Twitter was founded in 2006. Fourteen years later, and perhaps thanks to the influential example of President Donald Trump, the masters of the universe have apparently learned to post to it.
Last week alone, a plethora of influential politicians and business leaders have at least attempted to use the social media platform with the same air of casual authenticity coupled with severity that characterizes many of Trump’s tweets.
On Thursday, Mike Bloomberg, responded to a taunting tweet from Trump — pitting him against his rival for the Democratic candidacy, Sen. Bernie Sanders — by telling Trump that their mutual connections had nothing but contempt for him.
“We know many of the same people in NY. Behind your back they laugh at you & call you a carnival barking clown,” he said. “They know you inherited a fortune & squandered it with stupid deals and incompetence.”
Bloomberg is, among other things, competing with Trump on his own terms on social media — and has spent no shortage of money in doing so. But he was not alone last week in bluntly expressing himself on social media.
Late Tuesday, Lloyd Blankfein, the senior chairman of Goldman Sachs who is 65 and very, very rich, tweeted late on Tuesday about the possibility of Sanders becoming the Democratic nominee for president.
“If Dems go on to nominate Sanders, the Russians will have to reconsider who to work for to best screw up the US. Sanders is just as polarizing as Trump AND he’ll ruin our economy and doesn’t care about our military. If I’m Russian, I go with Sanders this time around,” Blankfein tweeted.
Blankfein’s tweet came only a day after a series of tweets from Jay Carney, the former White House press secretary and senior vice president for global corporate affairs at Amazon. Carney lashed out at critics of an op-ed he wrote in The New York Times (also about Sanders), criticizing their word choice and suggesting that one might be a bot.
Carney’s sudden spate of unusual and aggressive tweets makes sense in the context of a less private Amazon ecosystem. His boss, Jeff Bezos, recently set Twitter alight with his own post, the point of which appeared to be that Bezos had met Lizzo at the Super Bowl.
Historically, Goldman Sachs and Amazon are known for extremely careful and policed corporate messaging. But in 2020, the example of the tweeter-in-chief (and, clearly, the specter of Sanders competing in the general election) seems to have loosened their Twitter fingers.
Elon Musk, another rich and powerful man, has long been known for boisterous online behavior — in 2018, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged with him with securities fraud for what it called “a series of false and misleading tweets about a potential transaction to take Tesla private.” But even he made a minor stir this month when he released a song called “Don’t Doubt ur Vibe,” and then highlighted that it had become the eighth most popular song on SoundCloud. (Early Wednesday morning, Musk also tweeted about Sanders.)
Jon Meacham, a presidential historian, said that the business leaders of the United States have long taken cues about how to behave in public from the staging of the presidency. At shareholder events, for example, he said, everything from the podium to the branded backdrop is often staged to look “like a place where a president of the United States could plausibly give a talk.”
“Prior to Trump there was a visual vernacular of dignity and gravitas that corporate America borrowed from the presidency,” Meacham said. “And now, as the president has become a Hobbesian bully online, they’re borrowing that. Because at least in their minds, that’s where people are at.”
This week’s tweets are meant to influence voters, and Trump has modeled a singular method of influence in that regard. Rebecca Katz, who has worked as a communications adviser to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cynthia Nixon, attributed this week’s tweets to the increasingly blurry lines between politics, business, media and celebrity.
“While few business leaders would probably admit it, Trump’s rise has made them think that they can do what he’s done,” Katz said. “Trump’s shown them that the way to make news and command attention isn’t by being respected. It’s by being outrageous.”
Jack Grieve, a fellow at the University of Birmingham and one of the authors of a paper about linguistic variation on Trump’s Twitter account, said in an interview that the style of the president’s posts was not arbitrary.
“The stylistic variation you see on Trump’s Twitter account is far from some random dumpster fire,” he said. “It’s very systematic.”
For instance, he said, Trump’s Twitter language became notably more formal once he became the Republican nominee for president in 2016. But it then reverted to informality after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape. Since the president was inaugurated, Grieve said, the informality of his language had crept up again. (Grieve’s analysis spanned from 2009 to early 2018 and did not include the impeachment process.)
That informality was characterized by short sentences, an abundance of pronouns, contractions, questions and direct interactions with other users on the site, Grieve said.
“The fact that people are imitating him is further evidence that it’s not just random,” Grieve said. “It’s been appreciated by people who aren’t just political pundits or who aren’t just journalists but who are really in there trying to do this. They’ve appreciated that there’s an art to what he’s doing.”