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  • Elaine Sanderson

Why Trump's Messages Stick, Even Though They're Fake

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Donald Trump's presidential term has been characterised by strong rhetoric, controversy and false statements. Despite many of his claims being disproven, these messages have a lasting impact on voters and public opinion.

This begs the question: why are we, as humans, so susceptible to fake news and false statements? And how has the US President managed to make a political career out of his ability to twist the facts?

First, let's start with the basics.

What is fake news?

According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, fake news is a false report of events. Fake news creates significant public confusion around current events. There are generally two categories that fake news reports fall into.

  1. Stories that are deliberately published inaccurately. These stories have the intention to spread misinformation.

  2. Stories that have an element of truth to them, except that not every “fact” is true. These stories can also be described as being a twisted version of the truth.

Those who wish to make a profit, untrained journalists, and writers with the intent of influencing someone’s political beliefs are the most likely fake news authors.

An example of a common form of fake news is clickbait. Clickbait is used to gain website visitors who make revenue from pay-per-click advertising. They typically use sensationalist headlines to get the attention of their targeted audience.

For more information, head to our Guide: Fake News.


The rise of fake news

Due to consistent technological advances and the rise of social media, spreading fake news has become particularly easy in recent years. With a single click, a post can be spread globally in a matter of seconds. Combined with the fact that the majority of internet users don’t verify sources, especially if the content gives the illusion that its source is established and trusted, it is unsurprising that fake news is on the rise.

In 2016, the Denver Guardian ran a story alleging that an FBI agent involved with the Hilary Clinton email link had been found dead in an apparent murder suicide. The story was shared to Facebook, where, at its peak, it gained 100 shares per minute. However, the Denver Guardian doesn’t exist. An investigation showed many of the sites spreading the fake news were teens from Macedonia looking to gain profit from supporters of Donald Trump. This example shows how easily fake news can manipulate social media users due to platforms having very little regulation or editorial standards.


What is the impact of fake news?

Fake news can lead to real life consequences. A story began circulating online in 2016 stated that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair, John Podesta, ran a child sex ring in the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington DC. The story was pushed by Trump supporters before the 2016 presidential election. It led to a 28-year-old man arming himself with an assault rifle, intending to see if the conspiracy theory was true. He fired at least one shot in the restaurant before being disarmed by police.

Fake news can also take audience shares from trustworthy news sources. For example, Buzzfeed analysis found that the top fake news stories circulating about the 2016 presidential election received more engagement through Facebook than top stories from major media outlets. If fake news becomes more prevalent across social media than trustworthy new sources, it is likely that people will disengage from all news sites. Fake news reduces the impact of real news by competing with it.

Donald Trump and fake news

President of the United States, Donald Trump often spreads fake news on Twitter. A report by the Independent found that Trump was the ‘single largest driver’ of coronavirus misinformation.

Whilst his claims that the virus was manufactured by the Democrats in order to coincide with his impeachment trial could possibly have led to people pushing down the seriousness of the pandemic, it was his substantial claim of ‘miracle cures’ that had the largest impact. Trump claimed that injecting yourself with disinfectant and taking antimalarial drugs were a cure for the virus. This resulted in a man in Arizona dying after trying out Trump’s supposed miracle cure.


Why do his messages stick?

While Trump doesn’t always have the facts, he does have a grasp on an effective use of rhetoric. Rhetoric is speech or writing intended to be effective and influence people. His words are aimed at getting strong reactions, producing the same reaction as a sensationalist headline would -- he’s garnering the attention of voters.

Trump’s messages stick because of the way he says them, not because of the statements he’s making. Repetition is a key element for a message’s success. Say a phrase enough times and it will stick in people’s heads. This is important for Trump because it could change the way someone votes. When we hear something more than once, we are inclined to think that it is true.

Decisions from informed voters isn’t what wins the presidential election, and candidates who only speak policy don’t win it either. What gets the votes are words that evoke strong reactions from the electorate. For example, in 2016, Trump said he would deport ‘bad hombres’ as a slur to those of Mexican descent, if he were elected as President. This phrase was parodied and sold on as merchandise. However funny this may be for those wishing to ridicule Trump, they unwittingly spread his messages when mocking them, allowing them to reach people who otherwise might not have heard Trump’s words. His messages stick because they’re outrageous.

Staff from the Washington Post fact checker, found Trump’s most frequent lie is that the US economy is at the strongest it has ever been. This message, although false, is likely to stick because he’s the president of the United States, a leader, as well as the simplicity of his words. He doesn’t use complex language. As the Guardian reports, his speeches mimic natural conversational patterns. People are likely to feel like they’re having a conversation with him instead of being talked at. Even though statements such as the US economy being in its best state ever are false, they stick because the way he speaks appears trustworthy.

Due to his position as president, you would assume that his words are legitimate, the same goes with traditional news sources. People seek out content they can trust from non-traditional sources and, in doing so, they fall for messages created to mislead an audience. While it could be argued this indicates a bigger problem of mistrust of traditional sources, ultimately, it indicates that people are more drawn to sensationalism.

This is evident in the case of Donald Trump -- his messages stick because they are a source of excitement and interest for the reader, despite their disregard for accuracy.

Take a look at our US Politics section for more relevant information and resources.

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