Post Mortem of @realDonaldTrump: An Introduction

Accidental Disinformation Researchers

Then it happened: @realDonaldTrump broke our analytical workflow. On the morning of April 25, @realDonaldTrump retweeted 8 tweets from the CDC within 6 minutes. Our data visualizations of who was retweeting the CDC spiked in unexpected ways, and was a suspicious deviation from forms of large-scale “collective behavior” that we would expect to see under such circumstances. We eventually realized that we were witnessing an otherwise hard-to-detect amplification machine springing into action and retweeting @realDonaldTrump in lockstep (and is a mini-study this blog will present in future posts).

Macro View of Re/Tweeting Patterns

We begin this series with consideration of just the volume and frequency of tweets. In this first data visualization (using data from the TheTrumpArchive.com), we display @realDonaldTrump’s activity from January 1, 2015, the year Trump initially declared his candidacy for President. All times are displayed in Eastern Time. Each tweet @realDonaldTrump posted is displayed as a blue dot, with retweets as triangles. If @realDonaldTrump deleted a re/tweet, that is displayed as a red dot. It was not until late 2020 that Twitter began to flag @realDonaldTrump tweets as potentially containing disinformation: those are depicted as orange dots.

The Hour of the Day (US Eastern Time) is plotted on the x-axis and the y-axis includes the years (2015–2021).
Figure 1. @realDonaldTrump’s tweets and retweets since January 1, 2015. Number of tweets and retweets total 38,111, including 1092 deletions).

Increasing Volume over the Years

The first point to note is the high (and ever-increasing) volume of @realDonaldTrump’s re/tweets. From January 1, 2015 until Twitter suspended the account on January 8, 2021, @realDonaldTrump posted 28,262 tweets and 9,852 retweets (for a total of 38,114; all of which are represented here). Of these, 653 tweets and 439 retweets were deleted after posting (the red dots). We will return to a closer analysis of deletion behavior below.

Daily Patterns of Re/Tweeting

The second behavioral feature to note is the high frequency of tweeting across the day and into the night. In 2015, a campaign year, we see even more tweeting during a typical nighttime sleep cycle on the US east coast. This activity slows down as 2016 approaches.

A bar chart with the Hour of the Day on the x-axis and Total Number of Tweets and Retweets on the y-axis for all tweets.
Figure 2. Chart shows the distribution of tweets and retweets made over the 24-hour daily cycle

Patterns Of Deleted Re/Tweets

An account holder can delete tweets or re/tweets after they are posted. For @realDonaldTrump, we note that tweets in the middle of the night have a high frequency of being self-deleted (the red dots in Figure 1). If we again aggregate all deleted tweets into one day, we see that about 1 in 10 tweets posted between 2 and 5am were later deleted, as Figure 3 illustrates:

A bar chart with Hour of Day tweeted or retweeted on the x-axis and the Percent of Deleted Tweets or Retweets on the y-axis.
Figure 3. The distribution of self-deleted tweets and retweets over a 24-hour period. Tweets and retweets in the early hours of the morning were more likely to be deleted than those made during the workday.
A scatterplot showing clusters of deleted tweets as happening before 9am and after 9pm until 2020 when the pattern changes.
Figure 4. Self-deleted tweets and retweets by year (Y-axis) and time of day (Eastern Time). @realDonaldTrump begins deleting workday tweets in 2020. (The data set did not report deleted tweets in 2015, so this only can report from 2016-on)

Overview of Gaining Follower Counts

Finally, we return to the full display of re/tweeting behavior but in this visualization, we depict @realDonaldTrump’s follower count (Figure 5). Upon the mid-year approach of the 2016 election, the account broke 10M followers. Within the short span to the 2017 inauguration, the account gained another ~10M followers. The account gained another ~25M followers in the first year of Trump’s presidency, ending 2017 with roughly 45M followers. Going into 2020, the account had about 70M followers and, at the point of suspension on January 8 2021, had reached 88M. As an immediate comparison, @barackobama tweeted 3,150 times over the same period, with 128M followers today. But more comparative analysis is to come: In future posts, we will analyze the difference between current political leaders and celebrity accounts in comparison to @realDonaldTrump, including the behavior of followers.

This rugplot is the same as Figure 1, but with another depiction of follower counts on the left, which increases over time.
Figure 5. @realDonaldTrump’s re/tweet frequency since January 2015, with accumulated follower count. (Follower count data from trackalytics.com/twitter/profile/realdonaldtrump)

Next time…

In our next post, we will draw out the historical highlights that appear in this social media record. In later posts, we will turn to a closer accounting of the events of 2020 as reflected in this account, show the effects of the “amplification machine” in digital trace data of its followers, compare this account to other influential accounts, and more.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Post Mortem of @realDonaldTrump

Post Mortem of @realDonaldTrump

University of Colorado information scientists reporting on the influence of the 45th US President’s defunct Twitter platform