At 140 characters, tweets lack context. Without context, there is no truth. So tweets are lies. Donald Trump’s tweets are lies, and so are mine. But they reveal a lot about what’s going on in our respective heads.
What do I mean when I say that the truth demands context? Let’s start with one of my tweets, shown below.
81% of business writers say that poorly written material wastes a lot of their time. https://t.co/47JdGrEwrn
— Josh Bernoff (@jbernoff) December 21, 2016
I certainly didn’t write that intending to lie. But it raises some questions:
- What do I mean by “business writers”?
- How do I know what they would say?
- How did I determine what they think?
As it turns out, I have good answers to these questions. If you click on the link, you see a graphic. At the bottom of the graphic, it explains that I surveyed 547 business writers earlier this year, defines what I mean by “business writer” (somebody who writes at least two hours per week for work, in English, excluding email), and gives the margin of error. It also says that this is not a random sample.
So is my tweet a lie?
Well, it certainly communicates real information. But to determine if you believe it, you have to understand the context, which requires you to do some clicking and reading. Without that link, you lack context. And lacking context, you can’t tell if you believe this statement is true or not.
It’s hard to get context into a tweet, but you can try to do so through links. But few people click Twitter links. So context is a problem, which makes determining truth a problem.
What a tweet really means
There is a way to make a tweet true.
To interpret a tweet, precede it with “[Name of tweeter] thinks that.” The result is a true statement about the tweeter’s belief, even if the belief itself may be false.
For example, here’s the interpretation of my tweet:
“Josh Bernoff thinks that 81% of business writers say that poorly written material wastes a lot of their time.”
That’s a true statement. And it tells you more than what I said; it tells you something about me.
Here’s another example, a typical Bernie Sanders tweet:
It would be nice to put off worrying about climate change for a few decades. But the truth is we have no choice but to act now.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 18, 2016
Do we have no choice but to act now? I agree. There is plenty of evidence for that statement. But of course, Bernie Sanders doesn’t footnote his tweet, and it therefore lacks context. That doesn’t make it wrong, or a lie, but it changes how you interpret it. If I tell you that Bernie Sanders thinks that we have no choice but to act now on climate change, that’s the truth — and it tells you more about Bernie Sanders than it does about climate change.
How this applies to Donald Trump’s tweets
Donald Trump’s Twitter feed befuddles us all. Is it policy? Is it intended to be true? Is it like a speech? Here are a few of his recent controversial tweets:
Today there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany – and it is only getting worse. The civilized world must change thinking!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2016
China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 17, 2016
Has anyone looked at the really poor numbers of @VanityFair Magazine. Way down, big trouble, dead! Graydon Carter, no talent, will be out!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 15, 2016
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
Are these lies? Depends on whether you evaluate them as context-free statements of fact, or statements of opinion.
Were there really terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland, and Germany? The American government is not calling the assassination of the Russian Ambassador in Turkey a terrorist attack. And at the time he tweeted, there was no proof that the person who drove a truck into a crowd was a terrorist, although it’s beginning to look like that now. But does Donald Trump believe they are terrorist attacks, and that things are getting worse? Yes.
China took a done from the ocean in international waters. Is that stealing? Given that the vessel was operating in international waters, it is. The Chinese say they were checking it for safety (yeah, right). “Stealing” is a judgment, but Donald Trump certainly believes it.
Trump’s tweet about Vanity Fair is wrong. Its subscriber numbers went way up after it published a scathing review of The Trump Grill in Trump Tower, which is what led to the tweet. Does Trump really think Graydon Carter will be gone as editor? I’m sure he does.
The November 27 tweet is the most telling. Did millions of people vote illegally? There is no credible evidence for that — Politifact calls it “Pants on Fire” false. But does Donald Trump believe it? I’m sure he does.
Interpreting Trump’s Tweets
Trump’s tweets are different from yours or mine. All tweets are questionable in truth value, because it’s so hard to find context. Trump’s tweets, however, have an even more tenuous relationship to the truth than most. They never include context. And they’re often at odds with what the rest of us believe is the truth.
Trump’s tweets tell us what is going on in his mind. In his mind, themes and poses matter most. Truth follows from those positions, rather than the reverse. The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit, says that a bullshitter is someone who makes statements without worrying about whether they are true or not. Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is the perfect example of that.
Context-free tweets in general don’t have a solid relationship to truth — and neither does Trump. That’s why they go together so well.
Once Trump is president, his Twitter feed will not set policy. It will not be filled with official statements from President Trump. Assuming that his advisors don’t take his smartphone away, his Twitter feed is going to be what it is now — a peek into what’s going on in his head. That’s no place to look for truth.