Explaining the Trump Movement Through the Lens of the Social Organism

Fergus Thomas
16 min readDec 19, 2016


I was asked recently to try to explain how social media helped drive the unexpected win of Donald Trump over a sophisticated, resource-rich, opponent and what lessons brands can take from that insurgency campaign. This isn’t about if the election outcome was good, bad, or otherwise. It’s about understanding how society has changed and the way information and influence has fundamentally changed. Trump provides a fantastic case study on how messages and ideas are now created and spread in the global peer to peer fashion we know as Social Media. It’s a harbinger of the new method for information flow and cultural change in our society. We’re experiencing the decline in centralized control networks to distributed networks where there is no central authority or control. Ideas form and movements can spread in extremely rapid and often unpredictable ways.

I won’t pretend to be able to fully explain what happened and why. Like every great meme, the work and thoughts below borrow, adapt, and build on ideas, research and theories from others who have studied this phenomena from various perspectives: social marketers, sociologists, data scientists, journalists, researchers, epidemiologists, and philosophers. I’ll try to credit and link to these reference points along the way where I can.

To understand the complexity of Social Media and more broadly, psychology, we need a map or a model. One of the best models I’ve seen that helps to understand this amorphous, ever-changing entity we call social media was articulated by Oliver Luckett & Michael Casey in their recent book ‘The Social Organism”. In this, they postulate that we look at Social Media in terms of a biological, living entity. Through this lens we can understand how ideas work their way through the social graph in surprising ways and end up changing culture, history, and in this case the Presidency.

To understand what happened with Trump, and more importantly how to disseminate and propagate ideas turning passive observers into full fledged advocates capable of upending the status quo, we’ll use this “Social Organism” model as our guide.

We’ll summarize our thoughts with the following and expand on each:

  1. The Social Organism is alive and like all living things constantly evolving.
  2. Memes (ideas) are to the Social Organism what DNA is to living creatures — the packets of information that spread through a population and either spread if they are advantageous or die off if they are not.
  3. Evolution involves the passing along and changing (mutation) of these “packets of information” — e.g. memes. What information packets pass through a population follows certain rules.
  4. We (people) are the Social Organism -in effect, a billion connected brains subject to all the same psychological drivers we have in our physical lives. We are the conduit through which these memes either propagate and spread or quickly die off.
  5. Though we’re a billion connected brains, there is an “Echo chamber” effect (our personal news feeds reflect ideas we already believe) not only because of our own tendencies toward self-affirmation but now reinforced by algorithms that promote that same world view to us in our personalized news feeds.

Introducing the Social Organism

Social media is really the digital connection of minds removing the traditional time/space barrier to communication. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc have connected the planet in a way never seen before with real implications for how information is disseminated and accepted and/or believed. Society has been built on a centralized top down information flow since the first empires. A few individuals decided what was important and what would be shared with the larger population. Social media has blown that paradigm apart. The mainstream networks now compete with startup news sites and even citizen cellphone videos to tell the new “story.” We’ve evolved from a centralized world to a distributed network through social media.

Opte Project Visualization

The Opte Project was an open source project with the goal of mapping the internet. You can find this visualization hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in NY. The resulting image is above. Very much a distributed network. Notice that some nodes are bigger and more connected than others. These are the “influencers” inside the network. We’ll talk about these more later.

Volvox Colony

Here is a microscopic view of a Volvox algae colony. The similarity struck Oliver Luckett not just because of the similar spherical shape with nodes but also the actual structure of the part to whole. Volvox colonies are made up of single cell organisms that group together into connected spheres. These single cell organisms are both independent of the colony as single cell organism but also a part and influenced by the colony acting as one large organism. The single cells in these colonies morph to provide what the colony needs. Some may grow flagella in order to move the colony to sunlight, others may develop photosynthesis capabilities to energize the colony, etc. The other interesting aspect of these 1 cell organisms is that they self-organize without a central Volvox telling the other Volvox what to do. Everyone and no one is in control at the same time yet they still manage to organize. Similarly, we need to think about our position in the Social Media organism as both distinct and separate from the whole but at the same time dependent and influenced/changed by the whole. Also in a similar way, the social web is self organizing in a way we’ve never experienced before through mass communication channels…it is very much like the Volvox colony.

