Carnegie Mellon University
July 17, 2015

Does Twitter outrage lead to tangible action? CMU study fails to find link

By Deborah M. Todd / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One month after real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump jumped into a ring of more than a dozen contenders fighting for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, legions of Twitter users are flooding his timeline hoping to land a knockout blow.

And he has provided a moving target. Starting with a June 16 announcement speech that linked Mexican immigrants to drugs and rape, Mr. Trump has been on a social media roll that includes accidentally tweeting a photo of Nazi troops as a tribute to American soldiers, and tweets calling Republican strategist Karl Rove a “irrelevant clown” and comedian Penn Jillette a “goofball atheist.”

Aside from the occasional death threat (an account claiming to belong to fugitive Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera tweeted Sunday that he would make Mr. Trump “swallow” his words) and severed ties with the NBC Universal and Macy’s, the candidate hasn’t experienced as much fallout from his social media outbursts as some might expect.

As of Tuesday, Mr. Trump was the favorite with Republican primary voters in a Suffolk University/​USA Today national poll.

The idea that highly publicized Twitter firestorms pack more digital bark than real-world bite was underlined this week by a new Carnegie Mellon University study.

Conducted by CMU assistant research professor Juergen Pfeffer with graduate students Hemank Lamba and Momin M. Malik, the paper studied 80 firestorm events between January 2011 and September 2014 to see if Twitter outrage eventually turned to grassroots activism.

Whether ire was sparked by a hashtag demanding cancellation of the Stephen Colbert show or one attempting to drum up support for the New York Police Department, the study found the social media anger overwhelmingly did not result in new Twitter groups or long-term initiatives designed to address the issue online.

“It is astonishing how clear we see the patterns that people virtually gather together for a firestorm like for a football game in real life. They focus their attention for a couple of hours on a shared topic and then they go their separate ways again back to their regular lives,” Mr. Pfeffer said.

He said it’s difficult to tell exactly how Twitter firestorms lead to real-world action, which is why he is planning to study feedback from firestorms to see how it ties to traditional media coverage in the near future.

No matter how he tackles the topic, it will hard to get a clear idea of what’s going on in the minds of voters by examining Twitter posts, said Mark Harris, partner at Downtown-based consulting firm Coldspark Media.

“Twitter is not a representative sample of the rest of America. People have to keep that in mind,” said Mr. Harris.

Coldspark isn’t working with any of the current presidential candidates, but he said the study’s findings wouldn’t make him feel more comfortable if he were tasked with tackling a firestorm.

“[The firestorm] can get a little less damaging over time, but it’s still a net negative to your brand or your company done in the short term that will have long-term consequences,” Mr. Harris said.

Political candidates could leave social media posts up to the experts, but the majority today prefer authenticity, even when they have to own their mistakes, said Robert Aho, partner of Washington, D.C.-based political advertising firm Brabender Cox. Brabender Cox represents Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

“Firestorm or not, it’s such a powerful tool to communicate with reporters, coalition groups and people who are already supportive,” he said.

If all else fails, Mr. Harris and Mr. Aho said candidates can always try to apologize their way out firestorms, something Mr. Trump has explicitly refused to do regarding comments about Mexico. A Trump campaign spokesman did apologize for tweeting the photo featuring Nazi soldiers and said an intern made the error.

With or without a mea culpa, Mr. Trump seems to be benefiting from the firestorm, something Mr. Pfeffer said may have been the plan all along.

“If I was his adviser, I’d say that’s a good idea,” he said.

Original Story