New research published in Public Opinion Quarterly has unveiled the impact of former President Donald Trump’s tweets on media preferences among Americans. The study sheds light on how Trump’s rhetoric influenced perceptions of Fox News and alternative media outlets, providing a unique window into the complex relationship between political elites and the media landscape.
Trump’s prolific use of the social media platform formerly known as Twitter was a defining feature of his presidency. He often used the platform to communicate directly with his supporters, criticize opponents, and comment on the media landscape. One prominent target of his Twitter tirades was Fox News, a network traditionally aligned with conservative viewpoints.
Prior research had hinted at Trump’s tense relationship with Fox News, but the new study sought to delve deeper into the subject. It aimed to answer several key questions: How frequently did Trump criticize Fox News on Twitter during his presidency? Did his negative tweets correlate with changes in the channel’s ratings? How did his attacks on Fox News affect individual perceptions of the network’s bias, and did they influence media consumption preferences? The research also explored the differences in responses between Republicans and Democrats.
“I’ve been really interested in researching the effects of politicians’ attacks on the press since the 2016 election, and while he was president, I started to notice Trump attacking Fox News alongside his critiques of other outlets,” explained Allison M. N. Archer, the author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Houston.
“These types of attacks on a partisan-friendly information source were understudied in the literature and represented a newer form of intra-party conflict with important implications since voters now have a ton of choice when it comes to reading, watching, or listening to partisan media. I felt this study could help shed light on how, for instance, conservatives might use elite cues to help them choose between the many right-leaning media options they have today, and more broadly, saw this as an important new avenue for studying elite cues about the news media.”
First, Archer conducted a content analysis of Trump’s tweets. She focused on a specific period, from his inauguration on January 20, 2017, to November 7, 2020, a few days before the major networks declared Joe Biden president-elect. During this time, Trump posted a staggering total of 24,788 tweets, making Twitter a significant channel for communicating his thoughts.
In her analysis, Archer homed in on tweets that included “@Fox,” encompassing references to Fox News, Fox Business, and Fox & Friends. She found that Trump’s negative tweets about Fox News increased throughout his presidency, peaking in 2020. What’s particularly striking is that these negative tweets appeared to have a noticeable impact on Fox News, correlating with a decrease in the network’s ratings. In other words, when Trump criticized Fox News, fewer people tuned in to watch it.
Next, Archer conducted two studies to gauge how Trump’s tweets affected individual perceptions and media consumption preferences. Study 1 was conducted in March 2020, while Study 2 took place in October 2020. Both studies used the Qualtrics platform. A total of 2,479 respondents participated in Study 1, while Study 2 involved 3,010 participants.
Study 1 examined the effects of Trump’s attacks on Fox News and whether Fox journalists could defend themselves against these critiques. The study employed real-world rhetoric. On August 28, 2019, Trump tweeted: “…I don’t want to Win for myself, I only want to Win for the people. The New @FoxNews is letting millions of GREAT people down! We have to start looking for a new News Outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!” Fox News host Neil Cavuto responded to the comment on air, saying that he does not work for Trump.
Respondents were randomly assigned to one of four conditions: control, Trump’s attack on Fox News, Trump’s attack on Fox News with Fox anchor Neil Cavuto’s defense in transcript form, or Trump’s attack on Fox News with Cavuto’s defense in video form. Participants were asked about their perceptions of Fox’s coverage of Trump, its ideological slant, and their willingness to consume Fox News.
In Study 1, Republicans responded to Trump’s attacks by viewing Fox News as more critical of Trump and less ideologically conservative. However, these attacks did not change Republicans’ stated willingness to consume Fox News. Democrats, in Study 1, viewed Fox News as more critical of Trump after exposure to Trump’s attacks but also expressed a greater willingness to watch Fox News, suggesting a rare moderation in their views of the opposition.
Study 2 expanded on the findings of Study 1 by introducing Trump’s promotion of OANN as an alternative to Fox News. On August 16, 2020, Trump tweeted: “.@FoxNews is not watchable during weekend afternoons. It is worse than Fake News @CNN. I strongly suggest turning your dial to @OANN. They do a really ‘Fair & Balanced’ job!”
Respondents were assigned to one of four conditions: control, Trump’s attack on Fox News, Trump’s attack on Fox News with his promotion of OANN, or Trump’s attack on Fox News with OANN promotion and a portion of Cavuto’s defense (from Study 1).
In Study 2, Trump’s attacks on Fox News led Republicans to express a greater willingness to consume OANN relative to Fox News, especially when Trump promoted OANN. Among Democrats in Study 2, Trump’s attacks had no significant impact on their willingness to consume either Fox News or OANN, although they did perceive Fox News as more critical of Trump and slightly less ideologically extreme.
“Elite cues about partisan media are influential in shaping people’s views about and willingness to read or watch different partisan news sources,” Archer told PsyPost. “Specifically, I show that Trump’s attacks on Fox News likely hurt Fox’s ratings and his rhetoric also led Republicans to become open to more extreme alternatives like OANN.”
“Democrats responded to Trump by viewing Fox as less extreme and at least saying they’re more open to watching the channel. This suggests views about partisan media are not static, and highlights the importance of politicians’ rhetoric for people as they navigate the fragmented partisan media landscape.”
While the effects of Trump’s rhetoric on Democrats were relatively modest, Archer was still a bit surprised to see that it caused Democrats to have a more favorable view of Fox.
“While there were theoretical reasons to expect Democrats would respond the way they did, there were also reasons to expect Democrats might not respond at all to Trump’s attacks on Fox News,” Archer explained. “In fact, some previous research shows Trump’s rhetoric does not affect Democrats’ opinions about other topics (Barber and Pope 2019). So, it was interesting to see that Democrats took the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ approach and seemingly sided with Fox News over Trump when he attacked the outlet.”
But every study has its limitations, and Archer’s research is no exception. While the findings shed light on the relationship between political rhetoric and media consumption, there are a few caveats to consider. The study primarily focused on the influence of Trump’s tweets on Fox News and OANN. Future research could explore how similar dynamics apply to other media outlets and political leaders.
“Attacks on media typically viewed as aligned with the politician are not limited to the right,” Archer said. “There have been some instances of Bernie Sanders attacking MSNBC, for instance, and it’d be great to study whether the same dynamics play out when studying this on the left.”
The study, “The Effects of Elite Attacks on Copartisan Media: Evidence from Trump and Fox News“, was published September 17, 2023.