“Call your Senators 202-224-3121 Demand Special Prosecutor&Select Committee investigation on #TrumpRussia #TeamOfLiars #TheResistance”
With a handful of words and a sprinkling of emojis, an activist group that opposes the agenda of President Donald Trump charged on March 6 its tens of thousands of Twitter followers with dialing Congress. The response was substantial—over a thousand users retweeted the call to action made by “The Resistance Party.” The number of people who contacted Capitol Hill in response to the tweet is immeasurable, but the flood of phone-calls deluging congressional staffers since the January inauguration indicates that people are responding to such organizing tactics.
Ironically, liberal groups like The Resistance Party are multiplying on Twitter in response to a president who revolutionized the social media platform’s use as political media during the 2016 election. Trump’s relentless tweeting throughout the course of his campaign garnered him millions of followers and retweets. His unconventional and combative statements on Twitter often put him directly in the national spotlight. But since becoming president, Trump’s tweeting has not stopped. In fact, he continues to use his personal account in addition to the official presidential Twitter account.
Other players are also mastering the power of Twitter, however. A broad coalition of activist groups is learning tactics for organizing and mobilizing millions of people over the platform. In an interview with the HPR, Diana Scholl, the social media manager for the American Civil Liberties Union, said activists see tweeting news as being “as important as sending out a press release” because “it reaches press as well as everyone else.” Amongst the available tactics for mobilization, tweeting out congressional phone numbers has become a potent method for engagement. The tweeter usually decries an abuse by the Trump administration and then asks the reader to call their congressional representatives to express their anger. In the early months of Trump’s term, these tweets catalyzed displays of protest directed at both administration officials and policies emanating from it.
To make sense of these bouts of Twitter protest, Harvard Democracy140, an undergraduate research group led by Professor James Waldo, built a programmatic pipeline for streaming and analyzing political tweets. The group amassed a representative sample of tweets containing the number for either the congressional switchboard or the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D – Calif.), as they were likely to be a call to action—much like the tweet made by The Resistance Party. They then analyzed the collected tweets for the people or themes being discussed and for the structure of the underlying networks producing them. The findings show that Twitter is emerging as a key tool to quickly foment protest against the administration. These storms of protest on Twitter have been particularly powerful surrounding the controversy about connections between the White House and Russia. Motivating this direct action in the Twittersphere is a key element: urgency.
What Angers Twitter?
To say that Trump has remained in the media spotlight throughout his first months in office would be an understatement. He has loudly rolled out executive orders and introduced new legislation with the Republican congress. The White House has also has been embroiled in scandal over suspected and discovered connections between the Trump administration and Russia. Following the public announcement by top intelligence agencies that Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered attacks against the American democratic system and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, questions have continued to fester about ties between the Trump administration and Putin.
Of all issues relating to the Trump administration during February and March, Russia drew far and away the most powerful response from protestors on Twitter. The graph below shows that numerous spikes occurred in the number of tweets containing a congressional phone number and the word “Russia.” The strongest by far, on March 3, saw over 2,600 tweets either tweeted or retweeted asking the Twittersphere to dial Congress and presumably ask for action on the relationship between the administration and Russia.
The timeline of the activity in this graph aligns with the breaking news about the connection between administration officials and the Kremlin, indicating that the tweets were likely direct responses to scandal surrounding the Trump administration. The period from February 12 to 24 shows spikes in activity surrounding the swift resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn and the subsequent fallout as the administration dealt with the possibility of charges against the former national security advisor. The large spike on March 2 is undoubtedly a result of the revelation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the election.
Another issue that received a substantial amount of Twitter-based protest was the health care reform bill introduced by Trump and congressional Republicans. The American Health Care Act was publicly released on March 6, and received almost immediate backlash from liberal and conservative groups alike. The spike of tweets on March 7 containing a congressional phone number and mentioning “Trumpcare” demonstrates how quickly the Twittersphere characterized the new bill and activists organized protest against it. The subsequent, smaller spike on March 14 corresponds to the previous day’s release of the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the legislation showing that it would cause millions to lose coverage. The heightened March 23 activity shows the attention the bill received as Republican leadership prepared to bring it up for a vote in the House the next day, an endeavor that ultimately failed.
Notably, the second version of the travel ban on citizens of six majority-Muslim countries was unveiled on March 6 but was apparently didn’t get significant backlash on Twitter. Though the second ban, unlike the first, was blocked on March 15 before it went into effect, there was not any large-scale movement on Twitter to call Congress and block the new version of the ban. The lack of attention given to the second version of the travel ban lends insight into how the timeliness of an issue motivates protest on Twitter. Both the Sessions probe and the healthcare legislation were urgent, as they concerned an ongoing investigation and an impending vote. The second travel ban was scheduled, but nobody had yet been detained at an airport.
