Trump’s Twitter: Political Tool or Security Risk?

Published on The Independent Australian Media Network on Feb. 8, 2017

By Charmayne Allison

US President Donald Trump was only 25 minutes into a call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he abruptly ended it.

Several days later, Trump restlessly retreated to the familiar glass screen of his Android, tapping out a tweet accented by question marks and exclamation points. “Do you believe it? The Obama administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”

Labelled by Trump as the “worst call by far” out of a string of phone conversations with world leaders that day, the call was cut short after Turnbull raised the issue of a refugee resettlement deal struck with former US president Barack Obama.

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Perhaps more surprising than his abrupt termination of the call was Trump’s subsequent broadcast on Twitter of his views regarding the conversation. Indeed, such informality from a president concerning matters of state would have formerly evoked surprise. However, such public discussion of policies by Trump is fast becoming normalised – each new tweet fading into a milieu of indignant defences of his decisions, and acerbically-worded attacks of his opponents.

Of the 75 tweets published by Trump over the 13 days following his inauguration, the majority have been used to publicly air his sentiments regarding political matters.

A substantial number of these tweets addressed the negative response to Trump’s executive order barring refugees from entering the US for 120 days and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations for 90 days.

In response to the backlash from the media and public alike, President Trump flooded his feed with a series of tweets defending the order, downplaying its consequences, and drawing on fears of a “horror” akin to the recent violence in Europe to justify its necessity.

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President Trump’s prolific use of Twitter – unprecedented by former US presidents – is described by The New York Times as a tool unleashed and redefined for “political promotion, distraction, score-settling and attack”. With more than 23 million followers and 34 thousand tweets, Trump’s Twitter feed is fast becoming a highly scrutinised global venue where Trump airs America’s dirty laundry.

However, like Trump’s presidential campaign, what was originally perceived by many as laughable has gradually become alarmingly real. Where Trump’s tweets were originally curated into frothy, Buzzfeed-esque lists of the most “embarrassing” and “outrageous” tidbits, they are now perceived by many as powerful and even dangerous tools of political persuasion.

In a report by Politico, concerns are raised that Trump’s Twitter account could be a genuine national security threat. According to several interviewed US intelligence and defence specialists, there are fears that Trump’s account is already being utilised by foreign agencies to “analyze his personality, track his habits and detect clues about what to expect from a Trump-led American government”.

So, what information would these “foreign agencies” gather from Trump’s Twitter account?

Trump’s feed reveals a subtle mercuriality – contrary to the “solid core of opinion” his unabashed candour initially implies. In an in-depth analysis of Trump’s tweets, Politico illustrates this instability by unpacking a series of his tweets related to Time magazine. Spanning a period of four years, these tweets show Trump’s opinion of Time oscillating from disparaging – “I knew last year that @TIME Magazine lost all credibility when they didn’t include me in their Top 100” and “a joke and stunt of a magazine that will, like Newsweek, soon be dead” – to glowing – “On the cover of @TIME magazine – a great honour!”

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This mutability based on Trump’s satisfaction with a party or person indicates that Trump is largely ruled by his emotions. According to The New York Times, while Trump’s impulsiveness formerly led him to sue, he now tweets – “caustically, colorfully and repeatedly”. Each 140-character publication a platform for Trump to overtly shame or threaten his opponents.

Littered with hyperbole and emotionally-charged words such as “dumb”, “fake”, “weak” and “traitor”, Trump’s tweets are also highly formulaic and even predictable. In her analysis of Trump’s feed, David Carr fellow Amanda Hess applies Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals – logos (the appeal to logic), ethos (the appeal to credibility) and pathos (the appeal to emotion) – to Trump’s tweets. This theoretical framework reveals a pattern, evident in the tweet regarding VoteStand results:

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Trump states a fact: he looks forward to seeing the results of VoteStand. He then questions the credibility of the voting system: at least 3 million votes were illegal. He finishes with an appeal to emotion: we must do better! This predictable pattern – one of several detected by Amanda Hess – indicates a predictable thought-pattern.

The sheer volume of tweets published by Trump offers a detailed sketch of Trump’s personality – his impulsiveness, unruly temper and fluctuating views – which could be manipulated for others’ gain.

In sharing his thoughts so openly and prolifically on Twitter, Trump may be attempting to achieve a transparency with the American people. However, his Twitter activity demonstrates a marked lack of diplomacy: the discretion, subtlety and finesse desired in a president.

Trump’s frankness on Twitter regarding his (often-shifting) feelings for others presents another vulnerability. By sharing so publicly the names of his allies, the names of his enemies, and where potential tensions are forming, Trump opens himself up to foreign agencies using this public knowledge, maximising on his whims to strengthen certain bonds and weaken others to their advantage.

Trump’s openly-shared frustration over the “dumb deal” with Australia is one such tension which could be exploited. Still, it is only early days. Time will tell whether his tweets – originally laughable, then powerful – will eventually become his downfall.

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