Why Twitter Is Trump's Most Powerful Weapon

Illustration of a blue ballot box with a hash tag
Illustration of a blue ballot box with a hash tag

Donald Trump's latest tweets claim that Ted Cruz "stole" the Iowa caucus and is guilty of "fraud." In response, Cruz's communications director told CNN that Trump "should seek out his local chapter" of a support group for Twitter addicts. This is wishful thinking for the Cruz campaign. In fact, Twitter has proven to be Trump's most powerful weapon in this election. By eliminating the filters of traditional political fact-checkers, social media is allowing Trump and other candidates to make patently false claims to uninformed voters -- and get away with them.

At Fortune's Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in December, Alisa Miller, CEO of Public Radio International, argued that social media has created opportunities for "outsider" candidates to bypass the press and political parties in order to communicate with voters directly. Today, 43 percent of American adults get their news from Facebook and/or Twitter. Trump, who refused to participate in last week's Republican debate but has tweeted more than 30,000 times - more than any other candidate examined by Reuters -- once described his large Twitter following as "like having your own newspaper."

Take this recent re-tweet by Trump: "Blacks killed by whites -- two percent," "Blacks killed by police -- one percent," "Whites killed by blacks -- 81 percent," "Blacks killed by blacks -- 97 percent." One problem: It isn't true. If Trump used these statistics in a media interview or during a debate, the reporter or moderator would have been responsible for challenging and correcting his claims. But, as Miller noted, on social media, candidates can promulgate messages regardless of their veracity.

Non-establishment candidates appear to be much more likely to lie. According to Angie Drobnic Holandec, editor of PolitiFact, 76 percent of Trump's statements, 84 percent of Ben Carson's statements, and 50 percent of Carly Fiorina's statements qualify as mostly false, false, or both inaccurate and ridiculous (the organization dubs the latter category "pants on fire.") By contrast, according to Holandec, "most of the professional politicians we fact-check don't reach these depths of inaccuracy. They tend to choose their words more carefully." For example, 40 percent of Marco Rubio's comments, 32 percent of Jeb Bush's claims, and 28 percent of Hillary Clinton's and Bernie Sanders' statements fall into these categories.

Not only is Trump especially prone to dissemble, but his supporters may be least positioned to identify his untruths. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in December found that Trump leads among Americans who have low incomes and no university degrees. Eighty percent of Trump supporters do not have a college diploma. While such citizens are especially in need of a voice in our political system, they may also lack the resources to conduct their own research.

In fact, the influential economist and public policy scholar Anthony Downs has argued that it makes sense for most citizens to be ignorant on many issues. According to Downs, obtaining information "requires time and is therefore costly," and so it is rational for a citizen to only seek information if it will yield a return that exceeds the cost of obtaining it. In other words, it is unlikely that social media followers will fact-check candidates' tweets themselves. Of course, Trump's followers do respond to his tweets -- often with vitriol -- and voters are also exposed to the mainstream media's attempts to debunk the lies of Trump and other candidates. But, so far, this has yet to diminish Trump's standing as a top contender for the G.O.P. nomination for president.

In the year 380 B.C., Plato drew a distinction in the Gorgias between the rhetoric of politicians designed for the good of the people and rhetoric used simply to achieve personal gain. On social media today, no such distinctions exist. The carefully researched tweets of a responsible politician can have the same currency as those of a demagogue whose pants are on fire.