Trump’s tweets: a taxonomy of trouble

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We have done such a poor job of processing Donald Trump’s tweets. Our reaction has always been to immediately parse the literal content. Fact-check the minutia, but don’t look at the strategy behind the message. This has caused system overload and rendered us unable to grasp what’s really happening.

In a recent On the Media podcast, host Brooke Gladstone and guest, George Lakoff investigated the taxonomy of Trump’s tweets. Lakoff is a retired Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society.

Lakoff divided Trump’s tweets into these categories: preemptive framing, diversion, trial balloons, deflection and generalization. Lakoff thinks such understanding is important if the media is to responsibly report on the tweets rather than just magnify the misinformation.

Here is how Lakoff breaks things down:
Preemptive framing
Frame an issue before other people can get a chance to. For example, with Trump’s tweet, “The only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big, they were totally embarrassed.” In other words, it was the Dems’ fault they were hacked. And as Gladstone observes, it puts forth, “the idea that the Dems lost so big when, in fact, it was one of the narrowest losses in history. So that’s all framed, so you have to go back and deconstruct the tweet before you can even address it.”
Or, take this Trump tweet, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote, if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Wrong on so many counts, but he’s already reframed the popular vote.
Diversion tweet
Get people talking about a small issue when there is something much bigger on the horizon. For instance, Trump’s attacks on Meryl Streep when conflicts of interest and the Russian hacking were coming up.
The trial balloon
Put out an idea in an offhanded fashion and see what the reaction is. As in, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capacity until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” If it resonates, stick with it. Otherwise let it fade away.
Deflection
Attack the messenger! As with Buzzfeed and others for putting out the discussion of the Russian leaks. Take the focus away from the content and place it on the means by which it was put forth.
Generalization
Take a specific case and say that it’s the general case. Lakoff calls it “Salient Exemplar.” For example, “There is a rape or a murder, a shooting by a Mexican, he says, they’re rapists and killers. He does that all the time.”

Lakoff cited this recent Trump tweet as falling into the first four categories: “Intelligence agencies should not have allowed this fake news to leak into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
First, preemptive framing: this is fake news. Secondly, diversion: it’s gonna be discussed whether or not it’s fake news or should have been leaked, rather than the content. There’s deflection, which is attacking the messengers, and then you get the trial balloon: will the intelligence agencies be stopped from doing this? Are they working like Nazi Germany?

Lakoff’s prescription for dealing with the tweets? Should the media not report on the them at all?

You begin by telling the truth and giving the evidence for that truth, then mention his tweet, point out that that contradicts the truth and then talk about what kind of tweet this is. You know, you say, this is a case of diversion. Here’s what he is diverting, quickly. Don’t have a panel discussion about it, you know, just do it and go on. Keep going back to substance and the truth.

The next four years will be a challenge to reporters. As Lakoff puts it, “The media is addicted to breaking news, so we have to give the tweet first. That’s the breaking news. WRONG, because that allows [Trump] to manipulate you as a reporter and manipulate the truth.”

We all have to be better than that.

The Lakoff portion of the podcast, along with a transcript can be found here. The entire podcast, entitled The Game Has Changed, is well worth listening to.

Bill Kesler Bill Kesler (24 Posts)

Before Bill Kesler retired in 2007 as vice-president of production for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he worked for more than 20 years as a photojournalist.