Opinion | Uncle Trump Wants You! (To Join His Troll Army)
On Thursday afternoon, just as the titans of the pro-Trump internet gathered at the White House to commiserate about Big Tech’s tyrannous reign of censorship over conservative speech, the entire world was briefly deplatformed by a global Twitter blackout.
If a gaggle of memelords cavort with the president and no one tweets about it, did it even happen?
That’s a loaded question, given that the White House’s “social media summit” wasn’t actually about assembling the internet’s greatest minds for a freewheeling discussion on policy. Like any good Trump event, the spectacle is more important than the discussion. The president is a master media manipulator and his “summit” was an excellent case study.
The decision to invite a collection of Photoshoppers, conspiracy peddlers and grandfatherly, semipro Twitter fighters to the White House was a maneuver designed to outrage. That outrage inevitably led to press coverage, as evidenced by the dozens of curtain-raising pieces from technology and political reporters who’ve covered these personalities from their days of obscurity. Coverage leads to more condemnations. Then, more coverage. An hourlong meeting about technology with a president who has never used email becomes a circus, which boosts the profile of each meeting attendee.
In the age of viral politics, momentum and agenda-setting are born on social media. The ability to program Twitter, for example, is the ability to dictate the news cycle. And when what you tap out on your palm-size screen shows up on cable news chyrons, that translates into TV appearances, more earned media and a nontrivial amount of political capital.
President Trump figured this out long before he ran for office. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez figured it out last summer, and her deft use of the medium has scrambled the brains of her opponents. It appears the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has figured this out as well, which is most likely why she’s telling fellow party members to put their phones away.
It’s not just cable news that’s swayed by a good tweetstorm; true grass-roots support these days is driven primarily by the internet. Recently, the BuzzFeed News editor in chief, Ben Smith, described the new approach as something like social media fandoms. “Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Drake, and the Marvel Universe don’t come and go,” he wrote. “They’re eternal, as long as their protagonists provide a steady stream of content and mutual affirmation to growing groups of supporters.”
Despite their Island of Misfit Toys status in the mainstream media world, the livestreamers and provocateurs invited to the White House are agitation propaganda machines. “The crap you think of is unbelievable,” Mr. Trump gushed to the room on Thursday. He later followed up with, “It’s genius but it’s bad.”
They’re reactive and confrontational. They wear their politics on their sleeves and bring along their own set of facts. Most important, they know how to engage and cultivate that pro-Trump fandom.
Being a memeknight in Trump’s service might seem more like role-playing politics from a keyboard. But what happens on Reddit, 4chan, Twitter and Facebook can swing a presidential campaign. The worst of it — disinformation, violent trolling, doctored videos falsely labeled satire (like the recent Nancy Pelosi clips) — sloshes into the mainstream and becomes part of the news cycle and forces fact-checkers and candidates to go on the defensive.
Look no further than the rollout of Thursday’s summit. The White House declined to release a guest list, leaving the influencers to tweet their invites to their substantial followings — a slow and steady drip of content. Pro-Trump media without an invitation sniped to reporters, and one member was disinvited over an anti-Semitic cartoon. The event, initially closed to the news media, magically opened up on Thursday morning. Once inside, press and attendees were treated to Twitter-ready posters, defining online terms like deplatforming and demonetization.
It was a meme fever dream of questionable newsworthiness — all tailor made for reporters with Twitter accounts. And the media is caught in the middle, unsure how to cover a group who, time and again, dupe them into amplifying their propaganda and nonsense. At least we ended up with Mr. Trump’s working definition of the First Amendment. “To me free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write bad,” he said from the podium. “To me that’s very dangerous speech, and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.”
And yet what happened on Thursday is newsworthy. The president has an election to win. Thursday’s summit was a public embrace of a group he thinks are powerful allies. The summit suggests that 2016’s meme army was just proof of concept for an information war in 2020.
Whatever is coming, we’re not prepared.
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Charlie Warzel, a New York Times Opinion writer at large, covers technology, media, politics and online extremism. He welcomes your tips and feedback: [email protected] | @cwarzel
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