    He is discussing the nature of communication, using Twitter, in the first place, and using Donald Trump to illustrate his points, in the second place. But in any case I will leave it to Dan-T to tell us what really was the subject of his essay.

    Leadership is about making decisions and taking responsibility

    Of course, but no-one claimed otherwise.

    But reducing leadership to this …

    One again, that is a claim that was not made.

    You seem to be shadow boxing.

    Let’s just agree – you don’t like Trump and I couldn’t be bothered. Many people choose to hate and I choose to understand. What’s your choice? Putting aside your blame, what is your understanding of this medium we call Twitter? Dan-T made a good contribution to this understanding. Now where is yours?

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  7. labnut,
    ““If one takes all of these norms and their consequences together, it seems clear that the transition from television to Twitter will bring with it expectations for only the thinnest of possible information and a decreased level of accountability.” I don’t see how you get “expressive vs. semantic content” out of this. But I think one can get “twitter provides a platform that allows a participant to say anything off the top of their heads with no responsibility or accountability” out of it.

    You may be bored with the problems that Trump’s election makes for American politics and government, but I doubt Dan is. I can see that while non-Americans might be disinterested in the real issues here – but emotional responses aside, Trump’s administration has already generated not only considerable controversy but minor crises in administrative management, possible violations of law, and international incidents. I think Americans can be forgiven for concern over this situation, which will do no one any good in the long run.

    Has twitter – and other social media – contributed to these problems by contributing to the degradation of public discourse? I would argue it has; and I think that Dan is suggesting this as well.

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  8. EJ,
    I don’t see how you get “expressive vs. semantic content” out of this.

    Some quotes from Dan-T

    tweets will contain more expressive content
    tweet that he shoots off contains something expressive
    generated by the nature of the platform, for more expressive content than factual.
    tweets are dyed in expressive content
    Since expressive content is inherently ambiguous,
    clothed in expressive content
    expressions are among the most informationally impoverished forms of communication

    It is quite clear that he is discussing the expressive content vs. the propositional or informational content, which I have chosen to call semantic content.

    You may be bored with the problems that Trump’s election makes for American politics and government, but I doubt Dan is.

    But then I never claimed that Dan-T was bored, so why make the assertion?

    Trump’s administration has already generated not only considerable controversy, etc, etc, etc

    1) You think the main subject is Trump and so you can bang on about him, which can get a bit wearisome.

    2) I think the main subject is Twitter and the kind of communication it embodies while Trump is merely an illustrative example. And therefore we should be discussing styles of communication as exemplified by Twitter.

    Dan-T is the person who can settle this difference in interpretation. Perhaps he will be Solomonaic and say we are both right 🙂

    I think Americans can be forgiven for concern over this situation, which will do no one any good in the long run.

    By all means exercise your concerns, whatever they may be, in the right time and place. Is this essay the right place?

    Has twitter – and other social media – contributed to these problems by contributing to the degradation of public discourse?

    Now you have asked an interesting question. Twitter is a new communication phenomenon, rich in expressive content and poor in semantic content. It has added to the existing forms of public discourse. But has that degraded the public discourse, in its entirety? After all the public discourse already has a wide variety of forms and we simply have an additional form of communication. But has that degraded public discourse as a whole? Or has it enriched it by making more space for expressive content?

    To show that it has degraded public discourse as a whole, one would have to show one or more of the following:
    1) it is replacing/displacing other forms of communication.
    2) attention is substantially diverted from traditional forms to Twitter.
    3) Twitter style is corrupting other styles of communication.
    4) Twitter style communication is more influential than other styles of communication.

    This is an empirical question. Perhaps it is doing these things, however I also see lots of substantive discourse taking place. For example, there is a marvellous record of substantive discourse contained in Hansard and the Congressional Record. I see no evidence that they have been tainted by tweets. Judicial opinions continue to be a marvellous source of clear, practical reasoning. The newspapers of record are still doing a fine job with their editorials, leaders and op-ed pieces. The BBC continue to do their excellent work. I could go on and on. On the other hand, in my more cynical moments, I am tempted to think that Americans are getting what they deserve because Twitter is a natural fit to the American psyche.

    while non-Americans might be disinterested

    I am an un-American and not a non-American.

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  9. Hi all!