What drives people to tweet out calls to protest can also be understood by looking at the individuals being targeted. Consistent with the findings made by looking at the tweets by issue, administration officials connected to the scandal with Russia were most widely mentioned in tweets containing congressional phone numbers. Concentrated protest was especially focused on Flynn and Sessions—both central Trump administration officials. The below graph shows that the timeline of mentions for both Flynn and Sessions lines up precisely with the spikes in protest about Russia in the previous graph.
While Trump himself received relatively consistent fire from the Twittersphere, he sometimes spiked at the same time as his political appointees. When Flynn and Session surged on February 14 and 17 respectively, Trump did as well. Other times, however, Trump escaped relatively unscathed from a controversy involving someone close to him. Notably, the massive Twitter storm directed at Jeff Sessions on March 3 barely targeted the president at all. This seems to indicate that protesters did not blame Trump for the communications between Sessions and the Russian ambassador, while they did blame him for the scandal involving Flynn.
The only other person connected to the Trump administration who was significantly targeted in protest tweets was Neil Gorsuch, whom Trump nominated to the Supreme Court on January 31. Gorsuch faced, at most, a tepid response from Twitter. His hearings in late March were largely overshadowed by the battle for the AHCA, and the graph shows that he barely drew any ire from Twitter protesters. The lack of gusto behind protesting Gorsuch reinforces the same conclusion—Russian influence over the White House was the central issue during February and March. Additionally, it highlights the finding that urgency was critical in drawing an activist response from Twitter. The Gorsuch hearings did not present an imminent action that had to be stopped.
Networks of Activism
The final piece in understanding the propagation of protest was determining how it spread and the structure it took. Towards this end, protest tweets and retweets containing congressional phone numbers were put through network analysis using tools created by NYU’s SMaPP lab. Visualizing retweets in this way shed light on the centralized nature of the creation of protest content on Twitter. The lion’s share of the protest activity was the retweeting of a few original users who had a made a call to action to pick up the phone and call Congress.
This graph shows protest tweets during the uncovering of Attorney General Sessions’ meetings with a Russian diplomat (March 1 to 5). Each color represents a network of a single tweet and all of the retweets that came out of it. As can be seen, the majority of all tweets originate from a small group of users. During this window of time, three tweets alone were retweeted enough that they were responsible for over 66 percent of the total content in the representative sample of tweets.
The profiles of those who were getting a high number of retweets for their protest content display the diversity of protest activism on Twitter. The top three tweeters over the March 1 to 5 period shown in the graph were Senator Kamala Harris (D – Calif.), actress Mira Sorvino, and user “1st Officer Spock .” According to Scholl of the ACLU, both strong organizations like the Senate and lesser-known organizations or users, like the Star-Trek-loving user, are essential to successful organizing on Twitter. Bigger groups can use their resources for “elevating smaller groups that are on the ground.” At the same time, stronger organizations can benefit from the authenticity that smaller groups and individual activists provide.
Though some characterize clicking retweet on an activist tweet as “slacktivism” because it requires such minimal effort and allows users to feel that they have accomplished something when they have done little, there is reason to believe that the vast networks of retweets around a few central tweets are actually benefitting protests. “If you have enough people who are doing just a little bit in terms of spreading information about the protest, that can actually cumulatively have a huge effect on the number of additional people who are exposed to information about the protest” according to Joshua Tucker, a professor of politics and data science at NYU, in an interview with the HPR.
As Twitter-savvy organizers and activists think about the foreseeable future under Trump, they undoubtedly want to maintain the tremendous energy that has characterized resistance during the first months of the administration. The data presented here shows that in order to keep people engaged in future protests, organizers will have to maintain a sense of urgency in their responses to Trump. Evidence from the world of natural disaster response supports this focus and demonstrates how a punctuated need for urgency can create a durable network. Kate Starbird, a professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, studies social media communities that arise to provide volunteer natural disaster relief. In an interview with the HPR, Starbird said she “saw groups start to organize into more long-term volunteer groups that kept a presence not just in that event but across different events.” Just as the immediate need created by natural disasters sustained the emergency-response networks, so too can the urgency created by administrative action sustain activist networks and keep them engaged.
While some patterns of response to the Trump administration are emerging from protestors on Twitter, these trends are hardly settled and will likely continue to evolve as organizers refine their tactics. Undoubtedly, President Trump and those around him are also thinking about how to best craft messaging that does not inspire these fiery and effective reactions. Until the White House can figure out how to avoid the wrath of congressional calling-campaigns spread through Twitter, however, it will remain a major roadblock to the aspirations of the Trump administration.