Editor’s note: Michael Humphrey, assistant professor of journalism and media communication at Colorado State University, authored this piece for The Conversation in April 2022. Colorado State is a contributing institution to The Conversation, an independent collaboration between editors and academics that provides informed news analysis and commentary to the general public. See the entire list of contributing faculty and their articles here.
Any speculation about whether Donald Trump will return to Twitter after his permanent suspension in 2021 must begin with two caveats. First, we do not know for sure if, or when, the presumed new owner of the social media platform, Elon Musk, will lift the ban. Second, Trump has said he will not come back.
“I was disappointed by the way I was treated by Twitter,” Trump told CNBC on April 25, 2022. “I won’t be going back on Twitter.”
But if Musk, Trump and social media have taught us anything, it is that the half-life of such caveats can be seconds. It is worth at least considering the premise: What’s at stake for Trump, Twitter and politics if he does return.
The pull of Twitter might be irresistible for Trump. Before being kicked off the platform for what Twitter described as “the risk of further incitement of violence” after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Trump was a prolific user of the site. I know this firsthand: Between 2017 and 2021, I collected and analyzed all of his tweets – some 20,301, excluding retweets and links without comment.
Different platform, same narrative
Trump was a potent narrator-in-chief on Twitter. Reaching nearly 89 million followers by the time of his suspension was only the beginning. In analyzing his use of Twitter, I found that he built a passionate base of loyalists through a consistent narrative that reflected their grievances. He attacked his rivals with mockery, sold himself as the solution to all problems and used the day’s news to warn of enemies near and far.
This high-emotion, high-stakes approach seemed impossible for journalists to ignore. That meant his message often jumped from Twitter to much larger audiences, usually thanks to media outlets that treated his tweets as news.
Sometimes it was news. He hired and fired on Twitter and announced many other major decisions there.
Twitter allowed him to speak directly, without a filter, to his base. At the same time, it was a production plant for a never-ending news cycle. It is hard to imagine the Trump presidency without Twitter. And it might be even harder to imagine that he could command the same level of attention without it.
Would the public see a different Trump if he returned? Trump’s 16 months in the Twitter wilderness suggest that won’t happen. Examining his primary forms of communication post-Twitter – press releases on his website and speeches – the former president has attacked others, defended himself, picked favorites and enumerated grievances just like he did on Twitter.
Trump seems to be the same digital yarn-spinner who sold a large swath of Americans on his basic premise, which I summarize as: “The establishment is stopping me from protecting you against invaders.”
Analyzing those post-Twitter communications, it is clear that Trump hasn’t changed this narrative. If anything, the story has become even more potent because the establishment and the invaders are now more regularly one and the same in Trump’s rhetoric. A sample press release from April 18 indicates as much:
“… the racist and highly partisan Attorney General of New York State, failed Gubernatorial candidate Letitia James, should focus her efforts on saving the State of New York and ending its reputation as a Crime Capital of the World, instead of spending millions of dollars and utilizing a large portion of her office in going after Donald J. Trump and the Trump Organization (for many years!), who have probably done more for New York than virtually any other person or group …”
All the elements that characterize Trump’s messaging are there: mocking a supposed persecutor, aggrandizing his own accomplishments and ultimately creating a narrative in which he, and everyone who agrees, is a victim. It taps into a larger narrative that institutions, such as journalists and politicians, have ruined America and harmed its “real” citizens in every way from economics to popular culture. Trump’s presentation of himself as both victim and hero clearly gratifies people who believe that story.
You do not have to look that hard for indicators as to how a Trump return to Twitter could play out – they are seen in the multiple press statements he releases on a daily basis. In four such statements released the day after Musk’s Twitter announcement, Trump railed against the changing of the Cleveland Indians name, endorsed a pro-Trump candidate for Congress and encouraged supporters to watch a new film made by “incredible Patriots” who were “exposing this great election fraud.” That last statement ended with a rallying call to spread the message that “the 2020 Election was Rigged and Stolen!”
Blue checks and red lines
While Trump has stated he will not return to Twitter, former advisers, speaking anonymously, are not so sure. That might be because his website where the press releases are posted ranked 34,564th for engagement on April 27, according to Alexa. Twitter, that same day, ranked 12th. Truth Social, the social media app founded by Trump, would have to be wildly successful to offset the power of attention and influence that Trump enjoyed on Twitter.
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What would a Musk-owned Twitter do if Trump, allowed back on the platform, continued to say false and misleading things?
Tagging tweets as false or misleading, as Trump’s frequently were toward the end of his time on Twitter, may, for the “free speech absolutist” that Musk claims to be, cross some perceived line. In any case, it might not be that effective. A recent experiment at Cornell University found that tagging false claims on a platform such as Facebook or Twitter “had no effect on survey participants’ perception of its accuracy and actually increased their likelihood of sharing it on social media.”
The same study found that fact checking and “rebutting the false claim with links to additional information” was more successful, making people less likely to believe the false information. And Twitter has begun experimenting with a fact-checking feature to correct false information on the platform. Paying attention to what happens to that feature might give some indication as to how much will be tolerated from Trump should he go back on Twitter.
Meanwhile, despite Musk’s desire to go after Twitter bots – the presence of which are thought to have amplified Trump’s voice and potentially his share of the vote – that may prove a difficult undertaking.
I’ve changed … really
How will the media respond should the former president return to Twitter, given his previous success in using the platform to spark media coverage. Research has found that not only was Trump successful in boosting coverage of himself through tweeting, he was also able to divert media from reporting on potentially negative topics that could hurt his standing by tweeting about something completely different.
It’s not clear whether the media will again choose to follow and amplify Trump’s tweets with the same frequency.
Meanwhile, changing a platform like Twitter to address some of the concerns associated with a returning Trump is a massive undertaking. And the chances of Trump himself changing seem even less likely. So should it happen, don’t be surprised if a Trump-Twitter reunion looks a lot like the first go-round.