    Ej,

    I agree with your claim that Trump’s tweets have made us a laughingstock to the world — I mean, his tweets aren’t much better for our reputation than his “grab them by the pussy” remarks.

    “Has twitter – and other social media – contributed to these problems by contributing to the degradation of public discourse? I would argue it has; and I think that Dan is suggesting this as well.”

    I was also suggesting that, though I agree with Labnut that it is an empirical question I only have intuitions on!

    Hi Db,

    Interesting suggestions on ways to stifle the effect of these norms — perhaps install fact-checker filters into public political figures’ twitter pages, and loosen the 140 character limit for them as well.

    I suppose my concern would be whether that would end up actually changing the norms. In the essay I was describing what gave rise to the norms, but not necessarily what sustains them (though I could have been clearer on this, certainly). Maybe at this point twitter norms are already entrenched, and altering the things that caused the norms wouldn’t slow them down one bit.

    Hi Labnut,

    I will say you are certainly right that I discussed and focused heavily on the expressive vs. propositional content issue that takes hold in tweets, and that I was using Trump to illustrate the issues that may come along with using social media platforms like twitter for political communication. Thanks for engaging 🙂

    “The mixture of semantic content with expressive content has always been with us, in all forms of communication. Not only that, but we look for it. We naturally look for indicators of sincerity and emotional intent because they usually matter. Tweets greatly limit the possibility for semantic communication so we use it more as a signalling channel. Its simple immediacy lends itself to signalling.”

    I like your point about signaling, and think it would be interesting to think about the norms of twitter signaling, and how they might differ from signaling that politicians do on T.V (by, for example, saying things like “I want law and order”)

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I agree that the article is primarily about twitter and the dangers its structure and context makes for American politics. But I don’t think Trump is merely illustrative example. Trump’s tweets have introduced something new into American politics, and it helped get him elected, and has sabotaged years of foreign and domestic policy by undermining essential trust in the Presidency on the part of those who need real argument and evidence and policy decisions. I would disagree that Trump’s tweets are reducible to expressive content. Lashing out is one thing; making a charge that the previous president engaged in felonious surveillance, with no accountability for presenting evidence, and by a sitting president with authority to order investigations to collect such evidence, is not an expression of anything. It is a diversion intended to excite his conspiracy-theory prone followers. This is reality TV tweaking of emotions, not the emotions themselves.

    Finally, I would suggest that Trump’s election, and his behavior since, are themselves empirical evidence of the effect of degraded public discourse. We are not only discussing what is said in courts or congress or in established media; the voters decided which media to believe and what communications they would trust. A third or more decided to trust Trump’s tweets, and still do. They take them as having semantic content. That makes discussing politics with Trump’s people just about impossible. That’s a problem.

    As for ‘bashing on Trump -‘ I believe he is an abhorrent aberration, and I refuse to allow him to be normalized, to be treated as any other president and politician. I care about my country, and its history and fut6ure. And I also think that having a mentally or emotionally unstable narcissistic businessman in command of the most powerful military in the world threatens the potential of horrific warfare.

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  11. Once again the function of rhetoric has been missed. No surprise, You think you’re discussing communication. what you’re discussing is control of human behavior.

    But go on believing you have agency.; that makes it all feel better, don’t it.

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  12. Hi EJ,
    As for ‘bashing on Trump -‘ I believe he is an abhorrent aberration, … But go on believing you have agency.; that makes it all feel better, don’t it.

    In your words are evinced a lot of the bitterness that liberal Americans feel. As I discovered while playing rugby, losing hurts. But I also discovered that there is a next time, so we shake the hands of our opponents, congratulate them and prepare for the next match. I might walk off the playing field limping heavily, and cursing under my breath, because I was kicked in the crotch, but it will get better. I will train harder and become a better sportsman(in both senses of the word). The playing field doesn’t care who is playing, it affords equal opportunities to both sides.

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  13. Dan-T,
    it would be interesting to think about the norms of twitter signaling, and how they might differ from signaling that politicians do on T.V

    Signalling is our most ancient and basic form of communication. It preceded verbal communication by a long way. We are amazingly adept at sending and receiving signals. It is so natural to us that we don’t think about it. We immediately and intuitively read the attitudes, emotions and intentions of the people around us. Every time we communicate we are saying two things, one explicit, contained in the semantics, the other expressive, a signal contained in posture, glance, intonation and facial expression. Look at the exquisite synchronisation of an orchestra and you will see the power of signalling.

