TL;DR: Trump’s core supporters are uniting in attacks on Joe Biden, trying to redirect the corruption narrative away from their hero and onto the Democratic candidate.
Impeachment: Off We Go
On September 24, House Democrats began a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, spurred by a whistleblower complaint. The complaint lays out details of Trump’s use of the power of his office to extract favors from foreign countries in order to help his re-election campaign, and the surrounding coverup by White House staff. Much of the subsequent media reporting has focused on how the impeachment is perceived in public polls, and on Trump’s increasingly unhinged reactions to the inquiry. Somewhat less attention has been paid to the impact of these events on the 2020 POTUS race.
At MarvelousAI, we’ve been tracking social media narratives about the Democratic candidates as well as Trump, and the changes we’ve seen in the last week are disquieting, particularly for Joe Biden. Although Twitter is not representative of overall public sentiment, we see it as the crucible for elite opinion and narrative formation, both on the left and on the right. Below is an analysis of the shifting Twitter narratives and a breakdown of the participants in the social conversation.
Trump Narratives: The Left is Fired Up
Let’s compare snapshots of Twitter conversation of Trump in the most recent week vs. a week before the start of the impeachment rumors.
We measure left-right political leanings and varying credibility of Twitter users’ link-sharing behavior in a 2-D arrangement.1
Conversation mentioning Trump has been focused among the left-leaning audience consistently, and that has not changed in recent days.
We also use human-in-the-loop machine learning to cluster and label overarching narratives in the text of the tweets. Here are the top 10 narratives pre and post-impeachment inquiry. Anti-Trump narratives are in red, pro-Trump in blue, neutral in green.
The main change (besides overall increase in volume) is the intensification of pro-impeachment narratives from left-leaning sources. There is a bit of evidence for Trump support, but it’s relatively subdued. So, where did all the pro-Trump operatives go?
Biden Narratives: I Know You Are, But What Am I?
What about Biden? Prior to impeachment, the Biden conversation was concentrated among the left-leaning, credible parts of the Twitterverse, though with a sprinkling of right-wing and non-credible sources. In recent days, however, it has shifted almost entirely towards right-wing and non-credible sources.
Here are the top 10 narratives for each time period. The scale of the two graphs is the same, to indicate the huge increase in volume since 9/22. Attack narratives are in red, and the (very few) support narratives are in blue.
The thrust of the new narratives is the right wing’s insistence that Trump’s conspiracy theories about the Bidens’ corruption in Ukraine are, in fact, correct. It’s a classic misinformation campaign that uses old footage taken out of context and spins it to fit a malicious pattern. Any Biden defender trying to engage on this turf is sucked into a catch-22 situation, where denying individual accusations further reinforces the overall frame.
As further evidence, here are the news sites with the largest number of shares in Biden tweets for the same time period.
Framing 101: Control the Topic
Right-wing operatives are playing out their runbook. Instead of engaging with progressives on the topic of Trump and his corruption, they’re pushing hard to change the subject and talk about Biden instead. Whether or not they succeed is largely up to the public and the media, as Margaret Sullivan notes.
At MarvelousAI, we’ll continue to monitor the conversation. Get in touch if you’d like to see our tools or collaborate!
* Special thanks for framing this research to our advisor Sarah Oates. Prof. Oates has studied the Russian media for the past 25 years and has published widely on how media subverts or supports democracy in a range of countries. Her most recent book (Revolution Stalled: The Political Limits of the Internet in the Post-Soviet Sphere, OUP 2013) analyzed the potential of the internet to bring political change to Russia. She holds an MA and PhD in Political Science from Emory University and is Professor and Senior Scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park. Prof. Oates is the co-developer of PropagandaIQ, a software application that combines human coding and machine learning to identify news narratives.
- We start with bias and “commitment to facts” ratings of news sites provided by the Media Bias Fact Check project, and assign scores to Twitter users based on what kinds of news links they circulate in our political dataset.