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What Trump’s tweets tell us about his TV viewing — and his thinking

- April 13, 2017
John Oliver holds a “Make Donald Drumpf Again” hat on the set of his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” (Eric Liebowitz/HBO)

By now, many believe that President Trump relies on Fox morning infotainment as a primary source of political information. John Oliver claimed this about six weeks ago on “Last Week Tonight.” Trump’s staff has confirmed that he starts his day with morning shows and tweets at the show hosts in real time.

But is that true? As social scientists, we think the data should have a say.

Twitter gives us a real-time view into Trump’s thinking

Twitter is a novel source of relatively unfiltered data received directly from the president. His staff admit an inability to keep Trump off Twitter or on script. We wanted to see whether Trump’s Twitter behavior can teach us something about his media consumption.

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To do that, we systematically analyzed Trump’s tweets during his first two months in office. Our results suggest that Oliver — and conventional wisdom — are right.

The president primarily attacks “fake news” while Fox morning news is airing. He tweets a more positive message about America’s greatness during other times of the day. When Trump does explicitly refer to news in his tweets, he cites “Fox & Friends,” the network’s conservative morning infotainment and variety talk show, to support his agenda and attacks CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times as “fake” and “failing” and as having “low ratings.”

Here’s how we did our research

We looked at Trump’s tweets between Jan. 20 and March 20 — 307 tweets in all. We found that the president is more than twice as likely to tweet during the “Fox & Friends” time slot (6 to 9 a.m. Eastern time) than at any other time of day. In Trump’s first two months in office, more than 40 percent of his tweets were sent while morning shows aired, rather than during the typical Twitter user’s most active time, which is between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

The timing of tweets may tell us that Trump pays more attention to morning news than to other information. But it also works the other way around. Twitter’s own research suggests that tweeting about a show increases the show’s effect on the viewer. In other words, tweeting about what’s on the morning news may actually give these shows more influence over his thinking.

Different times of day, different attitudes and topics

By analyzing the texts, we found that the content of the president’s morning tweets varies systematically from the content he posts at other times of the day. During the morning show slot, @realDonaldTrump goes on the offensive, using the conservative editorialism of “Fox & Friends” as an authoritative source to rebut traditional media.

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His more positive and policy-oriented tweets emerge at other hours. Sentiment text analysis reveals that Trump uses negative and positive words with nearly equal frequency in the morning (for every positive word, Trump uses 1.1 negative words). But at other times of the day, he is more likely to use positive words (using 0.52 negative words for every positive word).

As the word clouds above suggest, Trump takes on a markedly different personality at different times of day. He mentions “fake news” the most during the hours in which morning shows air (21 mentions, compared with eight mentions at other times) and the more positive messages of “great” and “America” during non-morning show hours (32 and 21 mentions, respectively, compared with 20 and 10 during the morning).

He tweets about Fox and the New York Times at all times of the day, but these appear most frequently in the morning (14 and eight morning mentions, respectively, compared with six and four mentions at other times). “Fox & Friends” is directly cited nine times in the morning (compared with only once at other times), and the New York Times eight, compared with four at other times. Morning shows besides “Fox & Friends” are never mentioned.

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Not only does Trump use different words in his tweets at different times of day, but he also deploys them toward different subjects. “Fake,” for example, is used to describe news and is most highly correlated with CNN. When Trump mentions the New York Times, it’s associated with words such as “failing” and criticisms of its coverage. Nonconservative news media in general (CNN, MSNBC, NYT and The Washington Post) correlate with claims of “low ratings.”

Trump’s tweets mentioning “Fox & Friends” tend to fall into three broad categories: sharing coverage (six times), communication with hosts (twice) and rebutting other media (once). In every case, Trump is using the show as a source to support his position.

Examples of Fox & Friends mentions by @realDonaldTrump

Sharing coverage:

Communicating with hosts:


Trump includes “Fox & Friends” in recommending a book by a conservative author who advocates changing the U.S. immigration system. He retweets the show’s alert about extremists to support his effort to ban refugees. Trump cites “Fox & Friends” in a tweet concerning his health-care revision agenda. His Feb. 15 tweet perfectly encapsulates his stark treatment of different news sources, in which he attacks CNN and MSNBC as fake and suggests “Fox & Friends” as the recommended “great” alternative.

The differences in the tweets suggest how Fox influences Trump

The great differences in Trump’s tweets at different times of day help us illuminate what probably influences his policies and ideas as president. Our continuing research will investigate the specific kinds of news reports he is most likely to respond to and how his tweets affects his popularity.

Oliver has suggested that those who wish to influence policy may want to buy advertising spots on “Fox & Friends” to communicate with the president. But hurry! Advertisers have already hiked rates for slots likely to be seen in the White House.

John Curiel and Devin Christensen are PhD students in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.