Analysis: Filter bubbles and Donald Trump’s media profile

Signal analysis in response to New York Times column shows that articles mentioning Donald Trump accounted for 3% of global news traffic over last year

It’s no secret that Donald Trump has dominated the world’s media coverage over the last year or so. Or has he? Last month, Trump’s relationship with the media was interrogated by New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo. On February 22nd, Manjoo published a piece detailing the extent of President Trump’s media profile. It makes for fascinating reading. The article concludes that “it is likely that no living person in history has ever been as famous as Mr. Trump is right now.”

Naturally, we thought this was worth investigating further. Farhad Manjoo refers to the difficulty of weighing Trump’s fame against that of historical figures. Of course, it’s hard to make any kind of direct comparison here. But we can certainly compare the president’s profile against his contemporaries, both in politics and in popular culture.

Donald Trump vs the world

Measuring Trump’s media coverage against the highest-profile people and events of the last year gives us an indication of just how far Trump dominates popular media.

The below graphs were extracted on February 28th – before Trump’s speech to Congress which took place on that evening. For each comparison, we tracked media mentions across the previous week, the previous 30 days, since Jan 1st 2017 and over the last 12 months.

Head-to-head

donald trump vs brexit

donald trump vs obama

donald trump vs putin

donald trump vs kardashian

donald trump vs oscars

The data is conclusive: Donald Trump has dramatically outperformed his nearest competitors in terms of global media attention. Even the Oscars, after one of the most high-profile ceremonies in recent memory on February 26th, barely registered half as many press mentions as did Trump in the week to February 28th.

But we can go one step further than this. We created a – very rough – approximation of global news flow by tracking every mention of the word ‘the’ over the same time periods. (The below graphs show all unique English-language articles.)

This is what we found:

donald trump vs the

Inevitably, Trump is dwarfed by mentions of ‘the’. However, what is remarkable is that Trump’s total is not negligible. We can state with a degree of confidence that over the last year, Donald Trump was mentioned in around 3% of all global news traffic:

trump vs the - pie chart
This is remarkable for an individual person. It also chimes with the New York Times’s assertion that “it’s not just that Mr. Trump’s coverage beats anyone else’s. He is now beating pretty much everyone else put together.”

We only need to see Trump’s media mentions placed against all our other notable people and issues to realise the scale of his dominance:

donald trump vs the world

Problems with the Times’s data

Farhad Manjoo’s argument that Donald Trump’s fame has never been equalled in human history is persuasive. However, there are a couple of nagging issues with the NYT’s argument. A crucial part of Manjoo’s article involves calculating the ‘worth’ of Trump’s press coverage as advertising value equivalent (AVE). Within the PR and communications sector, AVE has long been dismissed as a reliable method of measuring the output of media coverage.

Over a decade ago, communications professor Jim Macnamara published a white paper titled ‘Advertising Values to Measure PR: Why they are Invalid’. Since then, the tide has turned against AVEs, and they are now seen as outdated. The Times piece does an excellent job of summarising Trump’s media profile, which has been quantified by Signal’s data. At the same time, though, it’s problematic to assume that Trump’s media coverage can be given a dollar value.

Filter bubbles

Looking at the NYT piece alongside Signal’s data, one issue becomes clear. We’ve seen that Trump may be involved in as much as 3% of the world’s news flow. While this is an extraordinary figure, it’s apparent that the vast majority of global news in the last year didn’t involve Trump. However, Farhad Manjoo states that “On most days, Mr. Trump is 90 percent of the news on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and probably yours, too.”

This implies a bias that is increasingly becoming ingrained in news channels everywhere, especially on social media. As already popular articles are pushed to bigger audiences, dominant stories – such as those involving Trump’s administration – are amplified by algorithms. So although Trump occupies only 3% of overall news coverage, it feels like he is everywhere. This is part of the filter bubble phenomenon.

The New York Times is aware of this, as are other mainstream news outlets. For instance, the Guardian published an interview with Eli Pariser in January. Pariser is cofounder of Upworthy and author of a landmark 2011 TED Talk on filter bubbles. In the Guardian interview, Pariser said, “The danger of these filters is that you think you are getting a representative view of the world and you are really, really not”. For those involved in analysing media, it is more important than ever to remind people of the inbuilt filters which govern much of what they read and consume on a daily basis.

Conclusions

It is already difficult to break out of the echo chamber and access information outside of our usual reference points. This challenge has only become greater with the advent of industrialised fake news. Particularly for businesses, news media needs to be ultra-reliable while still being delivered in real time. Tools like Signal are designed to give users exactly this mix. Click here to take a free demo.