    Signalling is a vital augmentation of semantic communication because semantics are underpinned by our assessment of trust, sincerity and threat, which we derive in the first place from signals. That is how we are made.

    But electronic media have attenuated the signalling channel and this is the primary source of ambiguity. The attenuation also allows us to consciously manipulate the signals in a way that is impossible to do in face to face communication. So the signal is not only attenuated but it also becomes distorted.

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  14. I should have mentioned that all signal channels contain noise. When the signal channel is attenuated it also becomes dominated by noise, further increasing the ambiguity that Dan-t mentions.

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  15. Hi Dan, I don’t think the norms can be changed for Twitter, though my guess is there will be oscillations over time in how it is used in general. That seems to be true for all media… though as you point out this limited platform really drives one sort of use.

    I thought Twitter allowed for some expanded tweets (an added feature), and anyway one could always link to something more. The latter is what I thought was its only real use: advertising more information, elsewhere, quickly.

    Hmmm. Let me back up. I always hated Twitter. As soon as I heard of it, problems along the lines you discussed came to me. I wondered why anyone would want to use it, and why anyone would want to read anything like that. It was only later that I heard it was being used for a sort of loose networking, or information exchange. So I joined it to try out, and subscribed to people I was interested in keeping up to date with (whether I agreed with them or not).

    For some people it was really useful (like Existential Comics, and Greg Caruso). But mostly it was garbage. It really seemed to drag people down into the gutter pretty quickly. Dawkins was a prime example.

    And perhaps the worse thing were all the “followers” that would gang up on people who disagreed with their idol. No communication was involved. Virtue signalling galore, as well as just plain lying/insulting. After one ugly dust-up, where I realized there was no way to respond accurately in the real-time mode and limited space allowed, I gave it up.

    No regrets at all.

    When I heard that Trump was a huge Twitter user, I was almost tempted to get back on and write honest messages to him (not just insults). I mean here was a fast track way to maybe be heard by the President. But before I did, it soon became clear he had no interest in information exchange. He was, if anything, the model of the modern Twitter user.

    The question I guess, is exactly how many people are interested in Twitter or that kind of technology. Radio/Television is one thing and Twitter something else entirely. It was not a step forward or beyond what we already had with personal email or websites. If anything it took those and, while making them more broad/public access, limited the information allowed to be passed on. It was a trade of content for the chance/illusion of immediacy/community.

    I think it is possible people will come to feel it isn’t enough, or isn’t enough when trying to form opinions, and move to other platforms.

    That said, maybe people are moving toward having no interest in communication, beyond virtue signal and quotable insults, and then Twitter will be the beneficiary.

    On Presidents, and any other public official, I think it is not about changing norms for the platform but really understanding certain positions come with responsibilities for which certain methods/kinds of communication are not suitable and can be detrimental. We are careful to put in place regulations and laws that hinder financial gain, or abuse of power. It seems to me that allowing officials (that are supposed to be representatives enacting the will of the public) to communicate through channels that have all the problems you give, about issues going on in gov’t, would be a large gap to leave open. I think they should be barred from such platforms, while they hold office.

    It is simply if that is not a regulation or law, I wish Twitter would have the sense of civic responsibility to enact such a policy itself (admit this is not the tool for gov’t officials), or at least keep them honest.

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  16. Hi Labnut, glad to see you are still here, and apologies for upsetting you earlier. Your initial comment seemed to be critical of my reply. If you are interested, I have some thoughts on the matter (of discussing Trump). If not, I will stay silent, beyond agreeing with your overall point there was more here to discuss than just Trump. Peace.

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  17. Hi EJ, I actually agree with much of what you said… including your shot at people like me who initially hoped that Trump might avoid neo-con policies. But you also said something extra interesting on a side issue…

    “Once again the function of rhetoric has been missed…”

    I had an essay sitting on a back burner for a while now, generated from a discussion between you, Dan K, and I. It was going to start with a quote from you, and you seem to have supplied a fitting end. So I’ll probably submit this week. It’s light-hearted but I think fits with Dan T’s essay, and what you just pointed out.

