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'Don't retweet Trump and don't use his language'

Michael Knigge
January 21, 2018

While Donald Trump's tweets are routinely attacked as false, this often only helps to spread his message, says cognitive linguist George Lakoff. So DW asked him how to best respond to the US president's fiery language.

Screenshot of Donald Trump's twitter account
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Courtesy of Twitter

DW: You argue that many well-meaning people including journalists completely ignore the latest findings in the field of cognitive and brain science when they try to refute the falsehoods routinely tweeted or uttered by President Donald Trump. Can you explain what you mean?

George Lakoff: Language activates an idea and a circuitry in your brain. And the result of that is every time a circuit is activated, its synapses get stronger. So the more you hear certain things, even if you just hear and understand them, the circuitry gets stronger.

I wrote a book called "Don't think of an elephant" — which makes you think of an elephant. Or when Nixon said "I am not a crook" everybody thought of him as a crook. Why? Because in order to negate something you have to activate it in your brain first which makes it stronger. So every time you deny something overtly using the language of the person you are trying to contradict, you are actually helping that person.

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This was shown on research about the way Russia and "Islamic State" (IS) do their communications. Their basic principles are: Repetition. And the reason that works is you are activating your brain circuits more and strengthening them. Secondly, frame the idea. Russia and IS know that if they say this is how the world is and it goes into your brain then it has to be overturned before you tell another version. Thirdly, induce attacks, which means get other people to attack you which of course strengthens you because you again have to activate what they said first in your brain before you can negate it. This is a general idea and Trump uses this all the time.  

Trump Tweets word cloud

Are you suggesting we should then not try and refute Trump's falsehoods if that only helps him?

No, I am not saying don't refute them. I am saying you don't refute them by repeating his language and repeating his claims. You refute them by undermining them, you refute them by understanding what you are doing and saying the opposite in positive terms not in negative terms.

Each of Trump's tweets is a strategy. He has four strategies. One, frame first, meaning get your understanding of the situation out there. Two, divert attention from things you don't want people to pay attention to, for example by attacking somebody else. Three, attack the messenger or assign blame to someone else and deflect it away from you, for example the press. Four, launch a trial balloon and say something outrageous, an extreme version of what you believe to see what the reaction is and if it isn't too bad you are in the clear.

George Lakoff
Lakoff is a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at BerkeleyImage: University of California, Berkeley

Those are the four strategies that he uses and he uses one or more of them every time he tweets. All tweets fall under those categories.

So how should we react when Trump sends out one of his many agenda-setting tweets?

What you do first is understand what the tweet is doing and what he does not want you to hear. Often there is some actual real news, real truths that he doesn't want you to hear. He wants to control the media. The media should not let him control them. You are not puppets — cut the strings.

So you are saying people should not retweet Trump's tweets and use his language?

Yes, don't retweet him and don't use the language he uses. Use the language that conveys the truth. Truths are complicated. And seasoned reporters in every news outlet know that truths have the following structure: They have a history, a certain structure and if it is an important truth, there is a moral reason why it is important. And you need to tell what that moral reason is, with all its moral consequences. That is what a truth is. Reporters have to say those truths. And then if he says something that is false or is trying to deflect from it you report it in a sentence or two and then you go back to the truth.

You might report the tweet, or not, in a very short sentence and then you go back to the real news and state that what he wanted to do was not get you to think about the real news and here it is. Speak the real truth that he doesn't want people to hear before you report any tweet.

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Looking beyond Trump's Twitter feed, you are a big proponent of the importance of framing political issues as you mentioned earlier. Can you briefly explain the concept and why you think it is essential for political discourse?

Let me give you a simple example of framing not from Trump, but from George W. Bush. The first day Bush was in office he used the term tax relief. And every day thereafter he used the term. How do you understand relief? It is some kind of affliction, something that is harming you and you want it stopped because it's painful. And if someone stops it, they are a hero to you and if someone wants it to continue, they are a villain. You add "tax" to that and that says taxes are afflictions, they are things that cause you pain. As opposed to taxes being investments in public resources for society, which is a totally different understanding of what taxes are.

The Republican view was taxes are afflictions and Bush said tax relief over and over again and very soon you had the New York Times using the words tax relief on its front page. And soon the Democrats were talking about middle class tax relief and so what they did was subconsciously adopt the conservative idea. And the thing to understand about this is that we know from neuroscience that most thought is subconscious because it is carried on by neural circuits and you have no conscious access to that neurocircuitry. So your subconscious is learning things that go against what you may believe consciously. But it is there and it changes how you understand the world.

A year of Trump

You talked a lot about how the media should or should not deal with President Trump's tweets and rhetoric. How should regular people deal with this?

Exactly the same way. What you need to understand is what is he trying to cover up and you need to protect the truth. You have to learn what the truth is and very often you have to learn it from the media because there is real news that you need to learn. So you need to learn the truth and protect it from the way tweets are covered in the media and from things like retweeting.

And if you are outraged and you want to attack, don't negate, don't use his language, say the opposite of what he says. If you are outraged by what he says, think, 'what important moral truth is this hiding?' and say that important moral truth in your own language — not his.

George Lakoff is distinguished professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous books, among them "Don't think of an Elephant" (2004) and "The Political Mind" (2008).