Muting Trump: An Experiment

Patrick Ruffini
Sep 3, 2018 · 4 min read

A few weeks ago, I decided to run an experiment: to create a Twitter experience as free of any mention of President Donald Trump as humanly possible. Using Twitter’s “Muted Words” feature — designed to exclude tweets with certain words from your feed — I started with variants of Trump’s name and gradually expanded the list to include Trump-related stories unlikely to yield much in the way of dispassionate analysis or original insight. I had a slight suspicion I’d be no worse off hearing the last of Alex Jones, QAnon, and Peter Strzok, or at least having these stories greatly minimized as part of my news diet.

I had been thinking of doing this for a while. I’m not sure what finally pushed me over the edge, but it probably wasn’t a coincidence that this all went down right around the release of Omarosa’s book.

Silencing Trump news was not without its possible downsides. I work in politics, Twitter is 90% of how I follow the news, and by doing this, I feared I might miss something important. My firm has measured Trump making up no less than a third of all politics-related Twitter conversation. For better or worse, he dominates the conversation, day-in, day-out. Can you really ignore him?

Three weeks later, I can happily report that those initial concerns were unwarranted. Muting Trump news is the best thing you can possibly do to take back your news consumption and create a healthier Twitter experience for yourself, and by limiting your reflexive Trump hot takes, for those around you.

The first thing you’ll notice about your feed when you mute Trump is that the things you’re uniquely interested in stand out more. For me, that meant a lot of #ElectionTwitter and midterm election forecasting. Wow — I thought to myself within minutes of this new regime taking effect — every other tweet is a new district poll or other helpful bit of election information.

Muting Trump news is the best thing you can possibly do to take back your news consumption and create a healthier Twitter experience for yourself and for those around you.

Doing this helped me experience the kinds of news cycles I vaguely remember in the latter Obama years before Trump — where the President seemed less important and the conversation varied significantly from day to day without the constant drone of snarky and usually uninformative takes focused on one man whose outbursts only sporadically correlate with policy. Of course, Twitter always reacts to breaking news, but it’s usually quickly drowned out by the latest news or absurdity from the White House. Having muted most Trump conversations, I started to notice non-Trump stories lingering in my feed longer — Aretha Franklin’s death, and in recent days, the remembrances of John McCain. I imagine that the McCain memorials have been as dominant in Trumpier feeds as they have been in mine, but were likely focused more on the tension between the two men, rather than remembering this American giant on his own terms. The latter seems to be the right approach, and it’s the one I saw by taking active measures to reduce Trump’s footprint in the conversation.

Within a week or so, the gee-whiz factor of this new Trump-lite world had worn off and my new feed now seemed normal to me. Perhaps this is what it will be like when he is no longer President — things will quickly go back to normal. I now absolutely dread what will happen if I do ever turn these filters off.

Of course, a key part of why this has worked is that no filter like this can ever be foolproof. In practice, my approach has served to muzzle Trump news more than completely muting it. People can and do mention Trump in tweets without mentioning his name, and the filter is ineffective against tweets from @realDonaldTrump himself (which I still judge worth seeing — sans performative quote tweets from the blue-check brigade) or links to stories mentioning him. Staff-related drama in particular can filter through when the stories focus primarily on a figure whose name I haven’t muted. The part of me that was worried about missing something important can rest easy. My experiment covered the period of the Cohen guilty plea/Manafort conviction — which I heard plenty about, as I did about the White House flag not being lowered to half staff or the NAFTA negotiations.

This experiment hasn’t cut off Trump mentions completely, but I’d estimate that it’s reduced them by well over half — I’m putting the number at around 75%. If replicated across all media, an across-the-board cut in Trump coverage of this magnitude would still let people know what’s happening in the White House, without driving them insane. Muting the words Trump and others is a blunt instrument that for me has produced a healthier and more balanced news environment than any I’ve seen in the last three years.

If anything, getting less Trump news makes me feel more informed, because my Twitter news diet is no longer as one-dimensional. I’m now more apt to see stories about other topics that interest me. This has been far more effective than other piecemeal measures I might take to police my Twitter experience — like muting or blocking accounts one-by-one.

Whether you support or despise the man — just mute him. You won’t look back.

Patrick Ruffini

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Polling/analytics. Digital ex. Co-Founder @EchelonInsights.