Most mornings these days, I wake up, check the weather, scan my emails, and then look at Donald Trump's Twitter. This is mildly embarrassing but seems like a requirement for political journalists, or even just people who follow politics closely—a few tweets from the president-elect can influence the course of cable news and op-ed sections, or even be news in and of themselves. Trump engages with Twitter not in the bland, on-message manner of a regular politician; he uses the microblog like a squid uses ink, spraying out tweets to confuse, to obfuscate, or just because he's feeling threatened. This, as they say, is not normal. And the media, not to mention the rest of America, has yet to figure out the question that confronts anyone dealing with a troll: Is this guy joking?
Once upon a time, celebrities—and presidents are nothing if not celebrities—would have to interact with the media in order to get their message out. That era of trading access for a platform is over. Actors can tease projects with an Instagram post, athletes can write their own articles over at the Players' Tribune, members of Congress can issue statements to the press and the public simultaneously over Facebook. In that sense, Trump's use of Twitter is just a continuation of a trend. And on Facebook, the entity "Donald J. Trump" is what you'd expect from a public figure: photos of rallies, clips of interviews, links to articles about what a great guy he is. That's basically what you'll find on Barack Obama's page, too. We're so used to on-brand messaging it barely registers as background noise. A politician's interviews, speeches, social media presence, and policies are seamlessly integrated as a matter of course. For example, Obama's signature accomplishment is the Affordable Care Act; he cares a great deal about the ACA, so he talks about it a lot on social media and in front of audiences.
The Twitter entity @realDonaldTrump does not follow those rules. He uses Twitter like you or I do, which is to say badly—he'll tweet about whatever is catching his eye at any given moment. Sometimes, this correlates with what his spokespeople are saying. At other moments, he'll seem to contradict them, making it unclear what he and his team are actually doing. And often he is just—I don't know another phrase for it—talking out of his ass.
As a channel for information about the world, or even what Trump the person thinks, @realDonaldTrump is garbage. Just after the election the account was complaining about protesters and praising them in the span of 24 hours. On November 22, Trump canceled and uncanceled a meeting with the New York Times via Twitter in a single morning. Right next to the contradictions are the lies, like when @realDonaldTrump said the Times had "sent a letter to their subscribers apologizing for their BAD coverage of me" (it hadn't), or when he took credit for keeping a Ford plant in Kentucky, even though the plant was never moving. Other categories of tweets include his complaints of bias (Saturday Night Live is a frequent target, as is CNN) and source-free assertions of plots against him (see his idea that "millions of people" voted illegally, or the allegation that there was "serious voter fraud" in several states). Most jarringly, sometimes @realDonaldTrump contradicts Trump's own spokesperson, like when he denounced a CNN report that he'll be working on The Apprentice in his spare time as "ridiculous & untrue - FAKE NEWS!" Except that CNN report came from a direct quote given by Trump's former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.
What do you do when the guy who's about to be president tweets things that are unreliable, self-contradictory, or flat-out untrue? One option would be to ignore them—a number of people on the left have suggested that Trump uses @realDonaldTrump's silliness as a distraction from the real Donald Trump's more nefarious activities, namely the potential conflicts of interest stemming from his international real estate business.
Unfortunately, unlike most of the angry men on Twitter, @realDonaldTrump can't be ignored. What may seem like an off-the-cuff fit of pique might actually be a signal of Trump's changing priorities or a new policy direction. On November 29, @realDonaldTrump tweeted that people who burned the American flag should be punished by losing their citizenship or be sent to jail, even though the Supreme Court has previously ruled that flag burning is constitutionally protected speech. That tweet seemed like a passing thought brought on by cable news, but in the days since Trump has continued to criticize flag burning—so, is Trump going to push for restrictions on this traditional form of protest? Does he actually hate to see the flag in flames? Or, in true reality star form, is he just saying whatever gets the biggest reaction?
There are plenty of other cases where @realDonaldTrump's habitual hyperbole blur together with Trump's actual agenda. The tweet about how the Somali refugee suspected of the stabbing attack at Ohio State "should not have been in our country" dovetails with the Republican Party's harsh anti-refugee views. @realDonaldTrump's petty singling out of an Indiana union boss led to the man receiving threatening phone calls, but it was of a piece with the incoming Trump administration's hostility to unions. A recent tweet calling for a 35 percent tariff on companies that leave the US seems to be a reflection of Trump's deeply held commitment to keeping manufacturing jobs in America by any means necessary. And @realDonaldTrump seemed serious when he criticized the costs of a new Air Force One jet and an F-35 program—at least, the markets took him seriously, as stock prices of Boeing and Lockheed Martin (the companies with those government contracts) took a tumble.
But that seemed in "seemed serious" is doing a whole lot of work. If there's anything to be learned from sifting through Trump's tweets, it's that he enjoys fucking with people: On Sunday, after it was widely reported that Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson would be Trump's pick for secretary of state, @realDonaldTrump turned coquettish, saying Tillerson was "a world class player and dealmaker" "whether or not I choose him for 'State.'" Is that a sign Tillerson isn't going to be the pick? Or is it just Trump following his Apprentice–honed instincts and trying to keep the country in suspense?
For the moment, the best way to think of @realDonaldTrump might be as the government-run media organization of one of your shakier nations. Its tweets aren't necessarily deliberate statements of misinformation, but neither are they necessarily true; sometimes they reflect the important issues of the day, while other times they're meant as a distraction from it. Making the distinctions requires context; it requires neither getting too alarmed at @realDonaldTrump's more alarmist positions nor ignoring the whole thing as nonsense. That's the thing about trolls: It's really hard to figure out what they actually think.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.