Sample of the thousands of organic Facebook Groups that sprung up for and against Trump

The minute we sign up on a social network we are exposing ourselves to ideas that pass from user to user and they change us as much as we change them. We should think of these Volvox colony clusters as groups in social media. This could be families or interest groups like the numerous groups that sprung up supporting both Trump and Clinton. The thing to realize is that these nodes or groups form organically without a central command and control structure. This type of self-organizing and propagation is what makes the social web incredibly powerful and also incredibly difficult to control.

Infecting the Social Organism — The Meme

You hear the term meme thrown around a lot but what exactly is it? Is it just silly cat videos or things like Success Kid? We most often associate them with the funny, silly viral content that spreads across our social feeds. But Memes are truly the building blocks of our social DNA. Memes are contagious ideas. We really should be thinking about Memes vs. “social content.”

Memes are a unit or packet of information that conveys an idea and which, when shared with others, is mimicked, copied, and replicated, and then, quite often applied in new and creative ways to help forge culture. — Oliver Luckett

Memes are broader than images, gifs, words, or videos. They extend ideas through art, songs, and into physical manifestations. It’s this packet of information that travels through the social web and drives culture. We all know the successful memes. They’ve become part of our lexicon and collective consciousness. Examples of memes that have spread and propagated to cultural status include things like The Ice Bucket Challenge, #BlackLivesMatter, #jesuisCharlie. But “memes” are even broader than that if defined as a contagious idea…everything around us is a meme.

The chair you sit in, the computer you’re reading… all would not exist if someone did not have the idea to create it and that idea caught on and spread. — Dan Zarrella

So why think in terms of memes vs “social content?” The short answer is memes go viral while “social content” can be distributed but it won’t propagate (e.g. you can buy Facebook ads and get 1MM video views but you haven’t injected your idea into the cultural DNA). So think of memes as ideas that has the ability to be transmitted like a virus…so let’s think of them like a living virus.

Remember the Social Organism is really a network of human brains and as such what ideas or memes “infect” and propagate is influenced by human psychology. Studies of content that has gone “viral” (e.g. a meme that propagated) show common principles to them. Our human brain has evolved to recognize patterns. What we perceive and accept is based on what we’ve seen before and learned. We bring all our context and past knowledge with us when we’re presented with a “new” idea. For us to recognize an idea, understand it and spread it, it needs to fall within an easy pattern recognition for our brain. If it’s too complicated or completely new, our brain won’t process it and will simply move on. So the trick to a viral idea then is:

  1. Present a simple idea within a generally recognized pattern
  2. But delivered in a way that stands out and grabs attention
  3. Repeat the same message in an ever evolving way but within a similar pattern recognition

This is a tall order and why few pieces of content or ideas self propagate.

Let’s test this against a Trump message during the campaign. A Washington Post article sites a research paper that graded Trump’s grammar in speeches just below a 6th grade level. It’s fair to say Trump simplified his message and put it into language everyone could understand. He had step 1 down: present very simple ideas. In fact, one of Trump’s biggest criticism in the Press was that he provided no additional context or seemed acknowledge the complexity or nuances in policies. But from a viral idea standpoint, his approach was spot on.

Trump’s Simple Idea: Build a Wall

Pattern Recognition

Whether you supported or were against the wall, the idea is not just simple but carries an easy visualization people quickly get. Whether they personally believed it was going to be a physical Great Wall of China or more a hyperbolic way of saying immigration enforcement, people immediately recognized at least in their mind what it meant. Think of this versus an in -depth detailed policy plan that takes into account the complexities of refugees status’, US born citizens with illegal parents, T1 work visas and the such. “Build a Wall” is much more memorable and understandable to the widest range of people.

Present in an Attention Grabbing Format

“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” — Trump


A search for “build the wall” on Google returns over 210,000,000 results. It spawned mimicry both pro and anti wall which actually serves to propagate the idea/meme even further.

So the context of this is Trump. This similar pattern can be seen with any idea (Meme) that catches on. Take something less polarizing like the resurgence of My Little Pony Friendship Magic.

