Last night, President Trump gave a speech in Phoenix that sounded a lot like his campaign speeches in 2016. Build a wall... Radical Islamic terrorism... Crooked media...
But something else pernicious jumped out at me as I read reports (and the transcript) of his speech.
It's time to expose the crooked media deceptions, and to challenge the media for their role in fomenting divisions. And yes, by the way ― and yes, by the way, they are trying to take away our history and our heritage.
That last sentence ― "trying to take away our history and our heritage" ― is clear white nationalist rhetoric. And that's incredibly frightening coming from a sitting US president.
But what jumped out at me was the first sentence, specifically the phrase "fomenting divisions".
In my blog post last week, I noted a number of two-word phrases that were distinctive of high-volume Twitter accounts (bots, sockpuppets, and the like) in tweets tagged #unitetheright, during and surrounding the Charlottesville rally and terror attack. The phrase most distinctive of high-volume accounts when contrasted with "regular", low-volume users was "media fomenting". Two other phrases among the most distinctive of high-volume accounts were "fomenting anger" (#5) and "fomenting division" (#9).
Fomenting divisions is a new phrase for Trump. The word "foment(ing)" never appears in his tweets, and it appears only three times in his statements curated by The American Presidency Project. Until last night, he only used "foment" to refer to violence and terrorism, and only once to refer to Americans (those promoting "anti-police" attitudes and actions in Ferguson). He has not used it in any official speech or statement during the past six months.
Now the idea of the press fomenting division is not new for Trump. He's been playing variations on the Lügenpresse theme his entire campaign. (Lügenpresse was a popular propaganda term in Nazi Germany. It literally means "lying press". Trump tends to use English variants of it ― "lying media", "crooked media", and the like. Only hard-core white nationalists like Richard Spencer use the original German these days.)
It is incredibly disturbing that a white nationalist, Nazi-originating idea saturates Trump's rhetoric (and, it seems, his political outlook in general). But I shudder at the fact that a largely automated, Twitter-based, disinformation campaign may be affecting the president's speaking points ― and so rapidly.
The media fomenting division isn't the only phrase from that Twitter campaign that made its way into Trump's speech last night. Immediately after the Charlottesville terror attack, President Trump decried the violence and hatred "on many sides". He later used the term "alt-left" to describe what he sees as the aggressive, violent strain of leftist politics. (I don't have the data to know if this term originated with him, or elsewhere.) But last night, for the first time, President Trump directly called out the Antifa movement.
How about -- how about all week they're talking about the massive crowds that are going to be outside. Where are they? Well, it's hot out. It is hot. I think it's too warm.You know, they show up in the helmets and the black masks, and they've got clubs and they've got everything -- Antifa!
Antifa is one of the most used words in the #UniteTheRight corpus I collected, and even more so in the tweets I collected (but haven't published) from the Boston "Free Speech" rally the following weekend. However, Trump has never tweeted the word "Antifa", nor does that word occur in any speech (including campaign speeches), radio address, policy statement, etc. curated by the American Presidency Project before last night's Phoenix rally.
The Antifa (anti-fascist) movement originated in 1930s Central Europe, as a unifying movement of communists and social democrats who opposed the rise of national socialism (Nazism). While they are experiencing growth today in opposition to the rise of far-right movements in North America and Europe, they are still a relatively small movement. And though the far-right portrays them as a violent group ― and they are more willing to engage in physical confrontation than most leftist protesters ― very little Antifa violence has actually taken place in the US.
The far right has latched onto Antifa as the focus of their anger. Antifa gives them a target for their ire, as well as a channel through which to portray themselves as victims. And that victim narrative is essential to the white nationalist recruiting message, as well as Trump's campaign. So while Trump's party controls two (arguably three) branches of the federal government, both the "crooked" media and "violent" left are an essential backdrop to the Trump (and white nationalist) message.
In addition to these key phrases about the media and Antifa, Trump also began his speech by drawing attention to the activity of the anti-Trump protesters outside the arena. This narrative shift ― latching onto any violence, when possible, and making it up (or noting the lack of a police permit), when not ― is also common in far-right disinformation campaigns. It further portrays Trump and his people as embattled victims, and using this to begin and frame his speech allows him to capitalize on that victim narrative throughout.
I've noted two problems so far: 1) President Trump's appropriation of (toned down) white nationalist rhetoric, and 2) the ease and speed with which a social-media-based disinformation campaign can impact Trump's agenda. But there's a third problem:
This social media campaign is an unrepresentative sample of his base that tilts towards the extreme.
As I note in my post, Twitter propaganda during 'Unite the Right', "The top 10% of accounts by tweet volume account for approximately 50% of the tweets, and the top 5% of accounts generated approximately 37% of the tweets." And this is not the first time my research colleagues and/or I have seen such disproportion. As a rule, a very small number of accounts, which tend to show signs of automation (e.g., bots), generate the large majority of tweets ― far more than we would expect from a typical Zipf distribution.
Perhaps more importantly, I noted that "the highest-volume accounts are disproportionately pushing sites known for spreading disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda", and "the high-volume accounts are generally pushing the narrative of the alt-right, white nationalist agenda of the #unitetheright organizers."
In other words, President Trump seems to be building his key talking points from tweets generated by a small number of automated accounts that push an extremist agenda and share information from discredited sources.
Or put more starkly, white nationalist propaganda seems to exert a significant influence on President Trump's values and rhetoric.
And that's truly frightening.
Note: the Twitter scrape and analysis were conducted with an extension of my tweetmineR utility for Python and R. Trump's speeches and statements were downloaded and analyzed with my presidencyproject scripts for R.
Header image by InstaWalli.