Day 6

What's going on underneath @RealDonaldTrump's tweets? A small investigation

The replies to Donald Trump's tweets have evolved into a wild media ecosystem — a free-flowing mess of memes, product placements, protests and counter-protests.
The space under Trump's tweets have become a media channel.

By Craig Desson 

"Early on, there were tweets that definitely got responses by the thousands ー if not tens of thousands."

This was Justin Hendrix's experience with tweeting replies to what @RealDonaldTrump posted. 

Hendrix runs a tech incubator in New York City. For a while, his rapid-fire replies at @RealDonaldTrump showed up right underneath President Trump's tweets in my feed.

I'd see Hendrix's Twitter replies with satirical cartoons of Vladimir Putin and Trump, bar charts challenging the president's economic statements, and SNL clips whenever I'd expand a @RealDonaldTrump tweet.

As @RealDonaldTrump's tweets swallowed up Twitter after his inauguration, I became intrigued with tweets like Hendrix's ー which had become ubiquitous.

It seemed the space under Trump's tweets had evolved into a wild media ecosystem — a free-flowing mess of memes, product placements, protests and counter-protests.  People seemed to be attaching themselves to Trump's tweets like barnacles on a ship, in the hopes of finding a giant audience.

So I chose a few people, whose usernames kept showing up alongside Trump's tweets, to try and figure out what goes on in the minds of people who regularly tweet at the U.S. president.


A new media channel

Justin Hendrix says he started Tweeting at Trump as an experiment.

"I think of it as a briar patch, where you leap in and get both positive and negative feedback."

At times, Hendrix's replies to Trump appeared in over 170,000 people's feeds.

He sees Trump's tweets as media channels in their own right.

"I'm really not sure why more think tanks and media companies don't use [Trump's tweets] to disseminate their message," he told me. "It's a very effective place to share memes, articles and information with like-minded people."

In true New Yorker fashion, Justin also hinted that the phenomenon I was researching stopped being interesting a few weeks ago. But he had a point. 

"It already has become a much more crowded and less interesting space than it was."

He says that right after Trump's election, "It was the Wild West."


Big reach

Holly Figueroa started regularly tweeting at Trump after the election. She called him a "moron" for bragging about his win.

Holly is a musician who homeschools her autistic son in Seattle. 

Her first tweet to the then-president-elect took off, so she turned it into a daily habit, one that takes up about an hour of her day.

Holly says her tweets get three to five million impressions daily. 


Holly takes the process seriously.  She prepares each morning by reading the news to try to guess what Trump will tweet about.

Then she prepares GIFs, memes and funny one-liners, so she's ready when the president gets to work. She also uses a feature that allows Twitter to text tweets to your phone, so she can be among the first to reply, which seems to help her rise to the top.

"Whenever he tweets, I get an alert and then I just tweet in fast succession."

Holly says she isn't actually all that interested in the number of people who see her tweets. For her, tweeting to Trump is cathartic.

"It's hard to tell what the impact is, but it makes me feel better," she says.


Lessons from China

Christoph Rehage is known on the Internet — mostly in China — for walking 4,600 kilometres across that country.

He also recently replaced Justin Hendrix as the first person I see underneath Trump's tweets.


His satirical 140 character jabs at Trump are seen by hundreds of thousands on Twitter.

"Before, I would go, 'I'm not going to waste my time responding to Trump.'

"But now I think I should get off my high horse, and make myself heard."

Christoph often faces an onslaught of attacks by Trump supporters on Twitter. They accuse him of being funded by shadowy liberal groups, and accuse Twitter of boosting accounts like his to the top.

"They think Twitter is kind of running this liberal ideology," Christoph says.


Not everyone's Twitter is the same

Christoph sent me some of the tweets from the people who criticized him. 

One was from a user called @AngrySnot Rocket

He tweeted at Christoph:

"You are insufferable, every tweet he does you have to do at least 5-10+ replies... are you promoting something?"

I decided to contact @AngrySnotRocket on Twitter because I wanted to know if Twitter was showing us the same replies under Trump's tweets.

Twitter recently changed how replies are ordered under a tweet. Where it used to be purely in the order of who tweeted, it's now more like Facebook — an algorithm decides the order of the replies.

We shared screenshots of the same Trump tweet. 

What @AngrySnotRocket saw underneath a Trump tweet on the left and @CraigDesson on the right. (Twitter)

It turns out, we did see different replies.  But, from @AngrySnotRocket's perspective, they were still both biased towards a liberal point of view.

"I do believe most Trumpkins [Trump supporters] don't have verified accounts either," he told me, "which could also be a major factor in this as well." 


My turn

There was only one last thing to do — tweet at the U.S. president myself.

On Feb. 23 at 5:33 p.m., Donald Trump tweeted a headline from a Fox News story about the U.S. stock market.

Less than a minute later, I replied to Trump, "Hello World!"


Minutes later, my tweet had been seen by thousands of people, and by the next day it had shown up in people's feeds over 20,000 times.

Analytics from Twitter show that 22,090 people saw my Donald Trump reply. 


It was one of my most popular tweets ever (what a sad thing to write) — and it took barely a moment's thought. 


Twitter winter 2017

The fact that Donald Trump's tweets are a firehose for blasting memes at a large online audience, hungry for political debate, is likely an accident that came about because Twitter is an open platform. 

Wading through the long chains of arguments between Trump supporters and opponents isn't easy reading.  140 characters isn't a lot of space to talk.

But, in the hyper-partisan political environment we live in, there is something unique in Trump supporters and opponents, coming together in one place to at least have these debates.


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