Shooting from the Lip

How a single comment can shift the focus of the election online

by Andrew Heyward and Uzra Khan

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Whatever you think of Trump’s now notorious comments, they present a case study in the power of social media to alter the national conversation with astonishing force and speed. And Trump’s new campaign leadership — with chief strategist Paul Manafort out, and right-wing media enfant terrible Steve Bannon in — is poised to exploit that power.

Guns had faded as an election issue on Twitter in the nearly two months since the Orlando nightclub shooting in mid-June, but Trump’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks on August 9th brought them back with a vengeance. In fact, his comments generated an even bigger Twitter spike around guns than Orlando, the worst mass shooting in US history. And whether or not Trump’s words were a “dog whistle” to some of his followers, they instantly became a clarion call to Hillary Clinton’s.

We know that because here at the Laboratory for Social Machines, part of the MIT Media Lab, data scientists have been tracking the election conversation about issues throughout the campaign. Our algorithms, collectively called Electome, cull election-related tweets from the full output of Twitter and then classify them by issue, candidate, and other relevant filters.

It’s no secret that some issues — guns and terrorism among them — are particularly sensitive to actual news events.

Example: In the two days before the Orlando shooting, conversations about guns made up fewer than 8% of issue-related tweets. The June 12th massacre changed that overnight: on the 12th, guns shot to the top of Electome’s list of issues , commanding fully a third of the tweets, and still dominated the conversation on June 20th, at 35%.

Percentage numbers on the left denote the average proportion of tweets in the selected time frame

By the time of Trump’s Second Amendment comments on August 9th, however, guns had receded significantly as an issue among the Twittizenry. On August 8th, only 2% of the conversations about issues involved guns; by comparison, about 30% were about foreign policy or national security, and 25% about the economy.

“Maybe there is, I don’t know” changed all that in a flash. Take a look:

Percentage numbers on the left denote the average proportion of tweets in the selected time frame

By August 10th, the next day, guns were Electome’s top issue by far, with a 44% percent share of the conversation — larger than in the aftermath of Orlando. Among Clinton’s unique followers — people who follow her and no other presidential candidate — guns commanded an astonishing all-time-high 51% of all issue-related tweets that day. (Trump’s unique followers didn’t exactly shy away from the subject either: about 30% of their tweets on August 10th involved guns as well.)

However, unlike after Orlando, guns faded from the conversation relatively fast, and a week after Trump’s remarks, they were back at the 5% mark. This is why the percentage number for guns that you see on the left in the images — denoting the average proportion of tweets about the issue in the selected time frame — is higher for Orlando.

Electome’s data can’t tell us how or even whether the sudden spike in conversation about guns last week hurt (or conceivably helped) Trump, though reaction to this particular comment in the Twitterverse was especially fast and furious. The controversy does coincide with a rough time in his campaign, with declining poll numbers and rising defections in the GOP ranks.

Now come this week’s changes: the staff shakeup, a more disciplined delivery on the stump, even rare words of regret in Charlotte yesterday about some of the pain his remarks have caused. Trump may have pressed the reset button, but throughout the campaign, his finger has always returned to the hot button— triggering explosive responses on social media whose consequences are hard to predict.

Andrew Heyward is a visiting researcher at the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines . Uzra Khan, a recent graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is spending the summer as a project manager there. Soroush Vosoughi and Prashanth Vijayaraghavan, researchers at the Laboratory for Social Machines, developed the analytics for this post.

Photo Credit: Flickr