This classic cartoon saw a resurgence in the most unexpected place when it started to re-air in 2010 (for a full history go here). But it followed the similar pattern of meme (idea) propagation, this time sparked by animators who took exception to a critical article entitled “The End of the Creator-Driven Era in TV Animation.” This resulted in these animators posting about the new series and defending the Ponies. The idea was simple: My Little Ponies are as creative-driven cartoon art as anything that preceded it. The posting spread from animator channels of 4Chan to Reddit and then rapidly across mainstream social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). In an explosion of creative replication (similar to what was seen with Trump memes), My Little Pony content was shared, mutated, and added on to by numerous independent yet connected players. This online resurgence was impossible for Hasbro not to notice. They began to put My Little Pony toys back into production and saw their overall sales grow 2% to $1.02B crediting the sales directly to this community movement.

It should be noted that this resurgence was driven not by Hasbro’s target of young girls but by grown men and women who reconnected with the Ponies from their childhood. These bronies (adult male fans) and pegasisters (adult female fans) clearly weren’t on Hasbro’s marketing plan but that’s the point. Like a mutating virus, it’s difficult to control and predict how the social web will either adopt and assimilate, reject, or destroy an idea once exposed.

The lesson for brands here is that you can’t dictate the narrative. You either accept the course and feed the organism resulting in cultural relevance and business growth or you attempt to revert to a centralized command and control stance and put a stop to un-authorized brand usage…which is always a huge failure. As they say, the cat is out of the bag. A tangible example of this was the release of the song #Selfie by the band The Chainsmokers. The video accumulated almost 500MM views on Youtube. Recognizing that mimicry and remixing of their content was what would drive the song through the social web they primed the system. A week before the release of the song they seed 5 sec, 15 sec and 30 sec loops of the catchy chorus to Soundcloud and other music message boards along with other easy digital assets they knew people would use to make parodies, loops, or other creative interpretations of their catchy song. Frankly, they wanted the social web to do what it did best…parody, rip, copy, and share incessantly. They also seeded the video with influencers both in the actual music video as cameos (Snoop Dog, David Hasselhof, even Darth Vader) and through the distribution plan (e.g. seeding with clusters of influencers). A song from a no-name group surged to #1 across charts globally without any of the typical record label marketing or PR. Even more interestingly, the band sold the rights to the song to a major record label whose lawyers quickly starting filing take down orders in other to “funnel all the interest” to the itunes and authorized versions. Within a week of these moves, the song fell off every major chart and downloads essentially stopped. By cutting off the replication, the label cut off the oxygen to the product. As quickly as the Social Organism has propelled the song forward, the meme died off because of the inability to replicate.

Enjoy #selfie in the Youtube link below:


Meme Psychology

A Wharton Business School study looked at seven thousand New York Times articles to look at what types of content were being shared and why. They found that the emotional component of the story impacted the probability of it being shared dramatically. Prof. Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman found that generally stories were more likely to become viral if they were more positive in nature. So positive stories tend to get shared more. However, they also looked at breadth of sharing tied to the actual underlying emotion. Specific emotions evoke different degrees of “physiological arousal or activation.” Basically, they measured how inspired or compelled someone was to share the articles by the emotion it conjured in them.”

Interestingly, anger was the #1 emotion connected with the highest probability of the article being widely shared. Anger compelled people to take action and to share broadly. Getting back to understanding Trump, you can see how anger played a powerful role in compelling people to share. On either side, it was emotionally charged. Whether you were a full on Trump supporter or not, there was a large portion of the country that was angry at the status quo. Angry at the establishment (evidenced on the Democratic side as well with the unprecedented support for a candidate like Bernie Sanders). Medical studies show that the biological response to anger is the release of adrenaline. We all know that adrenaline pumps us up, gets us ready for our fight or flight response…and not only feels good but is also addictive. That adrenaline rush fuels businesses from theme parks to ski diving to dating sites like Tinder. It’s a powerful motivator to say the least.

One of the other top emotional factors was anxiety. Who in this country wasn’t/isn’t worried on both sides? The combination of anger and anxiety created the ideal situation for emotion to led to action and advocacy.

So what’s a brand to do? Fire up people into an angry, anxious bunch? One could argue that’s worked for some. But the majority of brands should recognize positivity overall leads to sharing with inspiring awe only slightly behind anger as a primary motivating emotion.