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  18. Hi DB,
    I was concerned that the issue of Trump, having become everyone’s favourite obsession, was clouding what I thought was the real subject, the nature of Twitter as a communication medium.

    On the other hand, discussions like this are generally quite free ranging and I suppose one should not police it so closely. So really, it is your call. For obvious reasons I am quite neutral about Trump, seeing him as an interesting manifestation. I am more interested in the external dimensions of his policy thinking and here I am more critical of American policy, and not just his.

    In a comment some months ago I wrote this:

    “As an outsider I can see that America, Janus-like, has two faces, one represented by Clinton and the other represented by Trump. Obama will quickly be forgotten as muddled and ineffectual. It really does not matter who sits in the president’s office since it is the American nature that matters, when it comes to foreign affairs and the American nature is well represented in the person of Trinton. And so we can expect more rash, ill considered and disastrous meddling in the affairs of other countries. If it was mere meddling we could live with it(unless one lived in the Middle East), but the schoolyard bully has prodded and provoked two very large chaps. This has given them reason to work together in concert and that will ultimately prove to be a disastrous strategic mistake. The schoolyard bully will inevitably be cut down to size.

    This is the foreign policy statement I had expected from Obama:

    “We, the great democracies of the West, have, through a long and painful process, arrived at a just society based on democracy, free enterprise and the rule of law. It is imperfect and is still very much a work in progress. We are aware of our imperfections and are working on making it a more fair and just process.

    We urge other nations to similarly work towards the attainment of a just society. We recognise that this is your responsibility and that you will follow your own unique path towards this goal, just as we did. We will assist you in all reasonable ways but we renounce the intervention and pressure that marked our earlier relationships with other nations. From today our foreign policy will be based on friendly relations, non-intervention and full recognition of your right to find your own solutions to your own problems. We will endeavour to be an example for you to emulate. We recognise that this will mean standing by as spectators while tragedies unfold in some countries but experience shows that intervention only makes the tragedy worse. We are committed to the principle that each country must resolve its own problems and that this is the only path to a lasting solution.

    The only exception to the rule of non-intervention is genocide. Where genocide takes place we will intervene quickly, robustly and decisively. We will endeavour always to do that in collaboration with the international community.

    Human society is marked by disagreement and conflict. We resolve this equitably by appealing to the rule of law.
    We will now work towards extending the rule of law to governing the relationships between nations. We will do all we can to promote and strengthen the institutions of international law. We will endeavour to resolve all conflict through the mechanisms of the rule of law. We will work for the commitment of all nations to accepting the rule of law as the mechanism that governs relations between states.

    This is a major change in policy and we will show our commitment to this policy by reducing our military to the size necessary for credible self-defence. We also renounce the use of drones to conduct unlawful killings of people we perceive as our enemies.”

    Peace to you!

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  19. Hi Labnut, I happen to agree with your prior assessment of Clinton, Trump, and Obama (and the nature of the US), as well as that there was more than Trump to Dan’s essay… and that the important parts may be more than Trump.

    I was also taken by your sports analogy.

    At the same time, I want to defend discussing Trump, and in some way refute the idea criticizing him is just “hate” or done because he is “everyone’s favorite obsession”. As a reminder I was one of the one’s cautioning hyperbole about Trump (before and after the election), which is why EJ took a shot at my prior position. Yes, I admit I find him personally repulsive and annoying (a blowhard doofus), but not someone I hate. One has to have a great amount of leisure time, and an easy life, to hate someone one has never met and has not had a real, negative impact on one’s life. For me, Trump has to earn hate, and so far he has just been a bundle of mistakes and at worst (with what he has enacted) a modern Republican.

    I think your analogy about sports was pretty apt. In this case seeing the “game” as the election and everyone has to shake hands and move on after the winner is announced. Those who still go on about the election and “hating” him for that are guilty of what you were criticizing.

    The issue here is that (as I see it) once in office, a new game has begun. We (who do not agree with all of his plans) need to criticize those plans, or moves he makes that we view as detrimental. I mean if we cannot criticize him now for such things, when can we?

