Of all the alternative facts cited by Donald J. Trump since he became President, the one he made at the end of a tweet last week may be among the most bald-faced.
“Only the Fake News Media and Trump enemies want me to stop using Social Media (110 million people). Only way for me to get the truth out!,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning, amid media speculation that new Chief of Staff John Kelly would have a moderating influence over some of the President’s more egregious use of Twitter.
Put aside the distortion of the size of his social media following -- Twitter counts 32.5 million followers for @realDonaldTrump, and analysts have estimated that as many as half of those are fake -- the President of the United States has unparalleled access to getting his or her message out, especially through the news media outlets he calls fake.
Despite declaring war on them during his first official day on the job and incessantly labeling them “fake,” major news organizations continue to staff their top journalists to cover official White House briefings, cover all his public speeches, and give him unbridled access for interviews, even bylined op-eds.
The President, in return, has given only one press conference during his first seven months on the job, and routinely turns to Twitter to bypass objective press coverage and go directly to his constituency. That, ironically, leads to more coverage of the President -- albeit his tweets -- by the very same news media he is trying to bypass and continues to label as “fake” in an effort to delegitimize their coverage of his White House and him personally.
Trump is not the first President to attempt to delegitimize the news
organizations that cover him, but his claim that Twitter is the only way for him to get the “truth” out rings hollow, because there arguably is no person in the world who has the ability
to get their message out through conventional news channels and alternative ones as well.
In fact, Trump has his own “television network” on YouTube, and last week launched his own ironically titled “Real News” program on Facebook, anchored by his daughter in law Lara Trump gushing so much positive news about Trump’s accomplishments that it almost seems like the parody segment with the same name that airs periodically on CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
“I find it somewhat disturbing that we now have a President with his own television station,” Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, said this morning during an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” adding: “I thought that was what the White House communications were for. But these are new times, so we use new technologies.”
McFaul likened it to the kind of state-sponsored propaganda people might see in Russia.
In fact, it is the Russian connection to news -- real, fake or otherwise -- about Trump that has been the focus of democracy advocates.
Last week, the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States launched a new, real-time dashboard analyzing Russia’s meddling in the dissemination of news about Donald Trump, especially its “online influence networks” of bots, hackers and trolls that either perpetrate explicit propaganda or amplify news stories published by others that advance Russia’s propaganda agenda.
“Not everything that is being shared in this network is ‘fake news,’” explains Laura Rosenberger, senior fellow and director of the Washington, DC-based Alliance for Securing Democracy, which created the “Hamilton 68” dashboard to track Russia’s influence.
The dashboard, which was created by experts in Russian propaganda, monitors a sample of 600 Twitter accounts linked directly or indirectly to Russia’s disinformation efforts. It analyzes and reports trending themes in near real-time, including: top hashtags, trending hashtags, trending topics, top topics, top domains, trending domains, top URLs, trending URL, as well as quantifying tweet counts and analyzing the distribution of relevant tweets by day of week and time of day.
The analysis shows that not all of the emphasis is on explicitly Russian propaganda outlets, including state-sponsored Sputnik or RT News, or even “fake news” sites, but also U.S. news organizations, especially Fox News.
The dashboard launched in the aftermath of a lawsuit alleging Fox News played a willful and explicit role in perpetrating a reckless conspiracy theory about the death of murdered former Democratic National Committee aide Seth Rich.
Rosenberger says the ASD is poised to release a white paper detailing its methodology for tracking and analyzing Russian propaganda initiatives online, but she acknowledges it may only be the tip of the iceberg, because there still are many Russian-influenced efforts taking place outside of digital media.
There’s also a particularly insidious tactical use of social media she says the dashboard currently cannot track: the use of bots and trolls following Trump and tweeting reinforcing and supportive replies and retweets supporting his agenda.