The end of the Trump-Fox feedback loop
When Twitter cut off President Donald Trump’s access to its service earlier this month after his false claims of election fraud helped incite deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol, the company didn’t just eliminate the communications channel Trump regularly used to inflame his supporters. It also severed the feedback loop between Trump and his television.
Twitter’s January 8 decision to permanently suspend Trump’s account closed a rare window into a president’s mindset and policymaking that we are unlikely to ever see again. For the past four years, I documented the sources of the president’s grievances and obsessions, matching Trump’s tweets to the television segments he was watching. The president’s TV addiction inspired at least 1,375 tweets dating back to September 1, 2018. The vast majority came in response to his favorite programs on the pro-Trump Fox News and Fox Business networks.
In the last days of his administration, it is no longer possible to determine in real time which cable news programs are shaping Trump’s worldview, or how he is reacting to them. But Twitter was right to cut Trump off from the service -- the value of this information came at a horrifying cost, from his targeting of random individuals with conspiracy theories to his promotion of misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic to his championing of the lie that he won reelection.
As odd as it is that the most powerful man in the world spent so much time glued to his television and spent so much energy on Twitter, Trump’s Twitter feed was an immensely valuable resource. It gave those who understood that he was often responding to Fox coverage insight into his news diet, the on-air pundits he was listening to at a given time, and the arguments he found credible. Journalists had never had access to this level of detail about a president’s media habits and the way he assessed information before.
Early in his administration, it seemed novel but almost frivolous to reveal the source of the president’s tweets. The Fox-Trump feedback loop explained that Trump fixations like NFL players who protest racism and seemingly random presidential statements about topics like his administration’s aviation record resulted not from madness or strategy, but from his inability to stop posting about what he was watching. It was unnerving that the president preferred to learn about the world through the lens of right-wing propaganda, and it was troubling how quickly his tweets could upend the news cycle, though his habits didn’t necessarily seem dangerous.
But as Trump’s presidency continued, this dynamic between the president and his preferred network began playing a major role in federal policy. Fox News personalities and guests became aware of the power their shows had over the president and tried to leverage it, with some success.
That pattern reached a crescendo in 2020, with deadly results. Fox News’ coverage consistently downplayed the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and Trump was watching. He sent live tweets of Fox News segments promoting the use of untested antimalarial drugs as possible “game changers” for COVID-19 treatment; claiming that social distancing measures would be more damaging than the virus; and endorsing anti-social-distancing protests. And he warped the federal response to match the network’s take, even putting the radiologist Dr. Scott Atlas on the White House coronavirus task force because he liked Atlas’ Fox News appearances promoting a minimalist response to the pandemic. Fox’s coverage got Americans killed specifically because the president was watching the network, taking notes, and tweeting out his thoughts.
But Trump did all of that without a response from Twitter. His permanent suspension came not because his tweets were unhinged, or racist, or promoting pandemic misinformation. Instead, Twitter announced Friday that it had “permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence” after the president’s supporters responded to his false claims that the election had been stolen by violently storming the Capitol on January 6. That behavior, too, is directly linked to his news diet, which shifted even further right as reality intruded even on his preferred sanctuary.
Trump directly responded to Fox News’ coverage of the presidential contest by issuing false attacks on the credibility of the voting system dozens of times in the months leading up to and following the election. His most explosive conspiracy theory, that Dominion Voting Systems had switched votes from him to President-elect Joe Biden, came in response to segments he watched on the fringe-right One America News. And the post-riot tweet that spurred his removal from the service was a Fox News live-tweet.
His removal is already improving the information ecosystem. Online misinformation about election fraud plummeted by 73% after social media companies banned Trump and some of his key allies, Zignal Labs reported. Notably, without access to Twitter, the president was unable to promote Fox reports that fueled his apparent belief that antifa was behind the Capitol riot.
Without Trump’s Twitter feed, it’s no longer possible to tell exactly what sources of information the president is consuming at a particular time, or how he’s reacting to them. That’s a major loss for political journalists trying to chronicle the end of his presidency and for historians who will look back on these weeks in the future. But the price of that information — the lives of Americans killed by COVID-19 and in post-election violence -- had become too high. The prospect of Trump encouraging further protests as Inauguration Day approached, glued to his television with his iPhone in his hand, was too dangerous.