According to Dhavan Shah, one of Donald Trump’s most surprising capabilities has been his ability to upend orthodox beliefs about modern political campaigns: that they require money and coordinated advertising. The president has subverted his opponents’ capacity to establish a message, even though he performs poorly on traditional activities such as fundraising.
“Almost all of Trump’s competitors outspent him,” Shah said, naming not only Joe Biden but also Hillary Clinton and the field of Republican primary candidates he defeated in 2016. “But the difference is in the media he was able to generate himself.”
Trump’s tool for generating media attention has been, primarily, Twitter.
Fighting for Fact over Fiction
Shah is UW–Madison’s Louis A. and Mary E. Maier-Bascom Professor, director of the Mass Communication Research Center, and scientific director in the Center for Health Enhancement System Studies. During a UW Now Livestream event a week before the 2020 election, he delivered a talk titled “Trump and Twitter, Media Management, and Message Amplification.” In that talk, he spoke about the ways that Donald Trump has used social media — and particularly Twitter — as a cornerstone of his political identity.
“One of the biggest questions that I think we have to explain in the current era is how Trump was able to drive so much coverage and what role social media played in that process,” Shah told viewers who followed the event live on YouTube. “When we look at Trump, we can see his history of press management. His instincts for generating publicity are sort of unparalleled.”
Shah presented data about how Trump performed during the 2016 campaign. He and his fellow researchers tallied messages by and about Trump on Twitter, noting that the candidate was able to garner attention when his messages were amplified by his followers, which then convinced mainstream media to give him more attention for free.
“Trump’s tweetstorms and then the retweeting of those messages became a really powerful signal to journalists that there was something to report,” Shah said.
Shah spoke for 20 minutes, and then he took questions from viewers. Mike Knetter, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association, hosted the conversation and served as moderator. To hear more from Shah, you can view a recording of The UW Now. The series is offered free via YouTube, and the next installment, on the post-election economy, will be November 10.