Compelling political messages tell stories grounded in core values and conveyed in memorable figures of speech. The recent success of the Republicans in confirming Justice Brett Kavanaugh, despite serious allegations of sexual assault, is a prime example. By analyzing the content of tweets mentioning Kavanaugh from the initial news of the Ford allegation on September 16 through the Senate’s final vote to confirm his appointment on October 6, we were able to map out the core narrative arc Republicans used and how it evolved to get him across the finish line.
Following the public release of Dr. Ford’s allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, and just as Debbie Ramirez’s allegations that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her in college emerged, Republican messaging focused on the core American value of the “presumption of innocence”: that a person is innocent until proven guilty. This messaging particularly mobilized men, as well as reinforced Republicans, generally. We can see a pronounced spike in tweets mentioning Kavanaugh and this core value on September 23. This was followed by a quick dip in mentions, but it leveled out and remained a prevalent theme for another three days (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Tweets About Kavanaugh Mentioning Presumption of Innocence
(September 12–October 5, 2018)
As mentions of the presumption of innocence faded on Twitter, we see a quick shift in the conversation to talking about how Kavanaugh’s “predicament” could easily happen to your father, husband, or son. This shift helped to personalize the “presumption of innocence” message, connecting it to every American. Then, as these mentions fade, the president reinvigorated the message that this could have widespread impact when he told reporters that this is “a very scary time for young men in America.” His comments put a sharper point on the personalization message and drove Twitter mentions back up, keeping them up on this point until the FBI delivered its final report to the Senate Judiciary Committee (see Figure 2) on October 3. This message strategy helped pull on blue-collar, married, and older women, as well as people of color.
Figure 2. Tweets about Kavanaugh Mentioning Scary Time for Young Men/Husbands, Fathers & Sons
(September 12–October 5, 2018)
When the FBI report on the background investigation into the Ford allegation was released, the Republican message shifted once again. This time there was a sharp spike in tweets pronouncing that the FBI found no corroborating evidence to Ford’s allegation (see Figure 3). This took the narrative arc from the initial grounding in a core value, through a personalization of the implications, to an evidentiary “refutation” of the allegation. Regardless of questions related to the thoroughness and credibility of the FBI investigation, the simplified message that it found no corroboration for Ford’s allegations made its way swiftly through the Twittersphere. That reinforced demands for a resolution of the confirmation and a desire of men and women voters to move on.
Figure 3. Tweets about Kavanaugh Mentioning Corroborating Evidence
(September 12–October 5, 2018)
Once the message that the evidence failed to corroborate Ford’s allegations took root, Republicans quickly turned back to the “innocent until proven guilty” value message as the Senate proceeded to vote on cloture and then on Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
While the Twitter conversation around the Kavanaugh hearings was prolific and ranged widely in its perspective and focus, we were able to use Twitter to see very clearly how the Republicans constructed a compelling narrative based on core values, personalization, and the leveraging of evidence. And while we can easily critique every step of this narrative—this was not a trial, therefore there is no presumption of innocence; it is really only a scary time for men who commit sexual assault; and Ford’s discussing the assault with her therapist was corroboration and that there was no evidence corroborating Kavanaugh’s story—it did not matter. By effectively being disciplined, pivoting quickly, and pushing the narrative out into social media (and other media, too), Republicans were able to seize the public imagination and force their narrative to take root. They were aided by a centralized message operation and the bully pulpit, especially driven by Trump’s comments to reporters and his own tweets. This triggered a ready to pounce organic network of amplifiers marching under the #TrumpTrain and related hashtags.
Message campaigns in the social-media age take a somewhat different form from those of the past. The #TrumpTrain network, representing a new kind of “centralized” operation, always stands at the ready to take their cues from Trump’s tweets, speeches and interviews without the need for anyone to formally tell them to go. Because the network is large and they all follow the same hashtags, and many follow each other, at any moment, any small number of them can step up and launch the whole network on a message spree.
In this case, whenever Trump put out the messages we identified in the Kavanaugh-Ford narrative arc, they were quickly picked up by some in this network, triggering many more to pile on. Some of the most prolific amplifiers we identified who launched this narrative include @gerfingerpoken, with about 76,000 followers; @PIRATEDTRAIN, with about 71,000 followers; and @MsAvaArmstrong, with about 68,00 followers. They jumped onto the presumption of innocence message and started the ball rolling.
@MsAvaArmstrong and @PIRATEDTRAIN, again, were among the next wave of influencers pushing the “scary time for young men” message, along with other #TrumpTrain amplifiers, such as Poruje, with another 76,000 followers; @TrumpsBlonde, with 75,000; and @philadper2014, with 71,000. With this growing amplification, the message got an extra boost from accounts with star power, including former MLB pitcher @Curt Schilling (@gehrig38), who has an audience of over 237,000.
The tweets comprising the GOP narrative, and the system that amplifies them, warns us of the impact a coherent and deliberate Republican messaging strategy presents and how we can use social media to better understand how those messages are being pushed out and what traction they are getting. While we can learn much from post-analyses of messaging battles, such as this one, employing real-time analysis of these narratives would allow for the development and push of a competing narrative that could be better positioned to seize the national conversation. And if Democrats are able to grow their own network of amplifiers, we would be better able to compete with the Republicans for share of voice, increasing the chances that our narrative would win the day.