Transmitting the Virus — The Nodes

The election demonstrated the power of this distributed network. For everything that Trump is and isn’t, he embraced social media in a way that no other Presidential candidate ever has. When we think about an idea being spawned, it hitting the right emotional triggers, and having the right pattern recognition to it, is that enough? The short answer is no. While the meme (e.g. idea) itself has to be right, who and where the transmission occurs is also critical.

Let’s go back and look at the visualization of the web.

Some clusters are clearly more powerful than others. For an idea to take root, getting it into one of these “super clusters” increases its odds exponentially. Trump had the advantage of being one of these “super clusters” by virtue of being a celebrity. These clusters tend to be celebrities and more and more “social influencers” (average people who have accumulated massive audiences on social platforms). What’s interesting here is that the clusters are not isolated. They themselves need the support and interplay with other clusters to maintain and grow their own influence. We see this with social influencers who regularly interact and cross promote to other Youtube stars or Instagram influencers. You even see this with celebrities. Take for example Taylor Swift who is the most followed person on Instagram. Despite her talent and huge star power, you’ll see her frequently with her own cluster of sub-influencers (like Selena Gomez, the #2 account on instagram and model Karlie Kloss) interacting with each other and supporting each other powering and spreading interconnected nodes.

What we see is that these “super clusters” account for 20% of the Social population but almost 80% of the distributed content. We speak of them in clusters as they work through not just 1 or two individuals but a network of influencers with sub-influencers who if engaged enable the repetition and mutation/variation an idea needs in order to spread. The concept of pushing one static never changing piece of content is archaic (a concept that works in the world of centralized networks). The Social Organism doesn’t work that way. In order to propagate, as we’ve seen, the ideas that spread are the ones that adapt and mutate as they pass from one person to another.

Trump is another good example of that. He was lambasted for not speaking out quickly against fringe groups that supported him and even when he did it seemed half hearted. Maybe he recognized the power of an idea spreading is having that idea adopted by each affinity group as their own where they will mutate it to fit their wants and desires creating a derivative of the original idea but one that has significant buy-in from that node. Had Trump taken the course of the #Selfie record label and tried to shut down these various nodes that were out of sync with him, I suspect he would have seen the same thing happen as the record label where the ideas stalled or died.

The Echo-Chamber Effect

The last thought points toward more of a problem with current social media platforms than an inherent function of the Social Organism. More and more our “open” world is being tailored specifically to you. Depending on what you’ve liked, read, or searched the large platforms are deciding what slice of the memone you will be served. The algorithm is more and more ubiquitous. It feeds us what we want to hear from whom we want to hear it from. In looking at this past election season, it’s hard not to think this was happening. Trump supporters were feed pro-Trump articles and connected with other pro-Trump families and friends in their newsfeed. We won’t delve into false news stories, but more the idea that people on both sides were inundated with content that reinforced their existing beliefs. For an interesting insight into this, take a look at The Wall Street Journal’s Blue Feed Red Feed project. You can see side by side how a Liberal person’s newsfeed looks versus a Conservative person’s feed.

What do we take away…

  • The world has fundamentally changed from top out to distributed information systems
  • Social media works like a living organism because it’s made up of interconnected human brains
  • Ideas (memes) matter…it’s how movements spread. We can’t guarantee an idea spreads but we can learn to engineer it to give it the best possible chance: simple ideas presented in new, attention grabbing ways that are still easily understandable to our existing pattern recognition knowledge base.
  • Distributed through connected clusters of affinity groups. The meme (idea) should be tailored and rebundled for each different affinity group and more importantly enabled and encouraged to the mutated, adapted, and transformed by each of these groups.
  • With the presence of Echo-chambers, the point above is even more important. We can and should be tailoring ideas to specific groups (think Floridians for Trump, Women for Trump, Pet Owners for Trump, etc) and connecting and activating a cluster of influencers and sub-influencers within each of those affinity groups.

It’s not an easy task, and as Trump and the examples above showed losing control of the meme is ultimately the path to your ideas being retained, expressed, and transmitted into a full blown Movement.

Happy to discuss more! Fergus



Fergus Thomas

Co-founder of Marketing + Tech firm, Irban Group. These are my thoughts on technology, marketing, starting a business, and things I’ve learned along the way.