Saturday, November 25, 2017

Trump Is Not The Fool We Think He Is … He is the Master Communicator

Like many in the corporate communications industry, I used to ridicule Trump’s “flawed” messaging and apparent lack of understanding of how communications work. I was shocked that he could blatantly push out his own versions of the facts (in obvious contradiction to irrefutable evidence); and label established journalists and media outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and CNN as purveyors of fake news.

More importantly, I was dumbfounded to learn that Trump’s supporters continue to support him despite being presented with undisputed facts that he, for lack of a better word, lies to suit his own agenda. Although anecdotal, my sense is that the harder mainstream media tries to discredit Trump, the stronger Trump’s support base becomes.

Being a student of communications, I realized that I must be missing something. The fact that Trump won the Presidency and the fact that he continues to maintain his support base must mean that he is doing something right. My insight came when I chanced upon a study that mapped the flow of information on social media during the US Presidential Election in 2016 (and some postulate even today). In the map, which I have summarized and simplified below, it is interesting to note that almost none of Trump’s supporters read mainstream media.

trump communications strategy analysis

         What this means is that when Trump speaks (or Tweets), he is literally only speaking to his support base. Hillary supporters and the mainstream media are just the unintended audiences. It thus does not matter if what Trump tweets contradict facts. Relying on his network of pro-Trump influencers, Trump’s own message gets amplified to his support base without the fact-checking of mainstream media.

The diagram also shows, there are also no overlaps in communications between Hillary and Trump supporters. This is not surprising as political discussions can be emotive and is generally avoided in society. Mainstream media therefore plays the role of the Fourth Estate (or fourth power) in tandem with the legislative, executive and judiciary.  Without the Fourth Estate, democracy will fail as people will not know the truth and will be unable to effectively exercise the power of their votes by making an informed decision.  

This is something which Trump has masterfully done. By discrediting mainstream media as a source of information for his supporters, Trump has effectively removed the only people in US society that can counter his misinformation. Trump’s supporters therefore live in an echo chamber which rejects contradictory information. Ironically, with each attempt that the mainstream media makes to discredit Trump, this only gives Trump more ammunition to further portray mainstream media as working in a conspiracy against him and this in turn strengthens his support base.

So what are the implications for Singapore? There are a few ….

Firstly, unlike the US, Singaporeans to a certain extent still rely on mainstream media for the news. As such, to ensure that misinformation is corrected, mainstream media’s role as the fourth estate must be ensured and protected. Thus, even as readership and viewership continue to shift to social media and sustainability becomes an issue, the Government must intervene to sustain mainstream media but at the same time allow mainstream media to continue to act independently. Additionally, nefarious actions to label mainstream media as the purveyors of fake news need to be acted upon as the credibility of mainstream media cannot be allowed to be diminished.

Secondly, as we can see in the Trump example, misinformation can only spread if it is amplified via a network and is self-reinforcing. It is therefore important that social media sites (and individuals) who deliberately create fake news be taken to task. While I agree that it is often difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, citizen journalists need to be held accountable for their actions. There is a big difference between free speech and responsible speech and it is my belief that rights come responsibility.

Thirdly, the silent majority must speak up. As I study the political discourse on social media in Singapore, one thing has become apparent to me. Rational minded Singaporeans have become unwilling to challenge fake news on social media. This, in my view, is due to the deliberate attempt by anti-government supporters to deliberately label and attack anyone who has a pro-government opinion as being government lackeys (i.e. a PAP IB). By making it “painful” to express an alternative view, anti-government supporters are effectively undermining the democratic process they claim to champion.

In summary, Trump is not the fool many communications professionals make him out to be. Trump understands the nature and power of social media and is using it to his advantage. Singapore would do well to study Trump’s communications strategy and learn the right lessons. 

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