How Trump and his Army Beat us Online

Democrats lost in 2016 because we weren’t even fighting on the same battlefield. Trump’s army stomped us. Here’s how they did it.

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I don’t have a fully formed opinion about why Hillary lost. Most of the post-mortems I’ve read come off as people expressing the same beliefs they held before November. Which is fine but not all that interesting to me.

What I do have is a framework of how the right stomped us online. This is something I’ve been tweaking since a week after the election. I’ve written about some of these themes individually before. For our last newsletter of 2016, I’d like to share my framework in full with you. Here’s how they did it:

  1. They understood authenticity over truth Stephen Colbert coined the term truthiness in 2006. Merriam-Webster defines “truthiness” as “…believing something is true from the gut, or inside. Using life experiences of learnings to make something seem true.” Colbert was joking at the time, but he was on point about how right wing media operates. The perception of authenticity wins over truth every time, and Trump’s digital army grasped how a key component of the perception of authenticity is that truth doesn’t come from an institution. They were banking that people are more likely to believe something from an unofficial source that seems true than something from an official source that actually is true.
  2. They weaponized social media For all the conversation around online harassment on social media, tech companies like Twitter and Facebook have done little to stop it. Trump’s army used this to their advantage. Once they realized there was no line to cross, they went all in using social media to bully and intimidate others, spread misinformation, and mainstream the language and ideas of hate. Those who spoke out were met with a flood of abuse, and that abuse was organized. Their targets had few places to turn as tech companies turned a blind eye, and law enforcement was of little help.
  3. They told a familiar story The right wing has been telling the same stories about Hillary Clinton for decades. Trump’s army had a treasure trove of source material available to them. The medium might have been new but the message certainly wasn’t. The narrative about who Hillary Clinton was, and how the system is rigged stuck because they’re familiar stories. Americans know Clinton mythology as well as we know Bible stories, fairy tales, and Star Wars. Trump’s army simply adapted the source material and repackaged for social media.
  4. They divided to conquer Trump’s army used the Democratic primary as a vehicle to spread doubt and distrust. And they found willing believers on the left, happy to accept misinformation. They were able to use social channels effectively to disseminate their content to an audience that was hungry for it online. The Wikileaks DNC leak perfectly timed to spread discord amongst progressives just as the Clinton campaign (with the help of Bernie Sanders) were attempting to bring Democrats and progressives together for the general election.
  5. They spoke fluent Internet Trump’s army are masters of the medium. From reddit to dank memes to their unofficial mascot Pepe the Frog, they used social networks and clever content to reach their audience. They were also masters at spreading false news stories, rumors, and conspiracy theories packaged for a mass audience via social media.
  6. They were validated The Trump campaign put out relatively few ideas of their own. Instead they chose to validate and amplify the conversation happening online. They didn’t need to confirm or deny anything, they simply gave Trump’s army their megaphone. While progressives created content for their supporters to broadcast, the Trump machine put their supporters’ own content front and center, taking a backseat in their own campaign.
  7. They tapped into a global movement The rise of the so-called alt-right in the US didn’t happen in a vacuum. Fascist right wing movements have sprung up all over the globe. Trump’s army tapped into that energy and borrowed successful tactics from abroad. They were helped along the way by international hostile actors who did everything from spread misinformation online to hacking the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign and publishing their emails. Trump’s army are part of a broader global movement and Trump’s win was a giant victory for them.

I believe the left can adopt many of these tactics for our own purposes. Currently, I’m working on a companion framework for the left, and what we can do to better engage online. I’d love to hear your ideas and feedback in the comments as well.

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The above is an excerpt from Ctrl Alt Right Delete, an email newsletter devoted to understanding how the right operates online and develop strategies and tactics to fight back.

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Want to continue the conversation? You can also find me on Twitter @melissaryan and on Facebook.