President Donald Trump is notorious for his Twitter tirades against certain media organizations that are critical of him, famously calling them “fake news”. But this strategy to discredit legitimate news organizations may actually backfire. According to a new study, Trump’s tweets may have the opposite effect, prompting people to study a news piece with more attention and also enhancing the credibility of the source.
Daniel Tamul is an assistant professor of communication at Virginia Tech. The researcher was concerned about the U.S. president’s twitter war on the media and wanted to measure just how damaging these tweets were, in terms of people’s perception of journalistic trust.
Tweets labeling media organizations as “fake news” is a populist appeal strategy whose intention may be to alter how audiences process news narratives in order to inoculate them against attitude change. For instance, a New York Times piece that is very critical of President Trump’s administration could become less credible to Trump’s followers if he tweets beforehand that the NYT are a bunch of liars out to get him.
“In all likelihood, Trump may intend for his attacks to have one or more outcomes: to erode faith in democratic institutions (e.g. the press, government), to impede any effect of news stories on audience perceptions of issues, and/or diminish the degree to which audiences attend to professional journalistic outlets. For example, Trump frequently labels the New York Times as “failing” and derides MSNBC as having low ratings,” the authors wrote in their study published in the journal Mass Communication and Society.
The researchers led by Tamul first initiated a pilot study involving 331 people who were randomly assigned to read a tweet from Donald Trump which read the “very dishonest Fake News Media is out of control” before reading a new story about immigration from the Associated Press.
This initial study found no relationship between Trump’s assertions and the public’s perception of the news story or that of the journalist.
A second study was performed, this time involving 1,395 volunteers who read either an NPR news story about a 13-year-old victim of Hurricane Maria who was forced to leave Puerto Rico because her school was without power (narrative news), an NPR fact sheet about the damage caused by the hurricane without contextualizing the story around a single person (non-narrative news), or an excerpt from Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (the latter acting as a control condition)
Before they read each piece of content, the participants were exposed to as many as 30 genuine tweets from President Trump that derided the state of affairs of American journalism. An example of such tweets includes:
The participants were also surveyed about their political inclinations, and then whether or not their attitude changed toward Hurricane Maria victims, the news author’s credibility, or their intentions to read more news stories from that source.
Each participant could choose how many tweets from Trump they wanted to read. Remarkably, the more tweets people read, the more they thought that the news story, as well as the author, was more credible. The exposure to Trump’s tweets also increased the participants’ intentions of reading more such stories in the future. In other words, it looks like the opposite effect of what Trump intends.
“We also examined how exposure to Trump’s tweets influences how engaging people find news stories. We found that the more tweets people read from Trump the more transported into a story they become, resulting in even greater emotional reactions to a news story and story-consistent attitudes,” Tamul told PsyPost.
“This means that when Trump tweets about a specific news story being ‘fake news,’ if people then read that story (or others for that matter) they are more likely to agree with its presentation of facts than had Trump stayed silent,” he added.
All of this doesn’t necessarily mean that Trump’s media war hasn’t hurt journalism. It’s possible that Trump’s tweets have already inflicted damage — it’s just that the mediascape might be so saturated today that any additional exposure to Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric does little to diminish credibility.