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A Twitter bot is taking Trump more seriously than his own staff

How seriously should you take Donald Trump’s Twitter feed? White House officials say, eh, not terribly. But a new bot — yep, a bot — makes the argument that what Trump tweets in daily spurts is the equivalent of official White House statements and we should stop pretending it isn’t.

Though administration officials and surrogates like Kellyanne Conway and Sebastian Gorka have tried to downplay Trump’s internet habits and dismiss news outlets that report on his tweets, Trump remains president, and his opinions (no matter if they’re misspelled) carry a lot of political weight.

Activist and coder Russel Neiss, 33, has put this into perspective by designing a Twitter bot called @RealPressSecBot to format Trump tweets as official White House statements.

Neiss says he got the idea from Obama administration alum Pat Cunnane, who tweeted out his own mockup of a presidential statement last week after Trump tweeted about the London attack. Neiss said he was tagged by one of Cunnane’s followers, who asked if he could automate it. Neiss replied, “As soon as my kids go down for a nap or to sleep, I can handle that.” Forty minutes later, the bot was born.

Neiss, as the user who tagged him knew, is no stranger to the viral Twitter bot game. He also created the @Stl_Manifest account, which tweeted out the names of Jewish passengers on the MS St. Louis who, after being turned away from the US in 1939, perished in the Holocaust.

I spoke to Neiss about his new bot and its message.

Carly Sitrin

What goes into designing a bot like this? How does it work?

Russel Neiss

The bot essentially is a computer program, and what it does is it looks for some sort of input and manipulates it in some kind of way and pushes it back out. All Twitter bots follow this kind of process; sometimes the inputs are multiple inputs, sometimes they're single inputs, sometimes it's a static list, sometimes it's dynamic. But in this case, the bot just simply calls Twitter's API — the application processing interface — to say, show me the last several Donald Trump tweets, and it compares those recent tweets against the list that it maintains to make sure it's seen it before or hasn't seen it before.

Then what it says is, if I haven't seen this tweet before, take the text from this tweet and push it through this image library, this image processor, to get the nice format and then post it back onto Twitter. At its core, it's pretty straightforward.

Carly Sitrin

Did it garner the reaction you expected?

Russel Neiss

It's always interesting. You have sort of an inkling of an idea when you create these bots of what it might be, and then you put it out into the world and something more interesting often comes out of it. One of the things I do is teach students how to write these Twitter bots, and one year a group of students wrote this bot called Honor My Parents, which looks for tweets by what they assumed were teenagers who were saying, “I hate my mom, I hate my dad, I hate my parents,” and would reply to them with the text of the Fifth Commandment. They thought this was hilarious.

They launched the Twitter bot, and then the next day they were watching the responses to this thing, and they saw kids who seemed to be in abusive homes, and these kids who the day before had thought this was a hilarious, beautiful, fun Twitter bot in the end were like, oh, my gosh, we have to pull this thing down. That experience gave me the idea that you can put something into the world and you don't necessarily know what's going to come of it.

I think here what's interesting, and what I love about this particular bot, is that it's really neutral. All it's doing is it's taking the president's Twitter feed and giving that feed the proper honor befitting the highest office of the land. And the reason it is jarring to some folks is this incongruity of the content of the tweet and the format.

Carly Sitrin

Can something like this remain neutral?

Russel Neiss

Nothing is apolitical. I think it's important to be as not political as possible, which seems impossible given the current climate. If the communications team at the White House and the president himself believe the coverage of these tweets is not beneficial to the White House, there is a very easy solution, and that is for him to stop tweeting.

On the other hand, when you have a president who hasn't done a public press conference for 150-plus days and has surrogates go on TV and say they can't speak for the president, when you have a press secretary who is supposed to be ostensibly the voice of the administration getting contradicted on a regular basis by his boss who tweets the next day — tweets often that are contrary to things that are said at the podium...

Folks said during the campaign that we should take Trump seriously but not literally. I want to take the president seriously with his words. I think in some ways what this bot does is it elevates his words to a seriousness that's actually proper and fitting of his office.

Carly Sitrin

Would you say this is a work of political art?

Russel Neiss

It's interesting. I was very pleased yesterday to see a lot of artists, people who I think are real artists in the visual space, tweeting about the bot and framing it in that context. I think all of us who think creatively and who do creative work strive to see their work in that way. There's always the question of what is art, and we can wax philosophically about that for an hour — but in the sense that this is a creative endeavor that is trying to say something and manipulate things, absolutely. I hope that it's high enough, and important enough, and valuable enough to people that they see this in the vein of art, but for me it was a quick, easy way to kill 40 minutes while my kids napped and I was avoiding dishes.

Carly Sitrin

What effect do you hope this has?

Russel Neiss

Anecdotally, you see it happening already, and there is what Maggie Haberman [of the New York Times] said, which is the idea that if anything, if this brings more attention to the fact that these tweets are not “merely tweets — that these tweets are presidential statements delivered on Twitter — I think is an important thing. There are other times where folks get caught up in the media and the newness and the shininess and the not understanding the technology itself, and they miss out on the actual core of what's happening here.

It's not unusual or new for a president to try and get around the mainstream media, and I think that's somewhat legitimate. Clinton went on Arsenio Hall, Obama went on Zach Galifianakis's Between Two Ferns. This idea that you want to go around the mainstream media is not a new idea. When Obama was on Between Two Ferns, I remember poignantly when Galifianakis was doing his job of asking ridiculous questions to try and bring some comedy to the show, and Obama just said, “Zach, are you serious? Just stop it. I'm not going to answer that; just stop it.”

There's a point in which previous presidents have known when it's okay to joke around and when it's okay to be informal and when that off-the-cuff-ness can be problematic and troubling. Seb Gorka or Kellyanne Conway or some of the president's other surrogates can talk about the fact that these are just tweets, these are not policy positions — but this man can move markets with a single tweet. This man can create political havoc at home or abroad with a single tweet. And when you have that power and when you have that ability, these tweets are no longer just simply tweets. These are presidential statements on Twitter and need to be treated with the seriousness that comes with that.

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