Study on Trump and Twitter: The Politics of Embarrassment

Researchers from the University of Lübeck examined tweets and discovered that following the inauguration of Donald Trump, expressions of embarrassment in the USA increased dramatically.

Professor Frieder Paulus works as a psychologist at the Center of Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM) at the University of Lübeck. He explains the focus of his research in an interview.

You examined tweets. What exactly is the study about?

Paulus: That Trump can cause embarrassment is not news. There are already surveys in the USA that have examined this issue. What interested me, Sören Krach and Laura Müller-Pinzler is the question: Can you recognise, based on aspects of publicly accessible communication, that embarrassment has gained in importance there? During the study, which we published in cooperation with colleagues from Michigan State University and the Goethe University Frankfurt, we examined tweets that were published in the USA between June 2015 and the end of 2017 and in some form contained the word “embarrassment” .

That must have involved an unbelievable amount of tweets. How many did you look at?

Paulus: We found 24,981,600 tweets and retweets on Twitter that contained some reference to “embarrassment”. 2,271,200 of these had some direct link to Trump. Fortunately, we were able to use a databank which made it much easier to work with such a large volume of messages. We then took a closer look at around 130,000 tweets from three specific days, spanning the time from Barack Obama’s presidency to the Trump era.

What did you discover?

Paulus: Overall, after Trump's inauguration in January 2017, there was a significant increase in tweets that contained the word “embarrassing”. Compared to Obama’s time in office, there are 40 to 50 percent more tweets per day in which this emotion is mentioned. We then took a closer look at occasions on which the word “embarrassment” appeared particularly frequently: The election of Trump, his  TV debates with Hillary Clinton, the visit from Angela Merkel when he refused to shake her hand, and then the NATO summit where Trump pushed the Prime Minister of Montenegro Dusko Markovic aside and moved himself to the front. It seems that, on social media, important moments or decisions made by Trump are associated with embarrassment.

What could be the reasons for this?

Paulus: That is what the more theoretical part of our manuscript looks at. Trump violates norms, for example when he denigrates certain groups of people and it seems as if he does so consciously and deliberately. Obviously, anyone can make a gaffe, other presidents have also done so. The difference now is that there is no apology and little sign of wanting to make amends, all of which leaves the impression that it is deliberate. As a result, people draw conclusions about the person’s character. We know from studies in social psychology that gestures which are seen as conciliatory, such as lowering one’s gaze, blushing, placing your hand in front of your face as a way of signalling that you know you have violated a norm, restore an audience’s sympathetic view of you. In Trump’s case it is remarkable that he hardly ever offers any signs of an apology.

What does this feeling of shame on someone else’s behalf, or “vicarious embarrassment”, as you call it, do to US citizens?

Paulus: It isn’t just about embarrassment. Terms such as anger, shame, and disgust also frequently occur. We consider whether this can also have a motivational effect and influence one’s own political behaviour. This might be evident at the next election, which yields a different result, or in the different way an election campaign is fought. It might be that more people take to the streets and get involved politically, or that people act in a more political way beyond the usual political channels. Within the Democratic Party, more left-leaning issues might get extra attention, or certain newspapers experience an increase in support – just look at the rise in subscriptions for the New York Times, for example. Constant violations of integrity might lead me to wish to repair the damaged image that I have as a US citizen and therefore become more politically involved and protect other groups. 

However, it is also important to point out that deliberately violating norms can also be a political strategy and is not restricted to Trump. Provoking strong emotional reactions and embarrassment, and reckoning with shame and anger in other people, is a phenomenon we are also seeing in Germany and many other European countries. It seems to be part of the current political climate.


The Politics of Embarrassment: Considerations on How Norm-Transgressions of Political Representatives Shape Nation-Wide Communication of Emotions on Social Media

Prof. Frieder Paulus and his fellow researches analysed tweets (Photo: private)