    You are absolutely correct that there are still people hating Trump, or that he won, and are obsessed with a combination of the two. But I think it is counterproductive to consider/label all criticism a manifestation of those. That would artificially stifle natural political commentary, dissent, and action. And that holds true, even of people that have been hating on the guy previously. Each case should be taken on its own merits… now that he is in power, and acting in that capacity.

    And (with regard to this essay) the fact is that Trump is the first, active Twitter president. We can see and judge how that effects political discourse in general, and the running of the US gov’t in specific. There is no one else one can talk about as an example, and in this case he happens to be one of the stereotypical worst kind of Twitter users.

    My criticism stems from the fact that he states how he is using it, and I consider that use opposed to the function of that office, as well as hindering democratic gov’t. To move further than what I mentioned earlier, his Twitter habits have encouraged other gov’t officials to do the same. And worse still, his Tweets have led to threats against other members of the gov’t (judges). This is not a minor thing.

    So I hope I have made the case that some criticism of Trump and his actions are valid, not just cases of hate or obsessing, and that in this specific essay they really make sense. At the very least as a solid side issue.

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  20. Hi DB,
    the successful operation of democracy is predicated on some very simple principles,
    1) we respect the outcome as being representative of a large proportion of the populace;
    2) once the contest is over we cooperate wherever possible;
    3) we may criticise but it should be constructive and not destructive;
    4) there are no ‘right’ outcomes, only outcomes that represent people’s interests or needs;
    5) the best outcomes intelligently accommodate the diverse needs of the populace as far as possible;

    There is a substantial current of liberal thought that says we should undermine, obstruct and de-legitimise Trump wherever possible, render him impotent and then build a case to impeach him. Democracy cannot work if the losers refuse to accept they have lost and then resort to activism to overturn an election. Visceral dislike of the opposition’s leader is not a sufficiently good excuse. This is a door that, once opened, cannot be closed, and then democracy has ended.

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  21. Hi Labnut, we definitely agree on much here. I want to break my reply into a few issues…

    1) Historical (not a defence but an explanation): a lot of liberals are having problems today because the Republicans did not follow the very principles you set out (during Obama’s administration) and caused significant (and unjust) trouble. Plus Trump’s electoral victory demonstrably did not represent the will of the populace. With some irony Trump was critical of the very mechanism that put him into office. This is one of the reasons that *he* keeps trying to relive, re-legislate the election. The guy himself is still obsessed with it and has not moved on. I of course don’t think that grants cover to liberals for acting like Reps did, or reasons for acting contrary to what you set out.

    2) Principles: I would add to your list that the functions of the different branches of government should be respected. I say this because they are meant to be independent and may fall into conflict themselves. Trump has violated that principle, and even if we did not add that to the list, he has demonstrably violated 2-5, in particular while using his Twitter account. This includes his attacks on the legislative and judicial branches, as well as prior executive. All of these have led to threats and antagonism from sections of the public (for no reason) against other branches, which undercuts democracy. I think this opens him to valid criticism.

    3) Civil disobedience (here is where we may disagree): when 4 or 5 are felt to be violated then the right to undermine and obstruct gov’t activity is not only a right but a duty. Yes, It shouldn’t simply be because of a visceral dislike of a person, but there is plenty he has done (or more properly his administration) since gaining office for which opposition and obstruction were not only valid, but necessary, useful, and best yet… successful.

    4) Satire (also a potential point of disagreement): I don’t believe those principles pertain to entertainment. One should have the freedom to vent at and insult anyone, in any position, for whatever. The line though has to be clear, and the venue make sense. I tend to think much of Trump’s Twitter activity is just venting with no meaning, beyond entertainment value (for himself and fans). If this was made clear by him I would have much less problem with it. It is that he treats it as real where problems arise.

    5) News (not sure of your position): The news media should be impartial and deliver (relevant) information even if it is damaging to gov’t officials. They have no reason to “cooperate” and shouldn’t. There is of course a problem that much of the media is not impartial for either side and dwell on or press irrelevant information, for political reasons.

    On the issue of Twitter–and reason to have heart Dan’s concerns may *not* come true–is that Trump’s own supporters (and indeed his Supreme Court appointee) have openly criticized him for his behavior on Twitter… related largely to the point about Principles (#2) I gave above. If his own people are doing it, I would think it has to be valid for liberals?

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