On Sunday 22 January 2017, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway introduced the term alternative facts to justify disputed White House claims about how many people had attended Trump’s inauguration. The term alternative facts was quickly associated with the newspeak and doublethink of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sales of the book became ‘hyperactive’ during the following week.
I looked up some 150,000 tweets about Orwell’s ‘1984’ to see how interest in the novel developed during that week (note that analysing tweets is a somewhat messy business - see Method below for caveats).
But first, a basic timeline. On Friday 20 January, the inauguration took place. Afterwards, people started tweeting photos showing empty spots in the audience. On Saturday, the White House claimed the photos were misleading and that the inauguration had drawn the «largest audience to ever witness an inauguration». On Sunday, Conway appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and defended the White House claim as alternative facts.
The chart below shows tweets about Orwell’s 1984 and how many of those tweets specifically mention alternative facts. Immediately after Conway’s Meet the Press interview, the first tweets appeared that made the connection between alternative facts and 1984 (the green line in the chart). The real peak occured on Tuesday, when major media started to discuss the connection.
The alternative facts quote can explain some of the interest in ‘1984’, but there was also a peak in Orwell 1984 tweets even before the interview with Conway took place.
Meanwhile, sales of the book ‘1984’ on Amazon started to rise. On Sunday, the day of the interview, it reached the top 20. On Tuesday, the Guardian reported it had reached number 6 and in the evening of that same day, it became the number 1 best-selling book on Amazon.
At some point, people started to discuss the rising book sales on twitter, as the chart below shows.
Tweets about sales of ‘1984’ didn’t really take off until Tuesday, and largely coincided with talk about the alternative facts quote.
Reject all evidence
That still leaves the question what the earlier Orwell 1984 tweets were about. Interestingly, almost all these earlier tweets contain the following quote from ‘1984’, which describes how the authorities redefine truth:
The Party told you to reject all evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.
The chart below shows tweets containing this quote.
On Saturday evening, the White House had held its press conference at which it claimed a record number of people had attended the inauguration. The first reject all evidence tweet I could find was posted before that press conference, but the quote didn’t catch on until after the press conference. Within days, the quote was tweeted over 50,000 times.
In short, Conway’s remark on Sunday about alternative facts boosted interest in ‘1984’, but didn’t start it.
Meanwhile, the 1984 tweets probably reflect a broader phenomenon. Various media have discussed how dystopian novels like ‘1984’ are ‘chiming with people’ (get your reading list here).
I used Python and the Tweepy library to search the Twitter API for orwell 1984. This method has limitations. Twitter provides a sample of all tweets and no-one knows exactly how much is missing from that sample. Further, searching for orwell 1984 may overlook tweets only mentioning orwell or 1984, or even nineteen eighty-four, as in the official book title.
The search for orwell 1984 yielded some 150,000 tweets. If the text contains both alternative and facts (this includes tweets containing #alternativefacts) I classified them as being about alternative facts; if they contain amazon or sales or bestseller or best-seller, I classfied them as being about sales. If they contain reject and evidence and eyes, I classified them as containing the quote «The Party told you to reject all evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command».
I used 9 am as the time at which Meet the Press was aired. For the time of the original White House claim about attendance at the inauguration, I used this recorded live feed which was announced to start at 4:30 pm; the actual press conference starts after about 1.5 hrs, i.e. 6 PM.