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How Facebook, Twitter make Trump look like he makes sense

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer
Source: Reuters

To say Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) have exerted more influence this election than ever before is a truism—the companies are young, and social media appears to be growing indefinitely.

What’s more, without the technology advanced by Facebook and Twitter, Donald Trump may have never even stood a chance at winning the presidency.

But probably not for the obvious reasons you’d think.

Sure, record-high user accounts and the fact that one candidate did the majority of his campaigning on Twitter stick out as big changes since the last election. But those changes pale in comparison to the paradigm shift social media companies have spearheaded: a total immersion in video.

Mark Zuckerberg made Trump look like he made sense

Four years have passed since the last presidential election, and in that time Facebook and Twitter have prioritized video to an astonishing degree, morphing the sites from a YouTube link repository to video hosts in their own right.

And all those videos autoplay. For politicians, this has proved indispensable as a convenient vector to get out the message in their own words, straight from the horse’s mouth to the people, which can make all the difference.

In politics, words themselves will only get you so far—charisma, bluster, tone, and various other means of nonverbal communication get you the rest of the way there. But only if you see and hear them.

Before the very first debate was aired over the radio in 1948, the people only ever got to read the choice quotes and transcripts, stripping away any artifice that wasn’t in the text itself. Technology demoted textual substance once again when Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy faced off in 1960, a debate that was famously called for Kennedy by those who watched the telecast, but for Nixon for those who only heard the radio.

Since 1960, access of politicians speaking their own words in video, as they intended them, has increased thanks to the rise of cable news, on-demand video, universal computer and phone adoption, and online video platforms. And now, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, the public receives video-it-didn’t-demand, auto-played through feeds and at the top of articles.

For some politicians, increased video exposure hurts, as a less-than-impressive orator with good speechwriters and ideas does not benefit from a model that weights performance. But for someone born for the stage, it can make all the difference—especially if they want to mask the deficiencies in what they’re saying.

An improvising Donald Trump is incoherent in written form

The incoherence of Trump’s naked words do not make news anymore—unless he coins a new phrase, like whatever “the cyber” is. After the first debate, The Verge released a transcript of some of Trump’s comments regarding what one can only assume to be cybersecurity, ostensibly to illustrate how unintelligible what he said actually was. A sample:


You don’t know who broke into DNC, but what did we learn? We learn that Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of by your people. By Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Look what happened to her. But Bernie Sanders was taken advantage of. Now, whether that was Russia, whether that was China, whether it was another country, we don’t know, because the truth is, under President Obama we’ve lost control of things that we used to have control over. We came in with an internet, we came up with the internet.

And take this example from the last night’s final presidential debate, which caused Zack Beauchamp of Vox to write, “Read this Trump debate answer and tell me if you can make sense of it.” It has been generously broken into paragraphs:


Well, Aleppo is a disaster. It’s a humanitarian nightmare. But it has fallen from any standpoint. I mean, what do you need, a signed document? Take a look at Aleppo. It is so sad when you see what’s happened.

And a lot of this is because of Hillary Clinton. Because what has happened is by fighting Assad, who turned out to be a lot tougher than she thought, and now she is going to say, “Oh, he loves Assad.” He’s just much tougher and much smarter than her and Obama. And everyone thought he was gone two years ago, three years ago. He aligned with Russia. He now also aligned with Iran, who we made very powerful. We gave them $150 billion back. We give them $1.7 billion in cash. I mean cash, bundles of cash as big as this stage. We gave them $1.7 billion.

Now they have aligned, he has aligned with Russia and with Iran. They don’t want ISIS. But they have other things because we’re backing, we’re backing rebels. We don’t know who the rebels are. We’re giving them lots of money, lots of everything. We don’t know who the rebels are. And when and if, and it’s not going to happen because you have Russia and you have Iran now. But if they ever did overthrow Assad, you might end up as bad as Assad is, and he is a bad guy.

At best, this is incredibly scattered in written form—even with the generous paragraph breaks. At worst, it’s utterly incoherent.

As CNBC’s Daniel Libit put it, Trump is a “transcriptionist’s worst nightmare: severely unintelligible,” noting that the “unscripted speaking style, with its spasmodic, self-interrupting sentence structure has increasingly come to overwhelm the human brains and tape recorders attempting to quote him.”

But thanks to the collective social media reach of CNN, MSNBC, HuffPo, Fox, and countless other media, political, and individual uploaders constantly flooding the zone with Trump, the need to quote him in print form is devalued. And when it is printed, Trump’s voice is in our recent memory to play in our head. In its thirst for publishing video, the platforms of Facebook and Twitter have let Trump bypass the media and go directly to the people.

Linguist: Trump speaks like Gertrude Stein wrote

Alive, out of his mouth, Trump’s word-salad does have an effect on people, if the ratings and consistent public fascination have anything to say about it. The same shiny, golden artifice he uses with his buildings combine with the bluster and performance of his reality TV career to mask the grotesque lines he improvises.

In a blog post last August, University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman noted the dichotomy between Trump in transcript and Trump in video, pointing to false starts and long stream-of-consciousness parentheticals that are “comprehensible and even eloquent in audio-visual form,” but have “apparent incoherence” when transcribed.

“Both are effectively signaled in speaking — by prosody along with gesture, posture, and gaze — and therefore largely factored out by listeners. But in textual form, the cues are gone, and we lose the thread.” The proper way to transcribe Trump, Liberman later wrote, was like Gertrude Stein.

According to another linguist, Professor George Lakoff of UC Berkeley, Trump uses people’s brains against them not just with tactics like repetition, framing, and skilled deploying of sentence fragments—which people automatically finish in their heads.

“They commonly feel empathy and intimacy, an acceptance of what is being said, and good feeling toward the speaker,” he wrote this summer. “This is an unconscious, automatic reaction, especially when words are flying by quickly.”

On the phone, Lakoff elaborated on how Trump’s words are tailored to his base.

“All he needs to do is mentions a topic,” Lakoff said. “When he mentions a topic, they know what he’s going to say. Then he can comment on it and go on.”

While other politicians have spoken with dog-whistles and whatever the serious versions of inside-jokes are when in front of supporters, most change their manner when addressing a broader public. Not Trump.

As Michiko Kakutani implied in a recent review of a Hitler biography, none of these tactics are particularly new. Professor Michael Silverstein, a linguist at the University of Chicago, sees acting in Trump’s delivery style, in which almost everything seems like a slogan, “uttered with a distincitvely non-public-speaking intonation and other voice dynamics.”

“He frequently seems to be mouthing things in the voice and mirrored person of those he is trying to lead and influence. Think of a Shakespearean soliloquy in which the actor is in character,” Silverstein wrote in an email. “Rush Limbaugh does this to perfection, intercutting it with appeals directly to the audience, so perhaps there is precedent for Mr. Trump’s style.”

None of this works when reading the same words. On the page, the effects of repetition, slogans, unfinished sentences, and acting don’t quite work the same way, taking the shape much like the ramblings of the 1,259th comment on an article.

If Trump had to make his case outside of video, in which he can be not only composer but performer of his words, he would have remained a sideshow in politics, alone with his birthers-in-arms.

It’s hard to say how far back you’d have to go to yield different results with the same Republican primary field, with everything but technology held in constant. Perhaps without his rhetorical shortcomings so on display, Jeb Bush would have been the front-runner many had hoped for and expected had he ran in a print-only time.

Or perhaps Marco Rubio would have thrived with 2008’s ability to make the “Little Marco” exchanges reach billions in mere hours. We’ll never know.


Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumerism, tech, and personal finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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