Thursday, December 08, 2016

Trump's China tweets -- data for historians, political scientists, journalists and us

Trump's tweets and other posts provide us with an unprecedented stream of current information and data for political scientists, journalists and future historians.

The New York Times has published a thorough analysis of Donald Trump's recent phone conversation with the president of Taiwan. It takes a multifaceted look at the call, asking whether it was a "diplomatic gaffe or a calculated new start" in our relationship with China.

Only Trump, his advisors and perhaps some of the people he has been interviewing for Secretary of State can answer that question, but we can get clues as to Trump's thinking by looking at his Twitter stream.

A search of his Twitter stream for the word Taiwan, returned only four tweets:


The two October tweets are anti-Obama campaign statements.

The tweet announcing the call says "CALLED ME" in caps. Was that Trump crowing about his stature or was it intentionally saying he had not initiated the call? I cannot know, but I am certain that this was not a casual call -- it was planned and scheduled by both sides in advance.

The latest tweet justifies the call and serves as a message to China and Trump's constituency. (I have to reluctantly admit that I agree -- pretending that Taiwan does not exist is absurd).

Trump's tweets do not provide definitive answers, but they do give us more information about what is going on than we are used to.

"China" tweets

Since Trump is focusing on China, I searched of his Twitter stream for the word China. Twitter returned 276 tweets -- here are the earliest four:


Trump has been posting anti-China tweets for nearly six years. The first had little engagement -- one reply, 73 retweets and 26 likes -- while the latest one has had 22k replies, 39k retweets and 122k likes so far. He was already campaigning at the time of the first tweet, which refers to a site called shouldtrumprun.com. (Today that site contains only a copy of a statement by the Federal Election Commission saying he was eligible to run).

Who is the intended audience for these tweets? No doubt, the early tweets were intended for Trump supporters -- Breitbart readers and Limbaugh listeners -- but future tweets might also be for the general public and the Chinese government.

I have no doubt that both our State Department and the Chinese Foreign Service are well aware of the issues on which our nations co-depend and where we have conflicts, but discussions of such things are traditionally held in private. Whatever you think of Trump, he is providing us with a degree of transparency we are not used to in our politicians and civil servants.

Listening to a fireside chat
New media are mastered by new politicians and Trump's use of social media is reminiscent of the fireside chats President Roosevelt used to communicate with the American people and others when radio became ubiquitous.

If I were a political scientist, I would begin looking at these and Trump's other tweets and posts as research data, ripe for content analysis and fact-checking. They will also be data for historians one day. (The archive of network traffic during the 1991 Soviet coup attempt might be the earliest example of historical data online).

One thing is for sure -- I hope he keeps tweeting after becoming president.