The night before President Donald Trump’s planned 2020 kickoff rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a photo circulated the internet facetiously claiming “small crowds” were already congregating outside the arena.
Campaign manager Brad Parscale was delighted at the effectiveness of the recruitment effort for the event. He declared that more than 800,000 people had reserved tickets to the Trump rally, individuals all eager to enter the 22,000 person venue. The mental image of such a large swath of supporters seemed viable.
However, the photo circulating of the rally crowd wasn’t taken in Oklahoma, nor was it even taken in 2020. The photo was taken during a Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. (AFP Fact Check)
The image does not have any distinguishing characteristics to help viewers qualify the location it was taken. The subliminal result is that viewers defer to the “author” to define the context and location of the image being shared. Using imagery of physical crowds can assist in seeding the illusion of physical popularity through news feeds and groups.
For misinformation researchers, understanding the “amplification” of this imagery via shares, retweets or comments (usually through sock puppet accounts or a virtual bot army) is just as valuable as understanding the design/aesthetic or mechanical objectives of the content. Artificial amplification optimizes the content for discovery within the ‘feeds’ of social platforms in an attempt to generate a viral post.
For example, a link to the photo in question was shared in the Trump Tulsa Rally Megathread on Reddit and was subsequently redacted following the fact-check on the actual lack of attendance at the rally.
The image was also spread by multiple pro-Trump accounts on Twitter and subsequently deleted, according to Google reverse image search results.
As we view this content from a position of physical isolation, the inference is that there are many people who are in physical attendance in addition to us, the virtually “social” audience, showing their support:
President Trump’s rally in Tulsa attracted over 4 million unique viewers across all of the campaign’s digital media channels. The live-streamed pre-rally shows drew an audience of more than 2.5 million unique viewers by themselves. (Campaign)
Fox News recorded an average of 6.7 million viewers that night (peaking at 8.2 near the 9:00 p.m. ET hour), which it stated was its highest Saturday primetime viewership in network history. (Deadline)
The popularity of the “crowd” imagery gives distant viewers quantitative numbers to assist with their imagined ‘head count’ of supporters on the ground. Virality of a post is measured by the frequency of activity (including number of likes, comments or shares) occurring within a designated duration of time. In many cases, users who are unaware of social media manipulation use these levels of activity to determine the validity of a user or their posts. Thus, we are reminded of where the study of crowds, and in turn propaganda, came from.
In his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, author Gustave Le Bon suggests three sequential psychological qualities which individuals acquire when they partake in a physical crowd:
Invincibility: “The first is that, the individual forming part of a crowd acquires, solely from numerical considerations, a sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint” (p. 33)
Individual social media users might feel emboldened to say what should not normally be spoken because of the collective nature of their “virtual crowd”.
Contagion: “The second cause, which is contagion, also intervenes to determine the manifestation in crowds… In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious, and contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest. This is an aptitude very contrary to his nature, and of which a man is scarcely capable, except when he makes part of a crowd.” (p. 34)
The physical crowd imagery serves to invoke the deep support of virtual rally attendees. For those in support of Trump, it provides a visual confirmation of popularity, which can be used as a means to subliminally reinforce the the sentiment of the “crowd”.
Suggestibility: “A third cause, and by far the most important, determines in the individuals of a crowd special characteristics which are quite contrary at times to those presented by the isolated individual. I allude to that suggestibility… an individual may be brought into such a condition that, having entirely lost his conscious personality, he obeys all the suggestions of the operator” (p. 34)
This image weaponizes our imagination’s attempt at understanding our relationship to the crowd, as a “crowd” will be more receptive to messaging which denies wrongdoing or suggests mainstream media manipulation.
This was not a physical rally. By presenting physical crowd imagery to individual, distanced viewers, a virtual crowd mentality is manifested.
Google or Tineye Reverse Image Search may be used to verify the spread of these images on your own. Simply download the image from the top of this article and upload it to the service of your choice.
Google Reverse Image Search: https://images.google.com/
Tineye Reverse Image Search: https://tineye.com/
Selected results have been archived and offered below.
“Gary. 🇺🇸 MAGA 🇺🇸 USA 2020 On Twitter”. Twitter, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200619233505/https://twitter.com/toolsdude65/status/1274122743999606784. Accessed 22 June 2020.
“Mandi Trapka”. Web.Archive.Org, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200621165110/https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=3393460670719979&set=a.136629766403102&type=3&theater. Accessed 22 June 2020.
“Matt On Twitter”. Twitter, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200620222650/https://twitter.com/Matt_8967/status/1274468257660055553. Accessed 22 June 2020.
“Rolling Thunder | Captain Of A Crew Of One”. Web.Archive.Org, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20191129163318/http://sailorcurt.com/2019/05/rolling-thunder.html/. Accessed 22 June 2020.
“Trump Tulsa Rally Megathread! — Tonight, 7Pm CT. : Conservative”. Web.Archive.Org, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200621165915/https://www.reddit.com/r/Conservative/comments/hcv5nn/trump_tulsa_rally_megathread_tonight_7pm_ct/. Accessed 22 June 2020.
“川普的竞选集会是明天，看看现在的排队情况… 来自远山微黛_云出横波 — 微博”. archive.is, 2020, https://archive.is/tqBYq Accessed 22 June 2020.
“留园网-川普冻蒜, 有图为证 -6Park.Com”. archive.is, 2020, http://archive.is/nL52Y Accessed 22 June 2020.