Politics

Trump's election lies were among his most popular tweets

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Key Points
  • A CNBC analysis of President Trump's tweets since he was inaugurated found that his most popular and frequent posts largely spread disinformation and distrust.
  • Of Trump's 10 most popular tweets, four contained false claims related to the 2020 election results. Of his 100 most popular posts, 36 contained election-related falsehoods. 

Following the U.S. Capitol riot, Twitter permanently banned President Donald Trump's account "due to the risk of further incitement of violence."

Blocked from using his preferred tool for public communication, Trump left behind 88 million followers, some 16,000 now-deleted tweets while in office, and a legacy of spreading disinformation and distrust on the platform.

A CNBC analysis of Trump's tweets during his presidency found that his most popular and frequent posts largely spread disinformation and distrust. Many of his most-liked tweets contained falsehoods, while the topic he posted about most frequently, "fake news," was a weapon for undermining information.

"Trump's primary use of Twitter has been to spread propaganda and manipulate public opinion," said Sam Woolley, director for propaganda research at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Media Engagement. "He used Twitter to delegitimize information or to delegitimize the positions of his opponents."

Of Trump's 10 most-popular tweets, four contained false claims related to the 2020 election results. Of his 100 most popular posts, 36 contained election-related falsehoods. 

Those 36 posts containing election falsehoods received a collective 22.6 million likes and 3.9 million retweets, according to the analysis, which used a historical log of Trump's posts from the Trump Twitter Archive and excluded any retweets from accounts other than @realDonaldTrump.

"Since the November election, Trump has turned to Twitter as the core platform for spreading disinformation about the election," said Woolley. 

The House of Representatives is expected to impeach Trump on Wednesday afternoon for a second time. The Democratic-led House introduced an article of impeachment Monday that cited Trump's repeated false claims of election fraud as evidence that he ignited insurrection at the Capitol.

While the posting of falsehoods is one form of misinformation, Woolley said, Trump also practiced a less direct mechanism: Attacks intended to delegitimize information. This is most visible in the use of Trump's favorite phrase, "fake news," which appeared roughly 900 times across his tweet history.

"Trump uses social media and terms like 'fake news' and 'witch hunt' and his power there to create the illusion of popularity for ideas that actually have no basis in reality," said Woolley. "Often what this does is create a bandwagon effect for supporting false or misleading things, or more generally attacking institutions," which may include health care, science, education, and the government, in addition to the media.

The most common two-word phrases used in Trump's tweets as president

1. Fake news

2. United State(s)

3. Witch hunt

4. White House

5. America great

6. Total endorsement

7. New York

8. News media

9. Great job

10. Great again

The increase in social media disinformation from Trump and others has visible effects on U.S. democracy, said Kelly Born, executive director of the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University. She described broad impacts, such as decreasing trust in institutions, and more specific, tangible outcomes, like the mob of Trump supporters that interrupted a joint session of Congress confirming Joe Biden's election victory.

"There's no question that the [social media] platforms were used in every step" of the riot, said Born, "from the heightening of tensions between these groups to really exacerbating the animosity to actually physically organizing, with people talking about bringing zip ties and rope and where to go and when."

Woolley agreed that last week's events show the power of Trump's internet presence outside of social media, explaining how the online and offline worlds are connected.

The Trump Twitter cycle followed a now-familiar pattern throughout his presidency: Trump tweeted to millions of followers, who further spread the messages in his posts, which were then covered in the media and pushed further into the public discourse, giving Trump another opportunity to comment on his initial message.

"There have been other Republicans and supporters discounting what he does, saying let him have his thing on Twitter, downplaying or ignoring it," Woolley said. "With what we've seen in Washington in the last several days, we can no longer deny the fact that what Trump does and says online has serious offline consequences."

Trump spoke publicly for the first time since the riot on Tuesday, but did not take personal responsibility for the violence. In his comments, he used language similar to that seen in many of his tweets, calling the impeachment talk "really a continuation of the greatest witch hunt in politics."

In addition to how Trump used the tool, Born said that part of his Twitter legacy is that his actions finally forced social media and tech platforms to take action against the type of content and behavior he promoted. In the last week, Google and Facebook suspended or banned Trump from their platforms, Amazon withdrew cloud computing support from social media app Parler due to violent content on the platform, and Twitter suspended more than 70,000 accounts associated with the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory.

Because of Twitter's permanent suspension of Trump's account, most of his tweets that were embedded in media stories over the years have vanished, leaving a hole in the historic record of the 45th president. Private companies do not fall under rules for government agencies to preserve documents and communications for legal and historic research.

"These Tweets will no longer be available to the public and this is not an institutional government account," a Twitter spokesperson told CNBC by email Wednesday. "We defer to the White House and National Archives and Records Administration on preservation requirements. We will work with the government to help fulfill their archival laws."

The spokesperson also noted that Politwoops preserves all deleted tweets.

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- CNBC's Marty Steinberg and Steve Kovach contributed to this story.