Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
They’re an English teacher’s nightmare: full of misspellings, typographical and grammatical errors, strange or missing punctuation. Read carefully, they often make no sense. They are full of Weird Capitalizations AND WHY IS HE ALWAYS SHOUTING?
They are tweets from the personal account of President Donald Trump. It’s not hard to see why his critics point to his Twitter feed as evidence of instability and unfitness to hold America’s highest office: rages, lies, vindictiveness – it’s all there for the world to see, as is dangerous egomania. The tweets cry out: READ ME!
As always with Trump, there is more to the story. We know a lot by now about the content of the President’s tweets, thanks to linguists like Jennifer Sclafani and political commentators who analyze them with the care of Cold War-era Kremlinologists.
We know that Trump writes the way he speaks, uses a fourth-grade level of vocabulary and repeats simple phrases that present the world in black and white. People and events are either “great” or “not good,” “terrific,” or “terrible,” depending on how they feel about him and align with his agenda. We know he doesn’t bother to correct spelling errors, and often uses the wrong word (“Council” instead of “Counsel” happened – not for the first time – this weekend). His goal when he communicates is to persuade – and often to goad – not win praise for accuracy.
Yet Twitter is a system of visual as well as verbal communication, and the visual dimension of tweets is highly relevant, given how image-focused Trump is. The way things look is of paramount importance to this man who produced and starred in a reality television show and who relies heavily on television to form his own picture of the world.
And every tweet is, in fact, a compact image, enclosed in a frame, much like a video or television screen. At the top are the identifiers (name, handle, photo); at the bottom, numbers that chart the tweet’s performance in real time, much like the stock market quotes on Fox Business Network or CNBC. Graphic elements – italics, emojis and other symbols, capitalizations – direct our vision within the tweet’s text. They are visual flags, planted to capture our attention as we rapidly scroll.
Let’s look at Trump’s tweets in this light, starting with his practice of writing words entirely in capital letters. His detractors think it makes him look crazy, but such words, when placed at the bottom of his message, resemble a chyron on television that conveys the takeaway.
“MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN!” ends tweets about immigrants or gangs (July 27, 2017; January 30, 2017; July 1 & 13 2016). “find the leakers within the FBI itself….FIND NOW,” reads a February 24, 2017 tweet that trails off without an ending, as though some perilous event has cut him off, upping the sense of urgency.
Wherever they are in the message, the all-capitalized words allow this professional marketer to isolate slogans he most wants you to notice and absorb – usually phrases connected to his aim of discrediting people or media outlets critical of him and his presidency. To that end, he’s tweeted FAKE NEWS almost 50 times from December 10, 2016 until today (and “Fake News” another 140 times), and WITCH HUNT about half a dozen times between February 27 and April 22, 2018.
Many mentions of his current nemesis, James Comey, capitalize what he most wants the viewer to notice and conclude: NO COLLUSION (April 19, 2018, most recently).
Strategic capitalization of individual words within the tweet is another tactic that some may dismiss as bizarre. But consider the strategic precision with which the reader’s eye is directed.
Take this tweet of April 20, 2018: “Looks like OPEC is at it again. With record amounts of Oil all over the place, including the fully loaded ships at sea, Oil prices are artificially Very High! No good and will not be accepted!”
The fast scrolling eye sees the gist of the message: Oil, Very High. Similarly, Trump visually highlights and associates Middle East and Radical Ideology…
…and Sanctuary Cities and Gang Members.
The seemingly random capitalization is meant to forge negative associations between certain peoples and groups.
Why does all of this matter?
Propagandists and media and public relations professionals have sought to shape our worldview and manipulate our emotions through images throughout the 20th century. Our President is one of these. He has referred to the White House as “the studio,” and his obsessions with crowd size and military parades are fueled not only by his huge ego but by his belief that optics matter hugely to the success of his greatest “production” – his attempt at governing America.
As his principal means of connecting with the nation’s citizens, Twitter can hardly be exempt from this attention to image. Those who see his tweets as the ravings of a madman might begin to view them differently, as a high-intensity campaign to influence how we view reality and whom we should hate. Think twice before hitting that retweet button.
This commentary has been updated from an earlier version to clarify a reference to Fox Business Network.