Donald Trump soared to success on the wings of a campaign that didn’t just court controversy but slapped a dog collar on it and rode it all the way to the white house. And through it all, one vessel shone through, one medium that was so perfectly suited to the kind of message that Trump wanted to spread that in hindsight his victory seems almost fated.
Keep your friends close, and… just keep your friends close.
Trump, the self professed “Hemingway of 140 characters”, owes a lot of his success to Facebook, Twitter and other similar platforms. Before we go into Trump’s own mastery of the medium, let’s take a look at some of the fundamental features of social media that made it such a perfect platform from which his campaign could take off.
These are platforms that are, on the face of it, an embodiment of digital democracy but that can all too easily turn instead into an insidious breeding ground for ever more homogeneous views. This particular aspect of social media is one that fed into the feeling among many Trump supporters that they were part of a group, an overlooked and disgruntled group that deserved compensation – a group that deserved their country back.
Friends tend, on the whole, to think more or less alike. And Facebook is a perfect example of this. According to a 2014 study, 47% of those who consider themselves politically to be “consistently conservative” said that the majority of political views they expressed on Facebook are in line with their own. Further, 44% of those who consider themselves “consistently liberal” said that they had blocked or unfriended people who had expressed views they disagreed with.
An acquaintance of my own who posted a status in support of Trump’s victory went through and deleted dissenting comments on the basis that it was ‘his status’ and he didn’t have to listen to people disagreeing or complaining.
And this is a problem – something that has all the hallmarks of an open and democratic forum for sharing (and is statistically the most popular political news source among younger generations ) can end up serving largely to reinforce our own views and opinions. This applies both to posts made by friends and to news posts suggested to us by facebook. When a public forum reads like a private journal, it might be time to stop and think.
Trump targeted a demographic already dissatisfied with ‘the establishment’ for a variety of reasons and placed himself in diametric opposition to it. For an wealthy, aged, white male to figure himself as the outsider takes some doing, but he did it largely by rejecting three apparent establishment hallmarks: political experience, political correctness, and the mainstream media.
The latter is what’s important here – by rejecting all mainstream media as part of a crooked establishment, he achieves two things. First, any public criticism of him can be put down to bias, and second, all the truth-giving power is handed over to alternative sources like social media, particularly the corners that he controls himself.
Social media is portrayed in this narrative as free, as the voice of the people, but in reality it can becomes something quite different. The view of the world that we get from it has a danger of becoming ever more blinkered, while still seeming completely open.
Importantly though, it’s not just Trump supporters who were stuck in this cycle, so too were his critics. While those on the left would deplore the man and his “locker room talk” to people who already agreed with them, those on the other side of the fence saw him as a refreshing break from perceived elitist snobbery. Each side in their own digital echo chamber, ever entrenching the divide between the two – after all, repeatedly condemning a group of people as racist idiots is unlikely to win any favours.
But this kind of self-blinkering is not the only issue here, there’s also the ever diminishing importance of truth.
“Facts Don’t Work”
Aaron Banks, funder and founder of Leave.EU – the brasher, more emotive cousin to the officially designated Vote Leave campaign, took a leaf out of Trump’s campaign book in his part of the battle for Brexit. And it worked.
Perhaps most telling is the advice he took from Goddard Gunster, a American political strategy firm, who suggested he target people’s emotions, avoiding unhelpful things like facts that often to get in the way of a good bit of vitriol.
Leave.EU flourished on Facebook, posting intentionally controversial articles and comments that fired people up to great effect.
Banks said, in an interview with New Statesman: “What [Goddard Gunster] said early on was, ‘Facts don’t work,’ and that’s it. The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”
Trump’s campaign never relied on facts. He went straight for the gut and got exactly the reaction he wanted; he changed the playing field and Clinton just couldn’t keep up.
Social media is the perfect platform for this; no one needs to fact-check a tweet or a Facebook post. Here is the realm of the soundbite.
#CrookedHillary he called her; and they lapped it up.
#BuildTheWall he said; and they shouted it right back.
#DrainTheSwamp he cried; and they more or less understood what he meant.
Who needs policies when you have rallying cries and repeatable slogans?
Who needs a plan when you can #TrumpThatBitch?
The Man Himself
What Trump represented to his supporters, above all else, was a man- just a man, not a politician. He was relatable, warts and all, and seemed to care about the same issues they would talk about among their friends. Issues that they felt sidelined for caring about.
He was a human; he was a Republican but he didn’t represent a party, he spoke for himself and no one else. He even developed his own, stripped down vernacular. He really did. I’m telling you. And it’s so unique, so so unique. And you know what? People like it, honestly, they really like it. I ask people, I say ‘what do you think of the way Donald speaks?’ And you know what they say? They say ‘I love it, it’s real, it’s great’.
This image of Trump has been being carefully cultivated with the help of a man named Justin McConney, Director of New Media for the Tump Organisation.
He engineered Trump’s Twitter and Facebook profiles to be more like that of your friend’s than of a public figure. Video diaries, filmed on a phone, with no special lighting, no timetable, just Donald speaking, became a hallmark. Twitter was the perfect outlet for this approach.
As McConney said: “I think his content stands out because it goes back to being authentic. @realDonaldTrump is Donald Trump. He’s very involved with his social media.”
Trump’s Tweets are, if nothing else, incessant; rarely will you see a more consistent insight into a man’s train of thought.
And they’re diverse.
You’ve got questionable claims:
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 6 November 2012
You’ve got statements of intent:
TODAY WE MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 8 November 2016
And then the absurd digs:
Don’t like @SamuelLJackson’s golf swing. Not athletic. I’ve won many club championships. Play him for charity!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2016
And people liked it. It reinforced the Trump’s human image. And, conversely, Clinton’s presence on social media did the opposite for her.
Her Tweets seem less natural in their form, with many written as quotes from her placing her, the person, one step away from the message.
"I want to be a president for all Americans: Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Not just people who support me, but everyone.” —Hillary
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 7, 2016
This is important to remember – Trump didn’t just win; Clinton lost as well.
In many ways, this election has been fundamentally a rally against the status quo. Trump is the quintessential anti-politician – brash, inexperienced, wilfully un-PC; and social media is, at least ostensibly, the anti-media – the unfettered, unsponsored ‘voice of the people’.
Even the fact that thousands of Americans apparently voted for a dead gorilla shows the extent to which the people felt the need to rebel. Absurdity abound.
As one commentator on Facebook put it: “We’re approaching a time where democracy is just a sub genre of meme.”
2020’s manifestos might have to be presented in a simpler form than we’ve ever seen before:
But in and among all the absurdity it’s important to remember the raw power of social media that has been demonstrated here (and not for the first time).
This was a masterclass in populism, and a real sign of what can happen when its power is underestimated.
Whatever your opinions on Donald Trump, and whatever your predictions for the next four years in American and global politics, one thing is absolutely clear: it’s gonna be yuuuuuge.
I’ll leave you with one final thought:
I hope Donald Trump is a good president. Wanting him to fail, is like wanting the pilot to crash the plane that we ALL are on. REMEMBER THAT
— ClipperKyle (@ClipperKyle) November 9, 2016